Is It Okay to Question God?

Many Christians have been taught in church that it’s not proper to question God. In some cases, church members are criticized for even questioning their pastor.

But the Psalms have a very different perspective—especially the psalms of lament or complaint, which comprise one-third of the Psalter (about fifty psalms). Over and over, various psalmists honestly bring their concerns to God, often in the form of critical questions.

Of course, we can ask questions in a very pious, subdued, and respectful way. Or, like many of the psalms, we can just throw our questions, audaciously, at God.

The Audacious Questioning of Lament Psalms

Perhaps the most famous is Psalm 22, which opens by asking: “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” No niceties, no “Dear God, I come to you in praise and thanksgiving.” Just an outrageous question, which is really an accusation.

Lament psalms are actually a form of prayer we are already familiar with; we usually call this supplication or petition. In such prayers we tell God about the problem that is bothering us (the complaint) and we ask for help (the petition).

But lament psalms push the envelope further.

They are not a polite form of supplication; they can be quite abrasive, even accusing God of being part of the problem. This is the point of the question addressed to God at the start of Psalm 22; and it is typical of lament psalms to voice their complaints in the form of rhetorical questions.

Likewise, the petitions go beyond what we might consider proper. One psalmist asks God to stop abusing him (“Remove your whip from me; / I am worn down by the hostility of your hand”; Psalm 39:10) and even to leave him alone, as if God’s very presence was oppressive (“Look away from me, that I may smile again”; Psalm 39:13).

Jeremiah’s Lament

But one of the most powerful—and daring—prayers of lament in the Bible is found not in the Psalms, but in the book of Jeremiah. Throughout the book, the prophet Jeremiah voices a series of lament prayers to God, culminating in the anguished prayer of chapter 20.

I recently spoke in chapel at Roberts Wesleyan College on Jeremiah’s prayer in Jeremiah 20:7–18; my secondary text was the 1986 song “Dear God,” from the British group XTC.

Jeremiah starts his prayer rather impiously by accusing God of deceiving him, and goes on to explain that God did not live up to his promises to support him as a prophet; his point is that despite God’s promises of protection (see Jeremiah 1:8 and 1:19), he has been persecuted for bringing God’s word to the people. At the end, he wishes that he had never been born.

A Contemporary Lament Song

The song “Dear God” is a secular analogue to Jeremiah’s prayer. The entire song is addressed to God (it is in the form of a prayer), and blames God for causing so much suffering in the world—and there’s quite a list of such suffering. The song ends with the singer telling God that he doesn’t believe in him.

My assigned topic for this chapel talk was: “Is it okay to question God?”

My short answer was and is that it is indeed permissible—not just to question God, but to challenge God. Maybe your pastor can’t handle that; but God certainly can.

In fact, the lament psalms and the prayers of Jeremiah teach us that God wants us to bring all the disorientation of our lives to him, to be brutally honest with him in prayer. And that was the focus of my chapel talk.

Ultimately, God took all the pain of the world into himself on the cross, to give us back redemption.

In comparison to that, what’s a little questioning?

If you’re interested, you can view my chapel talk on questioning God on You Tube.

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8 thoughts on “Is It Okay to Question God?

  1. I watched your presentation during chapel on YouTube and found it to be very thought provoking. Of course God is not offended when we question Him, as long as we approach Him in a spirit of humility and do not assume to know more than Him. I actually feel sorry for Jeremiah because of all that he endured, it is no wonder he has been called “the weeping prophet.” It is a fascinating study.

    Looking forward to reading and listening to more good teaching from you.

  2. Hi, Richard. A great chunk of conservative systematics would seem to think that, on the Cross, Jesus might better have quoted Ps. 39.10 than “merely” protesting the abandonment of Ps. 22. Am I an outlier in holding the thought that, if Jesus really was being actively tortured by His Father in order that I will not, would He not be very conscious of that fact?

    Looking forward to your UK trip

    David

    • David, I’m also looking forward to the trip.

      I assume that your comments here are in critique of a simplistic version of the classic doctrine of subsitutionary atonement? I would also critique it, without necessarily jettisoning the doctrine.

      Part of the problem is a simplistic idea of the atonement as an exchange. But it may also depend on simplistically separating the identity of the human Jesus from God the Father (then you get the idea that God is torturing Jesus).

      But if we have fully orthodox view of the incarnation, then God himself is undergoing suffering on our behalf. I take Paul’s statement in Philippians 2:5-11 as key to understanding the cross.

      The paradox of that passage has always been that Paul uses the experience of Jesus undergoing humiliation and suffering on our behalf as a model for our own servant attitude, yet he speaks of Jesus as uniquely having divine status and prerogatives.

      Paul’s point is that this is how the one true God operates (which is very different from the gods of paganism). And we, who are made in God’s image, should model our actions on God’s own modus operandi.

      But the point is that God is undergoing suffering on our behalf, to bleed the poison of sin out of creation.

      • Yes; that’s helpful. But is it possible to give further content to the idea of “abandonment” without the “simplistic separation” you highlight? I suppose I’m one of many whom NTW has benefited, who still feel a bit bereft when that simplistic separation no longer seems to fit. And I wonder how Bishop Latimer’s plough-boy is to cope.

        David

      • David, one more thought about the cross and the atonement (actually, maybe two thoughts).

        First, as a preliminary, I don’t think that anyone can adequately explain the impenetrable mystery at the heart of the cross; we are best off simply accepting God’s amazing grace. And yet, maybe a bit more can be said (so the above qualification applies to my faltering comments).

        Second, and this is my attempt at a response to your conundrum (above): I take it that “God” did not offer up “his son” in some sort of extrinsic sense; rather, the human Jesus came to an understanding of the messianic mission he was called to, and through what is undoubtedly a process (the testing/temptation in the wilderness being a significant part of that process) he fully embraced this mission. So, besides being God’s self-offering for us, the cross is also Jesus’s own self-offering on behalf of the sin and suffering of Israel and the world.

        I know that doesn’t exactly “explain” things. But that is how I think the NT looks at it.

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