Is it ever permissible to question God? Is it wrong for Christians to struggle with doubt? Is there a difference between innocent uncertainty and obstinate unbelief? If so, how do we know when we’ve crossed the line?
The third message in our Malachi series looks at some people who were wrestling with questions about God. Described in Malachi 2:17-18, we find them asking, “Where is the God of justice?” Packed into this short question is the age-old mystery of evil and suffering. If God is truly good and is indeed sovereign over all things, then why do wicked people prosper? Why do innocent people suffer? Why are there earthquakes and starving children in this world?
The Bible is filled with instances of God’s people raising questions similar to these. Many of the psalmists voice deep despair and confusion either at their own personal suffering or at the evil they know to be prevalent in the world. (See for example, Psalm 10:1; 22:1; 42:9; 43:2; 44:23-24; 74:1ff; 80:12; 88:14.) Even the sinless souls of glorified saints in heaven ask “How long?” (Rev. 6:10), and Jesus on the cross cries, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mt. 27:46). None of these complaints elicit God’s rebuke. He is apparently not bothered by the fact that people raise such questions.
Yet the people described in Malachi 2 are sharply rebuked by the Lord for their questioning. “You have wearied the Lord with your words,” says the prophet. Scholar Allen P. Ross writes, “Their endless complaints and charges were tiresome. It is as if God was tired of their words, as if he was fed up with these people, and did not want to hear any more of it.”
Why did God react so differently to the questions of these people than he does to the questions of so many others in the Bible? There are clues in the book of Malachi that point to two reasons why their question received God’s reprimand.
For one thing, their question seems to have been more of an excuse for sinful behavior than a sincere search for truth. We know from Malachi that these people were dishonoring God in their worship (Mal. 1:6-14), straying from God in their doctrine (Mal. 2:8), being unfaithful to their marriage vows (Mal. 2:13-16), and neglecting the needs of the poor (Mal. 3:8-10). Like the modern sceptic who spends his income on fine dining and fancy vacations and yet says he cannot believe in God while children go hungry in the world, their question was merely a smoke-screen designed to cover their own selfishness.
A second reason their questioning was not acceptable to the Lord is that, instead of voicing their question humbly and directly to God in prayer, they seem to have been talking to one another. Instead of praying they were grumbling. Peter Adam writes, “They talked about God, complained about God, but did not tell God what was on their hearts or their complaints against him…. God does not mind when we address our complaints and questions to him, but he is wearied by our complaining about him.” In so doing, the people addressed in Malachi 2 were infecting the covenant community with unbelief, rather than doing the honest work of seeking answers from the Lord. (Asaph, the psalmist, recounts a time when he almost crossed that line in Psalm 73:15).
This passage gives helpful counsel to any of us who may be wrestling with doubts. Doubting in itself is not a sin. Many of the godliest saints in the Bible and deepest thinkers in church history were men and women who struggled with doubts. But we must take care to be honest doubters. If you are struggling with questions about God, you may want to ask yourself two questions: “Am I repenting?” and “Am I praying?” Am I doing all that I can to turn from selfishness and sin, and am I humbly lifting my questions to God? If so, you can be sure that God is not bothered by your questions. Even more, you might even hear him answer.