Sunday, April 28, 2013

Questions and Answers

Sometimes, when we want easy answers, we get hard answers.

Probably the best Biblical example of this is Job. If you slog through his monologues, he basically thinks he can call God into a courtroom and get everything straightened out. With a little cross-examination of the distant deity, his friends will suddenly understand exactly what was going on.

When God shows up, the reader expects him to talk about the bet with Satan, the drama that went on up in the courts of heaven. That would still vindicate Job, although in a different way than Job himself was looking for. It would still be an easy answer.

Instead, God launches into a speech about his own power, and his relationship to creation. It’s about what he values and what he can do and what would happen if he wasn’t constantly sustaining it all. Which is interesting and all, but makes you wonder things like, “What does this have to do with anything?” “If God is totally in control of nature, does that mean he is responsible for the deaths in natural disasters?” and “How is this just?” God’s speech to Job seems to raise more questions than it answers.

That’s fine with me, most days. I love hard answers. There is a kind of beauty in the gray areas of paradox, and a certain smugness that goes along with believing two seemingly opposing things. It’s the same kind of smug feeling I get when I tell people that I love the windy, rainy weather. You are just too unsophisticated to understand the true beauty of storms, I think to myself. Oh, sure, sunny cloudless days are nice. But there’s a power in difficult weather that you have to be really deep to appreciate.

But guess what? Sometimes, when we want hard answers, we get easy answers. And that teaches us humility too.

Case study? Naaman’s story in 2 Kings 5. This rich guy didn’t want to be told to bathe in the Jordan, even though a certified prophet and miracle worker told him it would cure him of his leprosy. He’s about to head off in a huff when his servants blurt out, “If the prophet had told you to do some great thing, would you not have done it?

For a while, I marveled at how perceptive the servants were for noticing this. Now, I realize it was probably obvious. Pride has a very distinct odor. You can smell it a mile off. It doesn’t take much wisdom to see the arrogance in an egotist (unless you’re the egotist, of course). The point here is pretty clear: don’t reject something just because you’re too proud to acknowledge an easy answer.

Flip several pages over to the New Testament, and you have more people who enjoy difficult answers. The Pharisees were the experts at making things way more complicated than they needed to be. They, like me, loved the hard things, taking apart each fragment of the Law and drawing meaning out of it, adding meaning to it, deciding what added meanings were now Law in and of themselves.

They also had this bad habit of asking Jesus really complicated questions to try to trap him. Seriously. Read through them sometimes. It’s kind of entertaining.

But my favorite is when one of the experts of the law decided to ask Jesus which commandment in the Law was the most important. I bet his pals thought they really had him there. I mean, there were hundreds of commands to choose from. And if he picked, say, one about social justice, they could twist it to say that he didn’t care about right worship of God. Or if he chose something about ceremonial cleanliness and purity, they could whine that he didn’t emphasize the real world. It was the perfect trap.

Except that Jesus’ answer was also perfect: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’

I wonder if this teacher of the law was a little disappointed. How could it be that simple? Love God and love others?

But if he thought about it for just another second, he would have realized that it’s a straightforward answer…until you think about what it really means to love God and love others and you realize that it’s the most challenging command to put into practice.

Sometimes when we want any kind of answers, easy or hard, we get an answer that sounds deceptively simple, but is incredibly difficult to live out.

Maybe that’s where the bulk of the answers to life’s questions are. Sure, some are probably complex theological paradoxes, and some might be commonsense, easy-to-follow observations about life. But most of them are in that sacred middle ground of simple truths that we spend the rest of our lives discovering and applying.

And, you know, I think I’m okay with that. Because sometimes I want easy answers. Sometimes I want hard answers. But it’s not really about what I want. It’s about the real answers, the things that are painful and complicated and humbling and beautiful and true. Those are the answers I really want.

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