“We thought that we had the answers.
It was the questions we had wrong.”
-U2, 11 O’Clock Tick Tock
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about the dilemmas God must encounter on an almost daily basis when His children ask Him questions that are based on a host of false assumptions and man-made concepts. I’m sure God wants to answer everyone’s prayers, but what’s a good Father to do when He’s constantly being asked the wrong questions?
The questions we ask God are necessarily based on our own perceptions and understandings of the world around us. Of course, being that our perceptions and understandings are hopelessly limited and therefore hopelessly flawed, we inevitably formulate questions that, from the perspective of an omnipresent and omniscient God, range from childish to foolish to utterly nonsensical.
To illustrate my point, let’s use a hypothetical example. Imagine that Sam lives in what is now Kazakhstan in the year 600 B.C. His whole life, Sam has been taught by everyone that Zorg is the true Grand Mufti of Korm, the one legitimate heir to that highest of spiritual offices first held by Zorma the Blessed (blessed be his name), and is therefore the only genuine possessor of the Oracle of Yurt, which, as everyone knows, gives its possessor alone the power to discern God’s will for all mankind. (The one catch is that the Oracle of Yurt is not a physical object that the purported Grand Mufti can just show the world to prove his claim; the Oracle is supposedly an unseen spiritual device whose true possessor can be discerned only by the pure in heart through prayer.)
So far the hypothetical sounds ridiculous, I know, but that’s exactly the point. Imagine a scenario where someone’s entire perception and understanding of reality is based on concepts, doctrines, ideas, terms, phrases, and titles that seem completely normal to him because they’ve been taught to him his entire life but that, from God’s perspective, are just way out in left field.
Now imagine one day our friend Sam decides to gain a testimony for himself about whether Zorg is indeed the true Grand Mufti of Korm. So Sam fasts for a week, gives all his surplus to the poor, ritually shaves and washes himself, and climbs to the top of Mount Zuru to pray. As he kneels on a ritual bed of obsidian shards, he utters the following prayer from the depths of his soul: “Dear God, please tell me whether Zorg is indeed the true Grand Mufti of Korm, the one legitimate heir of Zorma the Blessed, the only genuine possessor of the sacred Oracle of Yurt.”
Before discussing God’s possible answers to Sam’s prayers, let’s first consider what God actually hears when Sam utters his prayer. It would seem that Sam, like us, has actually offered two prayers: (1) the spoken prayer that was based on erroneous man-made concepts; and (2) the unspoken prayer in Sam’s heart, i.e., for God to show him how to live a good and happy life, and to “do the right thing.” It was those sincere, well-motivated unspoken desires of Sam’s heart that caused him to climb the mountain to pray. But when he knelt down and opened his mouth to pray, those unspoken desires were filtered through the lens of Sam’s time, place, and culture, and in that process, Sam’s pure unspoken desires were translated into the erroneous man-made language and concepts he’d been taught to use his entire life, resulting in a sincere but utterly misguided spoken prayer.
Now let’s evaluate God’s options for answering Sam’s sincere but misguided prayer. But first, a caveat. I realize there are is a wide range of possible nuanced answers that God could give Sam. But for the sake of time and space, I think it’s fair to say that all the possible responses could be summarized as either leading Sam toward or away from Zorg, the purported Grand Mufti. For the sake of simplicity, I’ll refer to the former as a “Yes” answer and the latter as a “No” answer.
1. The “No” answer. Since there is no such thing as a true Grand Mufti of Korm, etc., etc., God would be perfectly justified in giving a simple, direct “No” answer in response to Sam’s sincere but misguided spoken prayer. The upside to this approach is that it’s the most honest and truthful. But there could be significant downsides to revealing the “truth” about the Grand Mufti to Sam. What if God knows that leading Sam away from the Grand Mufti would cause him to pursue a lifestyle that will ultimately bring great sadness to Sam, his family, and his friends? What if there are no other belief systems/religions/churches that can lead Sam to a better life? What if God knows that Sam’s rejection of the Grand Mufti could lead to his being shunned by his community, or imprisoned, or even killed? In short, giving a direct, honest “No” answer to Sam’s sincere but misguided spoken question may actually lead Sam farther away from what God knows to be the righteous unspoken prayer in Sam’s heart (i.e., to live a good life and be happy).
2. The “Yes” answer. God can choose to look past the erroneous assumptions in Sam’s spoken question and focus instead on the unspoken prayer in Sam’s heart, i.e., for God to show him the path toward a good and happy life. Assuming the Grand Mufti is a pretty good guy who dispenses a lot of pearls of wisdom, and there are no superior belief systems available to Sam, then giving Sam a “Yes” answer will point him to the path that is most likely to fulfill the righteous unspoken desires of his heart. The upside to this approach is that it seems more loving and merciful. I know I’d rather have God give me what I meant to ask for rather than responding to what I literally asked him. I don’t like the idea of a God who would lead me away from a path that he knows will fulfill the unspoken righteous desires of my heart because of technical errors in my spoken questions. But the downside is that a “Yes” answer will likely validate and reinforce erroneous, man-made concepts in Sam’s mind (i.e., it will cause him to believe there is actually such a thing as a true Grand Mufti, an Oracle of Yurt, etc.). In that respect, a “Yes” answer, although compassionate and merciful in a certain sense, could also be considered deceptive and misleading.
To be clear, my purpose here is simply to illustrate how our flawed conceptions of reality may cause us to formulate flawed questions in our spoken prayers, which may present God with the dilemma of either (1) giving us technically “misleading” answers to our spoken prayers that paradoxically lead us closer to the unspoken prayers in our hearts, or (2) giving us “honest” answers to our spoken prayers that paradoxically may actually lead us away from the unspoken prayers in our hearts.
One final thought: substitute the words “Zorg” and “Grand Mufti of Korm” and “Zorma the Blessed” and the “Oracle of Yurt” with the names and official titles of the leaders, both past and present, of the various religions and churches in the world, along with their claims to authority. Might this dilemma help explain why the devout adherents to all the world’s different faiths all feel so strongly that God has confirmed their beliefs?