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.

Sane Action in a Crazy World—A Meditation on Jeremiah 32

Seven weeks ago, while I was in Australia as part of my sabbatical, I preached a sermon on Jeremiah 32 at St. Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide. Of the four lectionary texts that week, I chose to focus on the prophet Jeremiah during the Babylonian siege, while touching on the other three texts (portions of Psalm 91 on God’s protection, a passage from 1 Timothy 6 on the dangers of wealth, and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16).

The actual lectionary readings were Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31. These four texts can be accessed here.

It has struck me that my reflections might be helpful to those struggling to come to terms with the current political situation in the US, even though it wasn’t written with this situation in mind.

Although parts of my sermon were specifically contextual, directed to Christians living in Australian society, most of the sermon is broadly relevant to what our response should be in a time of crisis. At one point I noted: “We feel under siege. Life has begun to get constricted; the walls are closing in. We need breathing room.”

I have reproduced the entire sermon below in this blog. Or you can download it as a PDF file.


  • Sane Action in a Crazy World
  • J. Richard Middleton
  • Sermon for St. Peter’s Cathedral, Adelaide
  • Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, 25 September 2016
  • Jeremiah 32:1-3a, 6-15; Psalm 91:1-6, 14-16; 1 Timothy 6:6-19; Luke 16:19-31

* * * * * *

The year is 597 B.C.

The prophet Jeremiah had been proclaiming the word of God to the people of Jerusalem and Judah for close to forty years; he’s an old man now.

But his words have fallen mostly on deaf ears.

Repent, he had exhorted them; change your ways; seek to fulfill God’s purposes in the way you treat your neighbour, and do not pursue your own selfish desires. Don’t just claim to trust in God, but bring your life into conformity with the claim.

Otherwise, you presume on God’s grace, and make a sham of true religion.

But Jeremiah wasn’t just a moralist, telling people to “act nicely.” He was calling them to covenant fidelity to God. He was calling them back to their fundamental identity as God’s people—a people with a vocation, a calling of exhibiting God’s rule to all the nations of the world—by how they lived.

And he warned of coming disaster. Initially, he spoke of an enemy coming from the north. Then later he put the name Babylon on this threat—Babylon, the great superpower of the sixth century B.C.

But the people ignored his message. The priests didn’t listen; the other prophets disdained him. His own family shunned him; various kings had him put into stocks or thrown into a pit, and the latest king (Zedekiah) put him in prison.

So here is Jeremiah, confined to the court of the guard in Jerusalem. Trapped; bound; constrained.

And wouldn’t you know it—his prophetic warnings have come true. Indeed, Zedekiah was only appointed king, ten years earlier, when the Babylonians besieged Jerusalem and the previous king surrendered as a way to save the city.

But now the end has come. Even the puppet king Zedekiah (placed on the throne by Babylon) has rebelled against his overlords, and the Babylonian armies have again marched on Jerusalem.

And there are the armies of Babylon, surrounding the city, settling in for a siege. Many Judeans in the countryside have already been killed. And the people of Jerusalem are panicked.

This is the end; Jeremiah knows it. The city will fall; the temple will be destroyed; many people will die; others will be taken into exile; they will become war refugees fleeing their land, which will be taken over by a foreign empire.

So Jeremiah is trapped, confined not just in the court of the guard; but even if he was let free, the city is surrounded. There is no way out.

* * * * * *

There may well be some of us here this morning who can identify with Jeremiah. Our siege may be different. It may be the breakdown of a marriage (maybe it’s been coming for ten years); or the loss of a job. Possibly it’s a financial crisis we don’t know how we will get through. Or it could be a betrayal by a friend. Maybe it’s a son or daughter who has disappointed us, rejecting all we hold dear. Or perhaps our own faith is fraying.

We feel under siege. Life has begun to get constricted; the walls are closing in. We need breathing room.

