While in grad school, I ran across the author Henri Nouwen, who articulated the tension—or paradox—of faith as well as anyone I have read.
His answer, unlike most I have heard, does not whitewash the messiness of life or explain away the mystery of God. Rather, Nouwen wrote that an essential part of life is learning to “live the questions” faith engenders.
To wait on the Lord.
To pray our pain.
To accept confusion.
Nouwen’s answer resonates with the honest picture of faith I see in Scripture. Life is, as stated by my Old Testament professor, relentlessly difficult.
Jesus promised suffering in Matthew 16:24, and as testified in Scripture, those most clearly called by God and most definitively used by God are often given the most challenging circumstances.
Life is messy. God is mysterious. And accepting this tension-filled truth, no matter the circumstances, is the pathway to peace.
With all of the difficult issues and disturbing events in the world, I find myself struggling to accept this as much as I have in a long time and to ground myself once again in “living the questions.” As tempting as it is to simply whitewash the issues, push them down below our conscious thoughts, or squeeze them out by binging on TV or movie-watching, as Christians, we can’t afford to do so.
Choosing faith, despite the messiness of life and the mystery of God, is the essence of biblical trust. It is the faith in the “not yet” of many of God’s promises about His reign of justice and commitment, that every tear shall be wiped away. Paul writes, “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.”
It’s not that the world is messy so we should leave it that way. It’s not that the world is messy and I can’t be a part of fixing it. But the messiness of the world elicits questions that God may or may not give me answers for. And so—in the midst of confusion, mess and pain—walking by faith means that I walk with the questions.
Here are four ideas to help us learn to live the questions in the midst of the messiness:
Read books that don’t claim to answer all the questions.
We all love self-help books and manuals that promise resolution to the problems and difficulties we’re facing in life. These books are simple, easy to read and give us lots of things to do.
While this kind of literature has its place, make it a priority to add to your yearly reading books that don’t set out or promise to resolve all the tensions you’re facing.
Whether it’s a biography of Francis of Assisi or a novel like The Brothers Karamazov by Fyodor Dostoyevsky, find and read literature that acquaints you with the messiness of life and gives a subtle glimpse of the simple beauty faith presents when it flowers amidst the confusion and chaos.
It’s also important to read from authors you might not entirely agree with. Find voices who challenge your assumptions and contribute different perspectives.
Pray long enough that you’ve run out of things to say to God.
Much of prayer is precipitated by our desire for answers from God. We seek reasons for the trials we’re enduring and resolution to the challenges behind which we don’t see any purpose.
Praying long and slow allows us to run out of words … run out of anxiety … run out of demands. After time, whether a half hour or half a day, we begin to ease into the realities with which we’re confronted. We begin to open ourselves up to hear the questions God would have us ask and to see the additional realities we’ve been selectively ignoring.
In the end, solitude, silence and long prayer results in a full conversation with God. Like the biblical figure of Job, we may not get direct answers to our petitions, complaints and requests, but we will be answered, nonetheless.
Find your place in creation.
Psalm 8: “When I consider Your heavens, the work of Your fingers, The moon and the stars, which You have ordained, What is man that You are mindful of him?”
Soaking in the beauty and magnitude of the Creator’s handiwork, David finds himself struck with awe. He wonders how the God who made everything in the universe could be interested in him. David’s trust in God isn’t the result of getting all his questions answered, but actually comes from discovering a question to which he has no answer.
Nature or creation can have a steadying effect on us. In many ways, it is where we can gain the greatest sense God’s presence.
Get your hands dirty.
The messiness of life and the intractable nature of global injustice can often paralyze or cripple us. We can retreat, put up walls and stand helpless on the sidelines feeling like it’s all too big, too scary and too confusing to do anything.
Jesus valued those who loved and served without question and without reservation. We might not have answers, but we can love.
Find a nonprofit. Engage immigration reform in your community. Gather a group of friends to read, study and brainstorm ways to engage locally and globally. Make a friend who doesn’t look like or think like you, and learn to build bridges. Give financially to an organization making a difference—it doesn’t fix everything, but it’s something. Wage peace.
As we grow older and grow up, as Christians, we can’t shrink from pain. We can’t gloss over the struggle of others in order to maintain our illusions and distance. We can’t hide or pretend.
Ours is to engage.
Ours is to stand together in solidarity.
Ours is to suffer forward (is that not what biblical faith is?).
Ours is, as Nouwen said, “to learn to live the questions.”
Living the questions doesn’t mean ignoring the problems, it simply means choosing faith, hope and love despite not having all the answers.
Partially adapted with permission from The Grand Paradox.
is the founder of The Justice Conference, a pastor, and the president of Kilns College in Bend, Oregon. He is the author of Pursuing Justice, The Grand Paradox, and recently released, The Myth of Equality: Uncovering the Roots of Injustice and Privilege, a Publisher’s Weekly Starred Review.