The Right Question
By Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
October 17, 2021
Job 38: 1-7,
Mark 10: 35-45
Our service today, Kirkin’ Sunday, starts with questions. “Whom do you seek?” “Do you seek the Lord with all your heart? With all your mind? With all your soul? With all your strength?” We are using an ancient Celtic liturgy, framed as questions asked of the congregation, rather than as is more common, making certain faith assertions. Liturgies that ask questions are as old as faith itself. Look, for instance, at the ages-old liturgy of the Jewish Passover, the seder. The liturgy begins with the mah mishtanah, which begins the maggid, the re-telling of the story of the Exodus from Egypt. The mah mishtanah are the four questions, which are given to children to ask. The first question is “Why is this night different?”
Our scriptures today also raise questions. In the Gospel, we read of the two disciples, James and John, the so-called sons of Thunder, asking Jesus “to do whatever we ask of you.” Jesus responds, “What do you want me to do for you?” “They respond, “Grant us to sit at your right hand and your left, in your glory.” Jesus responds, “Are you able to drink the cup that I drink, or be baptized with the baptism that I am baptized with?” The truth is that James and John say they are asking a question, but what they’re really doing is making a demand. Jesus, however, responds with questions.
Likewise, in our reading from the Book of Job, Job has been asking questions for thirty-seven chapters. They’re questions we can relate to—questions about suffering and about why you can be a good person and still have horrible things happen to you if God is a good God. The technical term for such questions is theodicy—meaning “Why God?” questions. And finally, in Chapter 38, God responds. “Ok, you’ve been asking me questions for thirty-seven chapters—now I have some questions for you.”
A friend of mine once asked a rabbi, “Why do rabbis always respond to questions with questions?” and the rabbi responded, “Do we?”
The book of Job is framed by two overarching questions: The questions of Job and the questions of God. In between those questions are five answers. There is the answer of Job’s wife, who is suffering in much the same way that Job is suffering, and who cries out angrily, “Curse God and die!” Her answer is like those TCU football posters we’ve been seeing around town—“Defy and Deny!” God has let you down. You can at least assert your own autonomy, your own strength of character, by denying God and defying God, even if it means that you will die.
It’s a response a little too disturbingly similar to the way much of the world has responded to Covid-19—defy and deny, even if you die. If reality is not to your liking, defy it and deny it, even if it kills you and maybe some other people too. It’s understandable, given the suffering and misery Job and his wife have experienced—the deaths of their loved ones, the loss of their property, the onset of disease and physical misery. It is actually a common grief response. When we grieve, we often go through anger and denial, where we refuse to believe that our loss is the new reality and/or search for someone or something to blame or hold accountable. Job’s wife is deep in that phase and cannot be held accountable for what she says at that moment. Anyone would feel the same. The problem comes when we freeze at that stage and never move beyond it. Culturally, that’s where many Americans are today—defying and denying in order to stave off the harder questions of reality that still remain and must, inevitably, be dealt with.
So “Defy and Deny” is one answer. But the other four answers given by Job’s four so-called “friends’ who come to supposedly “comfort” him are not any better. The first three, Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar explain to him how he and his family are all sinners and therefore God is punishing them. Remember how Pat Robertson told us that the reason Hurricane Katrina brought so much misery onto New Orleans was because of how sinful New Orleans is? Never mind that the one place that almost NEVER floods in New Orleans is the French Quarter. Pat Robertson would have been there right along with Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar. With friends like that, who needs enemies? Job wisely refuses to buy into their ridiculous ideas.
The fourth friend, Elihu, comes along with a more sophisticated argument. It’s sort of the preacher’s argument. God didn’t bring you suffering because you are a sinner but in order to bring you closer to God! Elihu’s probably patting himself on the back for how clever he is and heaven knows I’ve read plenty of theology that goes that direction. But ultimately it’s as wrong an answer as the ones that Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar are offering up.
Like a good rabbi, God ultimately responds to Job’s question, not with an answer, but with a question. God’s answer is no answer. God says, “Where were you when I created the universe?” I think we read this and God sounds snide and condescending. But perhaps we should hear this differently. As a pastor I often am called upon to provide counseling. It is not uncommon for a counseling session to go something like this: “There’s this problem with me and this fact about me and this thing that bugs me. But enough about me, pastor. Let’s talk about you. What do YOU think of me?” I have all kinds of nice answers, but if I was honest what I’d say is, “What I think about you is that my world doesn’t revolve around you. I actually can’t tell you hardly anything about you because all I know about you is from you. What I can tell you, maybe, is another perspective on the world, another perspective on life, and maybe that will give you insight into how to live your life in a more healthy and meaningful way. My gift to you, the only thing I bring to the table, is that I am most definitely not you. And sometimes, when we’re caught up in the whirling maelstrom of ‘me, me, me’ a voice that is not me is exactly what I need to hear.”
That is at least somewhat exactly the way that God responds to Job. “You are always asking me about you. Stop asking me about you,” God says, “and start asking me about me. My gift to you, the only thing I bring to the table, is that I am not you.” That far along, God sounds a lot like a counselor. But the next part is where God can and must part ways with any good counselor: “I am not you. I am God. Ask me about me.”
We Presbyterians are big into catechisms. Catechisms are a series of questions and answers. The first question of the Westminster Catechism is, “What is the chief end of humanity?” And the answer is, “To magnify and to enjoy God forever.” That’s God’s point. We get wrapped up in asking questions about ourselves. But our whole reason for existing is to ask questions about God.