* * * * * *

Some of us are like the rich man in our parable (from Luke 16)—though we don’t like to admit it; we typically pay no attention to the suffering of the Lazaruses around us. Truth be told, we’re oblivious to them in the mad rush of our lives. As the reading from 1 Timothy puts it, in our “eagerness to be rich” we have “wandered away from the faith” (from faithfulness to God)—while remaining (respectably) in the church. Yes, that is entirely possible.

We don’t need Jeremiah—or anyone else—to tell us this. We are aware (if we’re honest) that we have (slowly, at first) begun to buy into the shallow values of this world, placing wealth and success above people and above compassion. Until we’ve bought in, whole hog.

And the result, to use language from 1 Timothy, is that we have “pierced [our]selves with many pains,” driving people away from us, leading to a shallowness of life that we are always subliminally aware of, only to push the thought away—until it comes back to haunt us in the dark hours of the night.

And we wonder how we can begin to extricate ourselves from these prisons of our own making. What can lift the siege?

* * * * * *

But there are others here this morning who can’t identify with the besieged prophet. Life seems pretty smooth for us right now. Things are going well. Investments are paying off. We’re successful at work, in relationships.

We could almost recite Psalm 91. It feels like we’re living in the shelter of the Most High, protected by the shadow of the Almighty.

Of course, we might not actually want to recite Psalm 91, not explicitly. Yet there are many in the church—and in society—who assume the posture of this psalm.

If we are good people (and, of course, we are), then God will deliver us from the snare of the fowler; God will cover us with his wings; and we won’t fear the terror by night or the arrow by day—all metaphorical language. But we know what it means. God protects good people (like us) from disaster.

It’s interesting that those putting together the lectionary left out the really extreme verses: “A thousand may fall at your side, / ten thousand at your right hand, / but it will not come near you. / You will only look with your eyes / and see the punishment of the wicked.”

Of course, none of us really believes that—that’s just too self-serving; and too arrogant.

And yet . . . if we are honest (if I am honest) we may admit that we try to sneak in some sort of magical idea of God’s protection of “us good people,” while (maybe subconsciously) looking down our noses at those “wicked” who suffer difficulty and disaster.

It’s interesting that archeologists have turned up a number of amulets, Israelite amulets that Israelites wore to fend off evil, that have verses from Psalm 91 inscribed on them.

It goes pretty deep, this magical idea that we can somehow be protected from trouble, that we are immune to disaster.

* * * * * *

But no-one is immune; not Jeremiah (who was a righteous prophet), not us (with all our moral ambiguity), not even Jesus. You do know about the cross—this Roman instrument of torture that he was executed on?

In fact, two of the verses missing from our Psalm 91 lectionary reading were quoted by the devil to Jesus in the wilderness: God “will command his angels concerning you / to guard you in all your ways. / On their hands they will bear you up, / so that you will not dash your foot against a stone.”

And do you remember Jesus’s response? “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”

Because he knew that the servant of the Lord, the one who wants to be faithful to God, cannot live immune to suffering.

* * * * * *

The question before us this morning is not how to avoid suffering, but what do you do when the walls are closing in? It’s not how to prevent disaster, either personal (our own prison, in the court of the guard) or communal (with the siege ramps going up around our city); the question is whether we give up hope in a time of crisis, when things look bleak, either for us personally or perhaps when our society seems to be crumbling—when priests are complicit in sexual abuse, when terrorists bomb marketplaces, when little girls like Tiahliegh Palmer go missing and then turn up dead, discovered by fishermen.

This is a world in which aboriginal peoples do not receive justice, where race and class and wealth tilt the balance against so many; this is a world where—to put it bluntly—Babylon seems to dominate the landscape, and the city of God is compromised by the power and weapons of this world.

So it’s way too late to ask how we can avoid suffering. The question is: what will we do in the face of a world wracked by suffering, a world out of joint with God’s purposes of shalom and justice for all?

* * * * * *

It was in such a world that Jeremiah received a word from God. Or, at least he thought it was a word from God. Because it was a very strange word.

