Have you ever felt like that? Have you ever wondered if God—or someone—is really out there, if there are reasons for anything that happens, if God really knows your name?
One of the greatest challenges to believing in God in modern times is the Holocaust. If there’s a God and if that God is good, how in the world could something like the Holocaust happen? Six million people murdered, most of them Jews…1.5 million of them children. How can something like that happen in a world in which a loving God exists?
Among the most articulate witnesses to the Holocaust is Elie Wiesel. Raised in a locale that was sometimes called Romania, sometimes Hungary, teenager Elie and his family were taken to Auschwitz in May of 1944.
As soon as they disembarked from the train at Auschwitz, Elie’s mother and little sister were marched away with the women. It was the last time he ever saw them. Elie and his father followed the men to a work camp, where they remained for 11 months. Just before liberation, many of the prisoners from Auschwitz were taken to Birkenau. Elie’s father died only days before the camp was liberated by US troops.
Elie recounts his experiences at Auschwitz in the autobiographical novel, Night. It’s a hard book to read—so much evil. So little concern for human life. Such unrelenting cruelty. You read Night and think, There’s no way this actually could have happened. People simply aren’t capable of sustaining the kind of cruelty it would take to kill so many millions of people.
And yet, it did happen. The Holocaust happened. People were killed—by the millions. And much of the world did nothing.
Not surprisingly, many people who experienced the Holocaust came out the other side of it atheists. Elie Wiesel did not.
Fellow Auschwitz survivor, Primo Levi, later questioned Elie about his continued belief in God. Elie writes: Primo “refused to understand how I, his former companion of Auschwitz, could still call himself a believer, for he, Primo, was not and didn’t want to be. He had seen too much suffering not to reel against any religion that sought to impose a meaning upon it. I understood him, and asked him to understand me, for I had seen too much suffering to break with the past and reject the heritage of those who had suffered.
“We spent many hours arguing, with little result. We were equally unwavering, for we came from different milieus, and even in Auschwitz led different lives. He was a chemist; I was nothing at all. The system needed him, but not me. He had influential friends to help and protect him; I had only my father. I needed God, Primo did not.” (Memoirs, 82-3)
Which explains how a person in Auschwitz could believe…but once he was out of Auschwitz, what made it possible for Elie to keep believing?
The thing Elie did—and still does—that keeps his faith alive is this: He questions God. He rages at God. He calls God to account for what transpired in Europe in the 1930s and 40s. Elie’s approach is not original. When the circumstances of their lives don’t coincide with God’s promises, people of faith—from the beginning–have questioned God….people like our biblical ancestor Abram.
Here’s the story thus far…Abram is getting on in years. He and his wife, Sarai, have just bought into a retirement tent community in their hometown of Ur. They haven’t had any children, but other than that, they’ve done okay.
Then, boom. God says to pick up and go “to a land I will show you.” Kind of hard to plug that into the GPS…nonetheless, Abram does “go.” He goes west to the Negev then south to Egypt…and in the process, becomes a wealthy man.
After all that, God comes again, says that the divine presence will be with Abram, that his reward will be great. This is the second time God has talked about a “great reward,” which in that culture meant one thing: descendants. Have I mentioned that Abram—and more to the point—Sarai—were old? They were old. And God was promising descendants.
To this point, Abram has been following God, no questions asked. But with this second iteration of the promise, Abram starts questioning. After all, neither he—nor Sarai–is getting any younger. “How can I have a great reward when I have no descendants?” he asks. God says the heir will have Abram’s DNA. Then God takes Abram outside and invites him to count the stars. “THAT’s how many descendants you’re going to have,” God says. That last bit must have done the trick, because we’re told that Abram believed. God promises descendants and Abram trusts God to provide them. Excellent. Moving right along…
Next, God says: “I am the Lord who brought you from Ur, to give you this land to possess.” Another divine promise, this time of land… but that’s okay. I mean, Abram trusts God now, right? Let’s hear his trusting response: “How am I to know that I shall possess it?” Oh. Well, he did trust God… at least he did a minute ago. Now? Abram asks another question.
Abram has lots of questions, doesn’t he? Even after he’s been following God for a long time. Even after years of asking no questions at all. Even after he comes to trust in God. Even after all that, even from a place of profound faith, still, Abram questions God.
