Friday, January 7, 2011

the nature of questions

It may seem odd to some that, after the Advent season is completed, after Christmas has past, and even after the feast of Theophany (Epiphany), I should post something in regards to the events preceding the births of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ. But, expectations aside, some of my family and I are beginning to read through the New Testament together, and this has provided an opportunity to revisit the accounts of Christ's birth in the Gospels (often read during the Advent/Christmas season). And in doing so, one particular aspect stood out to me in the Lukan narrative that pertains to the nature of questions. So, the following is for the inquisitive among us.

At times I have remained slightly perplexed when considering the annunciations to Zacharias (Luke 1:5-23) and to Mary (1:26-38). That is, superficially, their circumstances reveal particular structures that bear resemblance to one another. In the earliest portions of each case:

* An angel (i.e., Gabriel) appears (vv. 8-11, 26-28)
* Gabriel announces an aspect of God's plan (vv. 13-17, 30-33)
* The recipient asks a question (vv. 18, 34)

Especially given that this latter point is shared among the accounts, it has often been a surprise to me as to why the angel should react so distinctly to Zacharias and Mary. And it is this latter point that, for me, exalts God's grace in my own confusion and lack of understanding, for I am confident that God, who initiates His own Self-revelation, desires to make Himself known through the Person of Jesus Christ. One thing that struck me in contemplating both today's and yesterday's readings pertains to the nature of questions: there is a great difference between questioning God, one the one hand, and asking God questions, on the other.

Turning to the Scriptures, we note that the questions may be similar in form, but they contrast starkly in terms of content and motive. We read the following in the first chapter of Luke:

And Zechariah said to the angel, "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years." (Luke 1:18, ESV)

And Mary said to the angel, "How will this be, since I am a virgin?" (Luke 1:34)

The former question implies doubt, and is well expressed by the NASB rendition of verse 18, which reads "How will I know this for certain?" That uncertainty indeed underlies this question is evidenced in Scripture itself, for we find Gabriel rebuking Zacharias for his unbelief in the verses that immediately follow (cf. 1:19-20). But what of Mary's question? Why is she not rebuked for unbelief, as well, when she asks "How will this be?" (1:34, ESV)? The difference between her question and Zacharias' is that, in terms of content and motive, Mary's implies trust, belief, and faith. The nature of Mary's question is made clear by Gabriel's response; instead of questioning the validity of the message and what it entailed, she asks to know more about the announcement which she had already considered true and already accepted and believed God would bring it to pass. This point is elucidated further when we consider Mary's remarkably humble response: "Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word" (v. 38).

The reason this is important is because it is all too easy to conflate the notions of questioning God and asking God questions into a single, indiscernible category. If we do this, we may, for example, treat questions as synonymous with negative aspects, such as doubt. This, then, can be a hindrance to our relationship with God, which is in part characterized by our "asking" (see, for example, Matthew 7:11; 18:19; 21:22; Luke 9:45; 11:9, 13; John 16:24; Ephesians 3:20; Philippians 4:6; James 1:5-6; 1 John 5:14-15) of Him and, thus, relying upon His sovereignty and benevolence. When we, by God's grace, discern between types of questions based upon motive, God reveals through His word that He desires us to relate to Him through asking, like Abraham who inquired "Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?" (Genesis 18:25, NASB). But we must pray that God purifies our intent, so that our questions do not mirror that of Judas, who asked the Lord, "Why was this perfume not sold for three hundred denarii and given to poor people?" (John 12:5; see also verse 6 in conjunction with James 4:3).

Notwithstanding, we do well to bear in mind that with God there is boundless grace. Though Zacharias did not fully believe and demonstrated a show-me-a-sign mentality (see Matthew 16:1-4), still God acted for His own glory and for the good of Zacharias, in a sense actually answering the very question he was rebuked for - Zacharias would eventually "know for certain" because he was made mute until Gabriel's words were fulfilled. Thus, God was working in Zacharias, transforming his heart and mind, so that when the words were fulfilled, "at once [Zacharias'] mouth was opened and his tongue loosed, and he began to speak in praise of God" (Luke 1:64).

May God give us His grace, to ask of Him, as did Mary, with purity of heart, asking in faith. And may He also make known to us His endless love and grace when we, like Zacharias, ask out of unbelief.

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