He thought he heard God telling him that his cousin Hanamel was going to pay him a visit and suggest that he buy a bit of real estate off him, some land he owned in Anathoth, not three miles north of Jerusalem. Since this was land that the Babylonian army was occupying, and Judah was sure to fall to Babylonian control, the land would be useless to Hanamel. So, no wonder he wanted to palm it off on Jeremiah!

But then this very strange word was fulfilled. Hanamel came, just as God said, and offered him the sale. “Then I knew that this was the word of the Lord,” said Jeremiah.

And he goes ahead with the crazy deal. Jeremiah not only buys the land (that is overrun by Babylon), but he goes through the process of having the deed signed (with two copies) and attested by witnesses, with both copies kept safe so that future generations might know what he did.

But why did he do such a crazy thing?

“For thus says the Lord of hosts, the God of Israel: Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

In other words, this was a radical act of hope in the midst of what looked like a hopeless situation. It was staking a claim on a future that looked closed off. It was affirming that God was not done with his people or with this world.

* * * * * *

And some of us have heard a word from the Lord; or we think it might be from God (it’s hard to figure out if it’s really God speaking or just our crazy ideas, sometimes).

Maybe we’ve heard a word suggesting some crazy, counter-cultural action—like stepping back from the rat race, putting the brakes on our climbing the ladder of success—to spend time with people.

Maybe with the adult son or daughter who has been pulling away. Could that be the word of God whispering in our ear to book a lunch date with them, to just find out how they’re doing, and show interest in their lives—no strings attached?

Or is that a word from God suggesting that we pay attention to our neighbour who has been going through a difficult time (that neighbour might be right beside us in this church, or down the street, or in our work place)? That neighbour might need financial help; or just a friend to talk to.

Perhaps the word we sense (is it from God?) has been prompting us to get involved in our city, entering the political process, to put into action our passion for justice and transformative change.

Maybe the word in our ear or in our heart has been suggesting that it’s high time we took seriously the racism in Australian culture, especially towards aboriginal peoples, and find concrete ways to made a difference.

Or is the whisper we hear telling us to pay our employees a living wage, to re-think the pay structure of our organization, so that people are treated with dignity and humanity, and not just as “workers.”

And, of course, God could be telling us something that no preacher could guess; but we know what the prompting is.

* * * * * *

What is the plot of land that God is prompting each of us to purchase?

What great or (perhaps) small action is God asking of us, that would be an investment in the future? That would be a signpost of hope in a world of corruption and despair?

Yes, this is a time of great upheaval, with climate change impacting many coastal peoples, including Pacific islanders. This is a world of political corruption and senseless crime; a world in which millions of refugees flee their homes, trying to find a safe place to live.

And we may personally be under siege.

The Babylonian armies may be encamped all around.

But precisely in this time of crisis God gives Jeremiah a word of hope: “Houses and fields and vineyards shall again be bought in this land.”

For this is the world that God loves, that Jesus died for. And God has never abandoned this world; God has never given up on us

“This is my Father’s world,” wrote a clergyman (in 1901) who lived not a hundred kilometers from my current home in Rochester, NY. “This is my Father’s world.” And he goes on to say: “And let me ne’er forget / that though the wrong seems oft so strong, / God is the ruler yet.”

And those words, like the words of the Lord to Jeremiah, give us hope.

But hope that is not acted on soon fades and dies.

Hope needs to be lived out, in concrete action.

And the claim that “God is the ruler yet” will not be believed—not even by ourselves—if we do not seek to manifest this rule in our lives.

And so the word of God comes to each of us, as it came to Jeremiah, saying: “Buy a plot of land.”

I know it sounds crazy. But if we are open to that voice, maybe some Hanamel will come to us and confirm the whisper we have heard, until—like Jeremiah—we just know that this is the world of the Lord.

And then we act on it.

Indeed, this may be the most sane action we can take in a crazy world.

Amen.

* * * * * *

The entire sermon is downloadable as a PDF file.