I've been studying Genesis for the past year and have found the book's emphasis on violence rather striking. After Cain kills his brother, he worries that marauders in the regions of his exile will kill him. A few generations later, Cain's descendant Lamech brags about his own murderous exploits. Soon the earth is so "filled with violence," as God explains to Noah, that God decides "to put an end to all people" (6:13) in a great flood.
What struck me as I squirmed through the horrific flood account was God's violence in response to human violence. However evil the people of that time may have been—and surely they were no more evil than the people of today—I couldn't erase from my mind the resulting image of that genocide, the plaintive cries from high places, the gurgling screams and thrashing that must have horrified Noah and his family as all the world drowned. How could a loving God have done such a thing? I wondered. I struggled to understand what God's violence says about his character, and how it's relevant to my own life.
I made the mistake of putting my question before some Christian friends, and it unsettled them. Outraged them even. "God made those people," they explained, "so God had every right to destroy them."
My friends were right. Certainly God had every right to destroy the humans he'd created, just as I have every right to delete the words on my computer screen, as I often do when I write, and start over with just a fragment. And, from the imagined perspective of the Creator, destroying his creatures wasn't exactly on the same order as his creatures' destroying one another. One of my friends even coined the word unmake to differentiate God's violence from human violence.
Nevertheless, the answer rankled. It's one I've often received, in many variations, in response to my questions. "We won't understand this until we get to heaven," dedicated believers tell me. Or they remind me of God's supremacy. Such responses sidestep—or unmake—the question altogether. And, although I know God himself famously answered Job in the same vein—"Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge?" (38:2)—I feel unjustly silenced. These believers are really saying, "I don't want to talk about this, and you shouldn't either." Few things bother me more than feeling squelched.
Students at the Christian university where I teach frequently report similar experiences. Though most of these students are lifelong believers, they're struggling—often for the first time—with matters of faith, considering new ideas unfiltered by parents or churches, and learning independent decision-making. Naturally they have questions, often unsettling ones, about God. When mature believers shut such strugglers down with pat answers or refuse to entertain these questions as legitimate, they grow frustrated. Some turn away from faith altogether.
My daughters have been asking questions since they could talk, and I consider it my primary evangelistic assignment not merely to answer their questions but to take them seriously. I've probably learned more from their questions than I've taught through my answers. My non-believing acquaintances also have questions—often disgruntled or sneaky ones, like the questions Jesus regularly fielded from the throngs gathered around him.
I deeply identify with questioners and believe Christians have a responsibility to honor them. Having come to faith relatively late in life, I asked many of my own questions, sometimes the probing questions of a seeker, but more often the cynical questions of a heckler, bent on finding the poor besotted believer in error. God drew me to himself largely through the patient consideration of my questions offered by the members of my first Bible study class—the "Old-Marrieds" Sunday school class at a Baptist church I attended as an atheist. Here's what I learned from their nurturing response: some premises I try to remember when asked challenging questions and some tips for how to respond usefully.
Premises for Listening
All questions are good questions. This principle isn't merely a maxim of the classes I teach as a professor of English, but the foundation of my views on spiritual growth. Questions grow the questioner—and often the one being questioned.
Struggling with God amounts to taking him seriously, and God blesses the struggler. Jacob demanded a blessing from God and struggled with him until he got it. The converse is also true: Those who don't struggle with God miss out on blessings—or, in any case, opportunities for spiritual growth.
God is bigger than any question. People can't unmake God—or his gift of faith—by questioning or struggling with him or the Bible.
People who bait believers with questions unconsciously hope for real answers. Jesus took on every question put to him, even when he knew his questioners were just "looking for a reason to accuse" him (Luke 6:7).
Even mature believers can struggle in some area of faith. Often their questions originate in life's tragedies and difficulties, and these believers are deeply embarrassed about their struggle. A squelching response is likelier to exacerbate their doubts than to grow their faith.
Actions for Responding
1. Listen first to the whole question.
2. Avoid pat answers.
3. Ask questions back. Doing so helps you understand the person's question and also communicates the acceptability of asking.
4. Admit your discomfort with the question. Saying that a question makes you feel uncomfortable, rather than squelching it out of discomfort, acknowledges the question's legitimacy.
5. Hold off on quoting the Bible. Non-believers can—sometimes rightly—perceive Bible verses as weapons. Later, when your questioner trusts you as ready to take on the question, is the time to bring in biblical authors' probably varied responses to the matter.
6. Remember that aside from the essentials of faith—God exists, and Jesus was his son who died for humans' sins—many Christian beliefs are debatable. The Bible is a complicated book. From the beginning of Christianity, believers have had different views on everything from free will to the meaning of Jesus' command, "Give back to Caesar what is Caesar's" (Matthew 22:21).
7. Learn from your questioner. Believers are to sharpen iron with iron (Proverbs 27:17)—and thereby grow one another as believers.
8. Realize that your answer is less important than your perceived willingness to entertain the question. Keep your words and your heart on the goal: to be a vehicle of grace and growth. Strive for a conversation that draws you and the questioner closer to God.
I haven't managed to resolve my questions about God's violence. Perhaps I never will. As one of my colleagues—a professor in biblical studies at my university—recently commented, the account of Noah is hardly a cute little children's story—of rainbows and happy animals entering the ark by twosies-twosies. Nevertheless, as I enter the adolescence of my faith—at 49!—I'm confident that God can handle my questions and even my occasional cynicism. And I'm certain that what I hope for—that God loves everyone and always works in his children's best interest—will somehow prove true in the end.
Copyright © 2010 by the author or Christianity Today/TodaysChristianWoman.com.