One thing I often notice as I study scripture is how God responds in very different ways to people who seem to be in similar situations.
Luke opens with one of these juxtapositions. In the very beginning of the book, the angel Gabriel delivers two messages, one to Zechariah, and one to Mary. He tells both of them to expect a baby who will come through extraordinary means and have an extraordinary mission.
After the angel delivers his first message, this exchange happens between Zechariah and Gabriel:
“How can I be sure of this? I am an old man and my wife is well along in years.” “I am Gabriel. I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to tell you this good news. And now you will be silent and not able to speak until the day this happens, because you did not believe my words, which will come true at their proper time.” ~Luke 1:18-20
In the same chapter, Gabriel appears to Mary. He begins by greeting her, telling her she is highly favored and the Lord is with her. This is a beautiful message, but “Mary was greatly troubled at his words.” She was afraid, just as Zechariah had been. When the angel finishes telling her what will occur, she says:
“How will this be since I am a virgin?” ~Luke 1:34
But Gabriel does not silence her as he did Zechariah, nor does he admonish her for requesting the particulars. He just answers her question. It seems so strange that he doesn’t chastise Mary as he did Zechariah only a few verses before.
There are many instances of people questioning God throughout scripture, even asking Him for signs. When God told Moses to speak to His people, Moses said, “What if they will not believe me or listen to what I say? For they may say, ‘The Lord has not appeared to you.’” God doesn’t appear angry with Moses for this question, but instead turned his staff into a snake and gave him other signs to show the people. Abraham went back and forth with God about the city of Sodom. Gideon asked for a sign multiple times and was granted it. At other times, God decidedly does not answer questions, but responds with a strong statement about who He is (think Job).
I can only imagine His response has little to do with our words or actions, but rather what is in our hearts. I ask many questions and it’s an important practice for me to determine why. Am I truly trying to understand the character and will of God or do I want additional evidence that I’m “right” about something? Do I long for a deeper faith, relationship, and life or am I seeking knowledge for its own sake?
We can’t be certain what motivated the questions of Zechariah and Mary; perhaps Zechariah asked in a spirit of cynical skepticism and Mary in a bewildered desire to understand. I have done both. Usually, however, my questions draw me closer to Him and give me gentle, hopeful responses for others like myself who wrestle with portions of scripture. I think coming before God with questions is necessary in our faith, but after first examining the motives of our hearts.
“I the LORD search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” ~Jeremiah 17:10