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There’s a certain kind of loneliness that comes of never being asked the right questions. Many of us go years at a time subsisting on questions like How’s the job? and How are the kids? Even the slightly superior How are you? without a foundation of relational intimacy and plenty of time to dig in, can be glossed over as easily as a question about the weather.
One of my frustrations with social media is the endless stream of information about the people in my life. I receive constant updates on their activities, opinions, and preferences, yet I feel no closer to them. When we meet face to face, I find the flood of digital information has disrupted the normal flow of conversation and deepening relationship. If I’m up to the minute on everything, what remains to be asked?
But this problem also exists inside strong communities and friendships. Few people ask questions at all, much less good ones. I’ve paid counselors and spiritual directors for their wisdom and insight, knowing our time together was necessary for my growth. But my deepest hunger was simply for someone to ask the right questions, the ones that press into the pain and joy of my experience. Why should that need be so difficult to meet? Why is that experience uncommon?
Perhaps we don’t have time. To ask a thoughtful and probing question carries with it the burden of listening to the answer, of focusing on another person’s story and sitting with the weight of her feelings. Whose schedule has margin for that kind of nebulous encounter?
We don’t have the patience. According to John O’Donohue, “greed for destination obliterates the journey,” and an obsession with destinations, with end goals, is a fair diagnostic of our time. We want financial success without labor and sacrifice. We want the pleasures of sexuality without trust or commitment. We want insta-communities that develop without the years of face-to-face interaction that deep relationships require.
Or perhaps we don’t know how to make ourselves vulnerable to the risks of relationship. It is easier, after all, to know about five hundred people than to know five. We harbor a secret wish that everyone would arrive on the scene with a bio, a handful of photographs (for reference), and a list of guidelines. Something in my soul sighs deep at that—the idea that all my relational investments could be guaranteed, all outcomes assured. The idea that I could keep the world at arm’s length while appearing to live a full life.
Isn’t it fascinating that an omniscient God, the God who knows us inside and out, should be so determined to ask questions? Turn to any passage of Scripture, Old Testament or New, and there’s a good chance you’ll catch him in the act. In the gospels, for example, Jesus is always walking up to someone with an obvious malady, an obvious need, and asking, “What do you want?” He makes no assumptions. Whatever information he’s gained through observation or revelation, he never misses an opportunity to ask a good question. Jesus honors the suffering people he encounters by allowing them to voice their feelings and desires. In person. Face to face. He is relentless in his pursuit of genuine relationship.
One stunning example of this commitment takes place on the morning of the resurrection. Jesus, having descended into the depths of human darkness, has risen triumphant. He is Lord of the universe, and he holds the keys of death and hell in his hands. Surely this is a moment to celebrate, to proclaim his unrivaled cosmic power to the world. But Jesus pauses at the garden tomb to talk to a grieving friend. And he doesn’t lecture her about his promise that he would rise again on the third day; he makes no mention of the doctrine of the resurrection as presented by the prophets. In fact, he gives no answers at all. He asks questions, entering Mary’s pain and gently drawing her out as a friend would do.
This Jesus, being the same yesterday, today, and forever, and being the exact expression of the person of God the Father, is behaving in the same way God behaves in the Garden of Eden. We’ve missed the connection because for centuries now our focus in the story of the fall has been on the sin of eating the fruit. God said “no,” and man ate, and the rest is history. We see two trees in the garden, one of them bearing the label Immortality, the other Sin. It’s easy to forget that the second tree, the forbidden one, was The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil. In eating from it, something was changed, something broken. But what?
The thing that was broken when mankind ate the fruit was not a moral directive. The thing that was broken was a relationship.Helena Sorensen
Last year I bought a language arts curriculum written by a Mormon woman who designed the curriculum to be appropriate for people of all Christian faiths. The emphasis of the text? Morality. It was this woman’s belief that all of us Christian folk could agree on one thing: right and wrong. I’ve heard parents name the knowledge of good and evil (knowing right from wrong) as their chief goal in raising children. This is the fruit the church offers the world. We have a book with all the answers, don’t we? Properly understood and interpreted, the Bible will tell us everything we need to know about good and evil. So we’ll be safe. So we’ll be holy. So we’ll make God smile. Could it be that while claiming to point the world to Christ, we have gorged ourselves on the fruit of the wrong tree?
The thing that was broken when mankind ate the fruit was not a moral directive. The thing that was broken was a relationship. Yet in that moment, the moment we name as the darkest in human history, how does God respond? He asks questions. “Where are you?” “Who told you that you were naked?” Knowing the answers, still he persists. He presses into relationship. The God whose holiness, whose “otherness,” is defined by the relationship of the Trinity—the Three who commune together, who know one another, who love by nature without the need for hierarchy—that God can do nothing else.
We shrink, as Adam did, from the mysteries of relationship and instead embrace the categories. We divide the world into good and evil. The Pharisees mastered the art of categorization, yet Jesus condemned their efforts. “You search the Scriptures, because in them you think you have life. But you won’t come to me that you might have life.” The only possible fruit of searching the Scriptures to figure out what is right and wrong—to gain the knowledge of good and evil—is death. Why? Because of the terrible distance between knowing about and the kind of knowing that happens in relationship. Distance yourself from the One who is Life, and you enter the realm of death.
There are those who prowl the New Testament, studying Jesus, trying to understand the rules by which he lived and mimic them. Jesus confounds them by never doing anything in exactly the same way twice. Does he sleep through storms or rebuke them? Or does he ignore the boat and walk on the water? Are people healed when he anoints them with spit and clay? Or when they turn away believing? Or when they touch the hem of his garment? We can’t nail him down. “I only do what I see with my Father,” he explains. In other words, “I live in relationship with God the Father, through the power of the Spirit, and out of that union I operate moment by moment.” It’s what makes him the most complicated, infuriating person ever to live. The Jews kept waiting for his actions to line up with the “good” side of the chart, while Jesus was off asking questions like, “Woman, where are your accusers?”
You can spend a lifetime avoiding the mysteries of relationship, relying on categories to save you. These people are right and those are wrong. Forever and ever, Amen. You can lean into the comforting sterility of checklists. Press this button. Pay this fee. Attend this service. Read this book. Check. Check. Check. Buy your spouse an anniversary gift and call that a good marriage. Have the same conversation every time you bump into a friend (How was your trip? How are the kids?) and call that connection. Check, check.
Or sit with someone who is weeping and feel the exposure of silence. Endure the stilted conversation. Share the meal. Take the risk. Ask the hard question.
There’s a certain kind of healing that comes of being asked a good question, or many good questions. Where are you? In your heart, in your mind, in your journey? How does that feel? What are you hoping for? What are you afraid of? Questions, and the exchange of hearts they invite, open the door to deep intimacy. They bridge the chasm between knowing about and knowing. When no one is hovering over you, waiting for the right answer, clutching a gavel in judgment, you are free to offer the truth of yourself. Free to be known and loved. It’s the life you were destined for before the foundation of the world, the life of perfect union with the God who asks questions.