I was raised in a Christianity that provided “solid” answers — to all questions. The Bible was a spiritual textbook, complete with a topical index of verses referencing every subject imaginable. We were rightly taught that the overall theme of Scripture is the story of God and his dealings with humans in history — but we were also told it was a story with absolutely no loopholes.
In fact, to imply that in some places the Bible seemed to pose unreconcilable dilemmas was a sure sign we were on our way to denying our faith altogether. Clearly, it was impossible to strongly believe in Jesus while living with unanswered questions about almost anything. I had no idea how much my relationship with Jesus depended on such a tight, impenetrable system of belief until the day I had an intense discussion with my close friend Steve — about doubt.
Both of us were in our twenties, were serious about Jesus, had just enough seminary training to make us dangerous and loved to talk theology. But Steve was more comfortable holding seemingly contradictory perspectives in tension — even calling into question parts of Christianity I considered unquestionable.
One day, when we were in the car, our usual theological conversation got heated — mostly, I thought at the time, because Steve wouldn’t affirm all my views. In fact, at one point, I got so angry I pounded the dashboard and shouted at God — words I won’t repeat here. Then, a few moments later, I added more calmly, “Steve, if I have to wrestle with all these questions — maybe I don’t want anything to do with God at all.”
Looking back, it’s clear my frustration wasn’t about my friend. I was undone because I had no idea how to believe in Jesus Christ — based on solid historical data and personal experience — while at the same time living with mystery. The thought of mystery in my relationship with God didn’t just make me uncomfortable; it scared me to death.
Especially in Western Christianity, we tend to prefer a God who is entirely predictable. That kind of God makes us feel like we’re in control. If I press certain keys on my laptop, I know what to expect. We like to think that if we input the right kind of prayers, obedience and sacrifice, we can be assured of God’s reciprocal, no surprises, on-time response. The universe and our lives will work like they’re supposed to, with order, predictability and security. But if that’s my view of God and my categories and formulas about him are challenged — I’m not really sure what I have left. And I’m afraid.
But I don’t have a relationship with my laptop — so if this is how I connect with God, I don’t have much of a relationship with him either. Relationship and control don’t mesh. Saying “I love you” never means “I control you” or even “I have you completely figured out.” But it does mean “I trust you.”
When Jesus says, “As the Father has loved me, so have I loved I you. Abide in my love” — He’s asking us to trust His love for us, even in the unpredictable, confusing, sometimes tragically disappointing mystery of life. Even when we can’t figure Him out. Madame Jeanne Guyon, a well-known serious follower of Jesus in seventeenth-century France, doesn’t hold back:
If knowing answers to life’s questions is absolutely necessary to you, then forget the journey. You will never make it, for this is a journey of unknowables — of questions, enigmas, incomprehensibles and most of all, things unfair.
Though much of our faith and how it works out in life is laid out plainly, the mystery of God’s dealings with humanity is everywhere in Scripture. Moses refers to the secret things of God (Deuteronomy 29:29). Unanswered questions about what God is doing saturate the lives of the patriarchs, judges and kings — especially David in the Psalms — and of course, the prophets. Ruth, Esther and Daniel represent everyday people in Israel trying to trust God in the midst of untimely death, famine and years of oppressive exile under the domination of Assyria, Babylon and Persia.
The book of Ecclesiastes is filled with questions about the pain and inconsistencies of life, concluding with a call to trust anyway — “Fear God. Do what he tells you. And that’s it” (Ecclesiastes 12:13-14, msg). And then there’s the mystery of God becoming human, a virgin mother, miracles, Jesus’ cosmic sacrificial death, His dead body alive — walking, talking with His followers — then vanishing into thin air, leaving them with a mystical promise to be with them until his unexplained, undated return.
Peter acknowledges the mystery followers of Jesus live with: “You love him even though you have never seen him. Though you do not see him now, you trust him” (1 Peter 1:8, nlt). Paul adds, “We walk by faith, not by sight” (2 Corinthians 5:7).
Look, I don’t pretend to have all the answers about how to live without all the answers. But the Bible is clear — learning to trust Jesus in the mystery is the only way to truly live in relationship with him. Otherwise, we begin drifting — often first toward cliché-laden Christianity, which offers quick, inappropriate and always unhelpful “answers” to the deepest crises and quandaries of life.
When we say something like “God must have needed another angel” to a friend who just lost a child, we’re not engaging the mystery of tragic death alongside the reality of Jesus’ love — but turning our back on the mystery and on relationship with Jesus himself. Because while Jesus lovingly stays near the wounded, clichés launch us to spiritual la-la land, where we hide behind pseudoanswers for deep pain we can’t handle.
German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche said, “In Christianity neither morality nor religion come into contact with reality at any point.” One reason nonbelievers reject Christianity is because they see Christians as religious androids who can’t handle the truth — especially the harsh reality of pain without answers. To them, we’re citizens of Pleasantville — clinging desperately to our illusion of a world that always makes sense, hiding behind packaged Christian proverbs and memes because deep inside, we’re petrified our faith in Jesus won’t survive wounds that can’t be explained. Then we invite our hurting friends to put their trust in Jesus — and wonder why they respond, “No, thank you very much.”
Ironically, many times these clichés are misquoted, out-of-context Bible verses meant to give real comfort! Like “All things work together for good” (Romans 8:28), which isn’t a promise of instant visible good out of horrific bad — but the true consolation of knowing that our sovereign Father is constantly transforming our earthly pain into eternal good through His powerful love.
Sadly, we don’t just foist these clichés on others but preach them to ourselves until they become the substance of our shallow Christian lives. Job’s rebuke of his cliché-spouting companions says it all: “I’ve had all I can take of your talk. What a bunch of miserable comforters” (Job 16:1-5, msg).
Sometimes, those of us too honest to cling to clichés . . . simply get stuck. I have a close friend who really believes in Jesus and wants to walk more closely with Him — but whenever something happens in his personal life or in the broken world around him that he can’t reconcile with what he believes about God, he checks out spiritually for a while. Then a few months later, he wanders back, asking, “Can you help me deepen my relationship with Jesus?”
If you recognize this pattern in your life, the answer is, not until you’re willing to wrestle with trusting Jesus and His love in the mystery of pain you don’t understand.