Jesus’ response to the Sons of Thunder is similar. “You are asking me about you,” he says, “about whether you will sit at my right hand and my left when I return in glory. I can’t answer a question about you or your destiny. I can’t answer a question about what you deserve. What I can tell you is stop thinking about you, about your glory, about your honor, about your destiny, about your righteousness, about your salvation. Stop thinking about you and start thinking about others. Think about being a servant to others. Think about what they need. And if you think about someone other than yourself, then you will also be thinking about me, about who I am, because I am a servant. Asking about you is the wrong question,” Jesus tells them. “Ask about me. Ask about who I am. Ask about who other people are. But don’t expect that will give you answers. It’ll just give you more questions. It’ll give you an eternity’s worth of questions. But that’s okay, because in God’s love you’ll have an eternity to deal with them.”
Our quest for answers only stymies and limits us. Inevitably, my answers are my answers. They are all about me. But any answer that satisfies me and me alone will close the door on God, because God ultimately is other than me. God is as other from me, as alien from me, as anything can get. Past a certain point, my answers only close the door on God. They make me comfortable. But to truly seek God is to dwell in mystery. It is to know that no answer is in itself satisfactory, but only leads to more questions. That’s what the Celts knew, and that’s why the Celtic liturgy is arranged in the form of questions. God is mystery, so to know God we are better off if instead of looking for answers, we try to figure out the right questions to ask.
It is wrong to say, as Job’s ‘friend’ Elihu does, that God causes suffering to bring us closer to God. That makes God manipulative and Machiavellian in the extreme. But it is true that grieving suggests something important about how we deal with mystery and the unknown and unknowable. Years ago, Dr. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross said that when we grieve, we go through stages. She identified five—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Later research raises a lot of questions about her analysis. For instance, no scientific proof of such “stages” exists. People can grieve and never go through many of these so-called stages. These days experts are more likely to call them “states” than stages—they are simply possible ways to experience grief and loss. Furthermore, to call them stages is misleading, as if there is a pattern or an order which they follow. That’s one thing I can speak to from experience: I remember ministering to a young woman whose brother had died in a car accident and watching her go back and forth between all five stages while we were actually talking. She accepted his death one moment, denied it the next, and so on.
At some point, one hopes, we come to a kind of acceptance, which I suppose can be defined as coming to terms with the reality of your loss and still being able to function in a healthy and whole way. But the truth is that acceptance does not mean, “I am at peace with this.” I often think of grief as like a physical injury that is painful and debilitating in the short run and then when it heals still leaves a scar; or maybe like a broken bone that leaves you with a slight but real life-long limp, that often you forget about or work around but it never really goes away. When my mother died thirty years ago this week by suicide, I went through all those states. Ultimately I came to a kind of acceptance.
But here’s the thing: I’m still angry. I’m still somewhat in denial. I’m still trying to cut some kind of deal with God about it. And I still occasionally get depressed about it. And in my opinion, that’s a good thing. I must continue to contend with the real world, not push it aside. For instance, one act of “bargaining” I’ve done is adjust my theology to understand better how God’s grace was and remains a reality for my sad, troubled mom. My anger at how her mental illness ruined her life and affected her family’s life has made me more pro-active and passionate about taking mental illness seriously as a professional. Likewise my desire to provide meaning for my mom’s difficult life has made me more sensitive to and aware of the problems of depression and suicide and I hope better able to minister to those who are dealing with those issues.
I still struggle with sadness over the difficult relationship we had and how at one level we will now never resolve it. But psychotherapist Viktor Frankl told us in his book Man’s Search for Meaning that we can even continue to have a relationship with those who have died. When a relationship we have matters, we continue to work out and resolve and in some ways even grow in the relationship even after that person has died. And so I am still working on my relationship with Jeannette McClung Ritsch, my mother.
I don’t have answers to her death or to mental illness. But the questions they raise shape the questions I continue to ask myself and the world. I have accepted her death, but that is not the same as feeling good about it. Or being at peace with it. But it can be a doorway through which I and others can explore the mysteries of God and the world God has made. For me, her mental illness made me raise questions that needed exploration. For a large number of Americans, mental illness is a reality. It’s not something they bring on themselves. If this is a reality over which humans have limited control, how do we assert God’s grace and redemption in those cases? Likewise for suicide. God knows I’ve heard so called Christian leaders who find a way to blame the victim, just like Job’s friends blame him for his troubles. It is extraordinarily offensive and unkind. How do we assert God’s grace, love and providence in such situations?
I don’t have answers. Except one. The God we know in Jesus Christ is the sovereign God of grace, love and providence. It’s the most wonderful truth of existence and often the least obvious truth, as well. It is as Winston Churchill once said in a very different vein, “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” Providing limited, narrow simple-minded answers not only is a dissatisfying and often even frightening disservice to God; it also short-circuits our greatest purpose, as Tennyson put it: “To strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”
Or as the Celts put it: “Whom do we seek?” Seeking God is our purpose. The Lord in Celtic framing is not an answer that brings closure, but a question that brings still more mystery in the asking, a mystery worthy of our soul’s longing, an enigma the pursuit of which brings dignity to our greatest potential and directs us to our truest selves. God is a question well worth asking.
In fact, God is the only question.