What do Abram’s questions get him? This might disappoint you, but what they don’t get him is answers. He asks how he’s going to get descendants when he’s so old. God tells him he’ll have his own biological heir, but doesn’t give any hints as to how it will happen.
Then Abram asks how he can know he’s going to possess the land God says will be his. This time, God responds by inviting Abram to participate in an elaborate ritual. The ritual in no way shows Abram how the land will be obtained. No maps or battle plans or to-do lists emerge from the ashes of the offerings.
What the ritual does do, though, is it promises Abram God’s presence. The scene enacted in Genesis 15 is an ancient version of a contract. By enacting the ritual, both parties agree to stay in relationship with each other. By participating in it, God is saying, I will continue to be with you. I will do what I have promised.
And what elicits this gift of divine presence? Abram’s questions. It’s only when Abram questions God that God proposes the covenant ritual. It’s only when Abram questions God that the promise of presence is formalized. You see? It’s Abram’s questions that keep him connected to God. It’s Abram’s questions that keep his faith alive.
That might sound strange to those of us who grew up in faith communities where questioning our faith was a sure sign that we didn’t have any. If this story of Abram is to be believed, though, questions don’t preclude faith, but are central to it. A strong faith is a questioning faith. Asking questions of God can be the very thing that keeps us connected to God.
That’s what Elie Wiesel has learned. “I have never renounced my faith in God,” he writes. “I have risen against His justice, protested His silence and sometimes His absence, but my anger rises up within faith and not outside it.” (84) It is because he questions, that Elie is still able to believe.
Last week, we began the self-reflective work of Lent by learning what we could from living in the wilderness. We talked about how when we find ourselves in a place of barrenness, a place of trials, a place—quite frankly—we’d never choose to be…when we find ourselves in the wilderness, we can learn a lot by questioning ourselves in that barren, trial-ridden place. It’s in questioning ourselves that we learn just who we are and what we’re made of.
This week, we’re learning that in addition to questioning ourselves, a key piece of the spiritual journey is questioning God. When we question God, it means we take God’s promises seriously, it means we take faith seriously, it means we take ourselves seriously.
Do you have questions for God? Have you been afraid to ask them? The good news today is that your questions don’t indicate a lack of faith, but rather are evidence of strong faith. God honors your questions! God wants to hear them! And God promises to be present with you as you wrestle with them. So, what’s keeping you? Ask away! It might just be the most faithful thing you ever do.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.
Kimberleigh Buchanan © 2013
To learn more about Elie Wiesel, visit this link: http://www.eliewieselfoundation.org/eliewiesel.aspx
Genesis 15:1-11, 17-21
<!– 15 –>
God’s Covenant with Abram
15After these things the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision, ‘Do not be afraid, Abram, I am your shield; your reward shall be very great.’2But Abram said, ‘O Lord God, what will you give me, for I continue childless, and the heir of my house is Eliezer of Damascus?’*3And Abram said, ‘You have given me no offspring, and so a slave born in my house is to be my heir.’4But the word of the Lord came to him, ‘This man shall not be your heir; no one but your very own issue shall be your heir.’5He brought him outside and said, ‘Look towards heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.’ Then he said to him, ‘So shall your descendants be.’6And he believed the Lord; and the Lord * reckoned it to him as righteousness.
7 Then he said to him, ‘I am the Lord who brought you from Ur of the Chaldeans, to give you this land to possess.’8But he said, ‘O Lord God, how am I to know that I shall possess it?’9He said to him, ‘Bring me a heifer three years old, a female goat three years old, a ram three years old, a turtle-dove, and a young pigeon.’10He brought him all these and cut them in two, laying each half over against the other; but he did not cut the birds in two.11And when birds of prey came down on the carcasses, Abram drove them away.
17 When the sun had gone down and it was dark, a smoking fire-pot and a flaming torch passed between these pieces.18On that day the Lord made a covenant with Abram, saying, ‘To your descendants I give this land, from the river of Egypt to the great river, the river Euphrates,19the land of the Kenites, the Kenizzites, the Kadmonites,20the Hittites, the Perizzites, the Rephaim,21the Amorites, the Canaanites, the Girgashites, and the Jebusites.’