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Bill Gnade on the Questions We Don’t Ask
It’s the sort of thing you learn in first grade: that funny little looping squiggle with a dot; the cobra coming out of the basket; the melting, dripping candy cane. It’s exactly that sort of thing. But it is not generally the sort of thing that changes the lives of grown men.
Yet when I sat at the corner table of Santos-Dumont, a quaint old schoolhouse turned café hidden on the edge of a southern New Hampshire town, I wasn’t thinking about grade school. I was thinking about discipline in the Christian life; whether it was necessary, and whether I had any.
A Sedate Lesson
With me were Darren, a pastor whose ministry reaches from New Hampshire to Florida and beyond to Africa; Richard, an ordained minister holding a doctorate in preaching, whose ministry is similarly broad; and John, a pianist turned house-builder.
The topic was the same this day as it was every Thursday morning, when the four of us, middle-aged men all, would meet for cranberry scones and exotic caffeine. We were reading Devotional Classics, a collection of essays by a curious assemblage of Christian writers. We came together to ruminate on and encourage each other in the largely elusive practices of prayer, meditation, and fasting, and the dreaded (and far more elusive) mortification of the flesh.
On this day, something extraordinary happened. It wasn’t something miraculous; there was no sudden gust of holy wind, with golden tongues of flame dancing about (though there were moments of very hot air). Nobody levitated; nor did the heavens part in epiphanic glory as one of us channeled holy words. What happened was much more sedate: There was a lesson in punctuation. A lesson that, Darren said months later, was one of the most important lessons in his life.
What occurred actually began years earlier when I asked a simple question of myself about prayer. In light of Jesus’ words that we were to ask of him—liberally—for many things, I asked myself if I had ever asked Jesus for anything. Did I really ask?
To my brothers gathered around the table, I bemoaned what I thought was the disrespect—if not the loss—of that least of all biblical characters, not Saint Mark, but the question mark. I denounced the neglect of punctuation in prayer. I shared how I winced at prayers from pulpit and podium that blustered and fussed about asking without, in fact, ever asking.
I chided the Book of Common Prayer (I was the only Episcopalian among Evangelicals) for including not a single petition ending with a question mark. I wondered if anyone ever asked God a question. And I asked my companions if they could recall if they had ever inserted question marks in their communication with God.
“Whatsoever you ask in my name” and “Ask and you shall receive”; these are the words of Christ. But instead of asking, all one hears, from oneself and others, is this prayer, offered in simple or grandiose tones: “Lord, we just ask . . . we just ask that you bless us . . . give us . . . be with us . . . Lord, we just ask, we just ask.” Why then is so much asking bereft of a single question mark?
“Think of it this way,” I urged my friends. “When you ask your wife for help, you don’t say, ‘Honey, I just ask you to come to the basement.’ You don’t say to your children, ‘Kids, I just ask you to clean your rooms.’ And you don’t say to a stranger, ‘I just ask you for directions to the Metro.’ No, you ask, with question marks.”
I then urged my brothers to try adding question marks to their prayers, to actually take time to ask God for something. “Just notice the difference in tone,” I said. “Instead of ‘Lord, I just ask you for help with purchasing a new car,’ try ‘Lord, could you help me purchase a new car?’ Listen to the difference! Notice even the relational difference. Without the question mark it almost sounds insane. Surely it sounds like someone’s at least barking orders.”
But with the question mark, I continued, “you place yourself in a wonderfully honest position, a place of dependence on God. That is the beauty of a question: It implies vulnerability and weakness, need and desire. And that is what God wants us to bring to him, like a father waiting for his son to ask for what he desires, or for help with what he needs.”
At the time, my little foray into punctuation elicited hardly more than a “Hmm. That’s interesting.” But come springtime, Darren shared that the lesson had changed him forever. He added that his parish and other pastors with whom he prayed frequently now took to squirming when he tagged question marks to his prayers. He even reported that a few of his colleagues regarded the practice nearly akin to heresy.
All this raises a few questions. Why should we resist using the question mark with God? Is it that faith is alleged to be bold and macho, that faith is without doubt or weakness? From whence came this idea that faith is commandeering, and not merely meek? Who taught us to speak to God in ways that would embarrass us before friend and family?
In short, what is wrong with asking God a question? Does it not actually imply more faith (if there is such a thing), or a more mature faith, to ask of God with a question mark? To do so at least suggests the possibility of an answer, even a dialogue. But to ask in the popular manner—“Lord, we just ask you to blah, blah, blah”—appears far more damnable and presumptuous, even devoid of faith, than really asking God for something.
It’s my contention that putting question marks in your prayers might make prayer all the more exciting for those wearied by praying. It’s no magic spell cast upon God obligating him to perform, to conform to your wishes. Rather, it is the very mark of intimacy and submission, and it might just change your life. And it fills prayer with something wonderful. It fills it with expectation.
“Ask, and you shall receive.”
Perhaps in the final analysis the reason it is so rare to hear anyone ask God questions, is that he might indeed answer. One wonders what was the Father’s answer when the Son asked, “Father, why hast thou forsaken me?” We do not know, fully. But at least we know that the Savior asked: He used a question mark. And then something happened.
Bill Gnade works as a writer, poet, and photographer in New Hampshire, where he lives with his wife and son. He holds a BA in philosophy and theology from Gordon College.