The Power of Why

Sometime last year, Judah began asking a very basic but world-creating question: “What’s that?”  He would encounter some unknown object and would simultaneously point at it and look up at me with a look of hopeful curiosity: “Wuh-tat, Daddy?”  I would turn toward the object and kneel down next to him while gathering my thoughts.  I’d look at the object of his curiosity and then look at him and begin explaining its name along with its meaning or its function.  The response was simple acceptance virtually every time: “Oh.”

I couldn’t help but recognize that every occasion of this question was the opportunity of a lifetime.  I was identifying life, defining reality, putting in place bits and pieces of a worldview.  With a sentence or two I could transform bland unknowns — mere things — into precise, nuanced, flavored realities with meaning and function and purpose.  In a very real sense, I was creating and constructing life for my son.  And every time, he believed me.

Several months later, Judah began asking a far deeper question.  He started asking the question “Why?”  Sometimes it was a grand “Why?”  Sometimes it was a simple “Why?”  Sometimes it was a stalling “Why?”  But to me, it was always a question that was worth answering.  It still is.

To this day it startles and saddens me to hear so many talk about this foundational question — why — as an annoyance.  It’s a parental nuisance to stiffarm, a verbal arrow to be deflected.  At worst, we dismiss it as an irritant.  At best, we hopscotch through it as quickly as possible.  It’s not worth our time, much less our mental energy.  Not in the rush of life, not when we have more important things to do and think about.  We’re watching TV or doing the laundry or putting away groceries, or we’re tired from a long day at work or have homework to do or just want to eat a peaceful meal — this is no time to be answering life’s most fundamental questions, at least not in any detail.

Yes, children often use the why question to stall, and they become masters at masked delays and disguised rebellion.  Yet even here there is often a hint of sincerity: they want to know the motivation behind the command, the indicative underlying the imperative, a good reason for their obedience.  Therefore, even here an answer can be instructive.  “Because I said so” teaches them explicit authority, though when used too often this backfires and implicitly teaches our children that might makes right and that perhaps there are no good or thought-out reasons for our injunctions.  “I want you to trust me” teaches that hard things can come from good authorities and that sometimes we must base our attitudes and our actions on the proven character of the one above us and not on his explicit and detailed reasonings.  Then there are the fuller explanations that build up a sense of reasoned trust, so that they understand God’s values and the world’s workings and the reapings and sowings of everyday choices.  This last option is best, in my opinion, almost without exception.

Even so, the dismissal option is always the easiest.  Sidestepping and brushing off the question with minimalistic answers is simply the most pain-free route.

With this mindset, not only do we stop answering the question; we even stop asking it.

Yet what question holds more significance?  What question has more power to shape our worldview?  And how many more opportunities will I have to answer this question, asked by a sincerely curious and accepting mind?

College students don’t ask me “Why?” anymore, and when they do, it’s rarely about something significant.  Yes, they ask why we have certain school policies, but in seven years of full-time Christian ministry at a Christian college, I have never once had a student ask me why God created the universe, why human beings exist, or why he should study the Bible.  I can’t remember a student ever explicitly asking me why he should consider going to the mission field, or why she should stay in the States.  I’ve never had a student ask me why God gave us the Bible, or why I love the Bible, or why we ought to read the Bible.  Oh, I’ve had conversations about all of these topics,  sometimes very deep and meaningful conversations.  But they never start with and rarely include the explicit question, “Why?”

Why is this?

I think there are several reasons, often intertwined.  Many of us assume that we already know the answers to the most basic why questions, so there is no need to ask.  We forget that even if we know some of the answers, there is always more depth and breadth, more angles from which to answer the question, more insights to be gained from others’ experience, more riches in God’s Word.  Others simply don’t care to hear someone else’s answer; we’re fueled by the prideful presumption that no one else has anything to add to what we already (think we) know.  Some don’t know the answer (nor the significance of the question) and don’t know that they don’t know.  Still others don’t care to know the answer(s).  Perhaps there are many, whether consciously or unconsciously, who consider asking and answering such questions to be toilsome and laborious, mental hard work reserved for the few who pride themselves in being deep thinkers.  Then perhaps there are some who think often about these questions, but don’t find many friends who express enough depth of thought to be worth the discussion.  These, and other reasons, no doubt contribute to the slow disappearance of the question why throughout life.

But the funny thing is that we still ask this question all the time, whether in our minds or out loud.  Unfortunately, this is typically relegated to trivials and trials.  “Why are you in the fast lane?” we murmur at the slow-moving vehicle in front of us.  “Why do you always do that?” we exaggerate to our closest companions when they annoy us.  “Why is God allowing the people I love the most to suffer?” we ask in the midst of family hardship.  We start to only ask why out of frustration, and never out of wonder.

So we relegate why to children and sufferers and skeptics.  Children ask out of genuine curiosity.  Sufferers ask out of pained confusion.  Skeptics ask out of veiled defiance.

My simple plea is this:  Reclaim why.  Ask it more often, with humble sincerity.  Ask it less often with skeptical, suspicious, cornering rhetoric.  Ask it about small rules and frustrating policies, sure, but ask it more often about the great realities of life and the most foundational aspects of truth and the hardest questions of the ages.  Ask it of your professors and your pastors and your parents.  Ask those with grey hair, those with manifest wisdom, those with cultural perspective, those with life experience, those with proven expertise.  Ask those who have made great sacrifices for great causes and have the scars and the reputations to prove it, not those who have a t-shirt, a blog, and a daily rant.  Ask it about everything in life.  Ask it when you’re a sufferer, yes, and ask it when you’re a skeptic, too, but ask it most of all because you are (still) a child wanting to think rightly and live fully under the clear direction and providential care of your heavenly Father.

Your answers to the why questions will change your life.  This is the power of why.

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