The way that questions form our lives is a pretty remarkable thing. As young children we exist in a state of constant inquiry. We have no frame of reference for what is happening around us – and to us – other than instinct and observation. To be honest, as a reminder of what’s really happening, babies should come standard-equipped with a large question mark on their foreheads because they are perpetually asking the world, “what is this?” As kids get old enough to talk and interact verbally we hear the one-word question that can haunt a parent’s ears, “why?” The question why can be asked about almost anything, and even after detailed explanations are offered, “why?” still seems an appropriate response to children. This exhausting back-and-forth tends to lead to terse, and unsatisfying, responses like, “because I said so!”
Though the most frustrating aspects of the “why” stage do eventually come to a close, our questions don’t actually stop. As adults we keep asking questions, sometimes to friends, sometimes to Google, sometimes to ourselves and sometimes, if we’re doing it right, we ask God questions.
But the questions that we ask God aren’t always neat interrogative statements beginning with who, what, when, where, how or why. If we could paint a picture of our “grown-up” questions to God they would probably look like a person standing beside a frozen pond, lightly pressing a boot on the edge of the ice to see if it will hold his body weight. Each step is predicated on the unspoken question, “will you hold me if I go further?”
In Psalm 31, David is looking for God to be a refuge, a safe place for him. We get hints throughout the chapter that he is struggling in profound ways:
“I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also.” (Ps. 31:9)
“my life is spent with sorrow…my strength fails…my bones waste away…I have been forgotten like one who is dead; I have become like a broken vessel.” (Ps. 31:10, 12)
These are not words of happiness and they reveal a life that is tired, beat down and lonely. The pond of David’s life doesn’t seem to be solid enough to hold him, so he is walking with frustration and resignation around the shore, instead of victory and confidence. And we all experience these seasons. It’s not uncommon for us to find ourselves pressing our toes on the future, testing cautiously before taking our next steps; even those of us who are filled with faith and know that we are loved deeply by the Father.
But difficult times do not have to short-circuit our hope or our ability to interact with God in prayer.
Something David says at the beginning of the psalm gives us a clue as to how we are supposed to pray through our questions about life. David gives us this insight before he reveals how difficult things are – his statements are at the top of his page of questions, instead of as a way to “cover his spiritual bases” at the end of the prayer.
“Be a rock of refuge for me, a strong fortress to save me!
For you are my rock and my fortress…you are my refuge…you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God.”
If we look at the structure of those two sections we see can see that David’s tone is not bravado or drunken swaggering about the power of God. No. David puts his foot out onto the edge of the ice, “be a rock for me, please God,” and then courageously shifts his full weight into the unknown, “for you are my rock and fortress…”
This is how some seasons of life look. And more importantly, this seems to be how some seasons are supposed to look. Not every season, certainly. After all, there are other psalms that David wrote where he speaks of running by himself to attack entire armies – but those were different times for David. And life is guaranteed to come with different times.
Some times in our life feel more like negotiating an obstacle course than running fearlessly into battle:
Abraham tries to negotiate a national legacy without a son.
Moses wants to see a sign before going back to Egypt.
Jacob won’t let go of the glowing stranger until he is blessed by him.
What is crucial to see in David’s wording is not that he asks the question, but how he asks the question. DAVID’S MOMENTS OF QUESTIONING AND TESTING HIS FUTURE STEPS TENDED TO INCLUDE A DECLARATION OF GOD’S CHARACTER AND NATURE THAT INCITEd CONFIDENCE AND CALM. In a sense David only asks questions that already include the answer to those questions.
“Will you please be my refuge? You are my refuge.”
The way that we ask God for things has a great bearing on how confident our next steps will be – or if we are willing/able to take those steps at all.
When my 9 year-old daughter comes to me needing assistance with her homework, she doesn’t walk in and ask me to help her as a question of ability, but as a question of willingness. My little girl hasn’t realized yet that I don’t know all the answers about history, math and science (truth be told I hope she never finds out how few are the answers that I actually have for those subjects). When she shuffles up to me and holds out her worksheets or text books she asks for help in the same way David asked for help:
“Daddy, will you help me multiply these fractions…because I know Daddy, that there hasn’t been a set of fractions dreamed up in heaven or on earth that you can’t multiply.”
The question itself is based on a trusted answer. This isn’t doubt, or a lack of faith, or an unwillingness to believe. To the contrary, when we come before God with needs and problems and struggles – when we feel forsaken and alone and beaten – we haven’t given up our faith! THE WAY that we come before God with those deep needs says more about us than the presence of the needs in the first place!
Peter looked at the figure standing in the middle of the sea, with a storm raging all around him, and asked Jesus, “if it’s you, can I come walk on the water to you?” (Matthew 14:22-33) This question makes NO SENSE if Peter has no idea that this was actually Jesus, and that this was – without ever having seen it happen – actually possible! But in Peter’s question there is the glimmer of faith – he reveals what he thinks the answer is in the way that he asks the question.
As we pray for our families, our churches, our friends and our world, it might be helpful for us to only ask our questions, to only make our requests, with words that reveal the answers we already know. We pray to God as healer when we need to be healed. We pray to the God who brings peace into chaos when the world seems to be spiraling out of control, and we name Him as the possessor of these attributes as we pray that we would see answers.
The way we say something is as important as why we’re saying it. Not because God is a combination lock waiting to hear the right things from us before He’s willing to do anything. But because God, in His infinite wisdom, has connected the ideas of faith and belief to the way that He chooses to act and intervene in the world. As difficult as it is to explain, God wants us to be a part of what He is doing on earth, and when we ask Him to work in our lives and resolve the orderless bent of the world, we are far more confident to step into those places of need when we have declared that He is already the answer to every question and the fulfiller of every need.