An interesting and wonderful thing about art and worship and soul-searching and most every beautiful thing we do is that it often starts (and almost just as often ends) with a question—an earnest and thoughtful one, maybe two or three if the situation calls for it. Interestingly enough, the first question mark that shows up in the Bible happens in Genesis 3:1, when Satan, the serpent, says to Eve: "Yea, hath God said, Ye shall not eat of every tree of the garden?" It's tempting (pun not intended, but duly acknowledged) to see that first question as being a sign of Satan's devilish serpentine behavior. There are a goodly number of folks in this world who really do think that asking questions is a dangerous business, and perhaps for good reason because it is indeed a powerful thing, this question-asking. What's interesting to note about Satan's first question, though, is that it presumes—and perhaps even insists on—its own answer.
Moving forward in the Genesis account, it isn't long before God enters the picture with a question of His own, for Adam: "Where art thou?" (Genesis 3:9).
Where art thou? What a powerful question. And a somewhat curious one, if you think about it. After all, God is omniscient, so there is no practical or ordinary purpose in inquiring as to His son's whereabouts. But of course, the Lord's purposes are anything but ordinary; He is ever in the business of the extraordinary. So why this question when He very well knew where Adam was?
I don't purport to know the mysteries of God, but one explanation that resonates with me is the idea that the Lord is ever entreating us. One of my favorite scriptures of late is found in Doctrine & Covenants 112: 13, "[B]ehold, I, the Lord, will feel after them." God was not unsure about where Adam was, but maybe Adam was. Having sinned and hidden himself from the Lord (both literally among the trees and metaphorically behind branches of shame), Adam was asked to make an accounting. My sense of this is that the Lord did not seek him out solely to punish him but also because it matters to Him where we are, especially in relation to Him. Another of my favorite questions from the Father—and a related one—comes in the next chapter, when He asks Cain, "Where is Abel thy brother?" (Genesis 4:9). God is invested in whether or not we are watching out after one another, as brothers and sisters in this whole post-Eden experience of ours.
So there we have Satan's first question to womankind and God's first question to mankind. What of the first question asked by a human? Those of you familiar with the Bible are already smiling and/or weeping because you know what is about to come next; it's the story that perhaps defines the human struggle of negotiating that which is Other, of coexisting on this earth we inherited: "Am I my brother's keeper?" (Genesis 4:9). I think God's previous questions to us are sufficient evidence that the response is an overwhelming yes. And yet we keep asking God this question in our own ways, throughout our human history and our individual lifetimes. We never seem to be quite done asking whether we are our brother's keeper and, perhaps more importantly, what that requires. (Forgiveness? Vulnerability? Love unfeigned?)
The first question posed in the Book of Mormon is likewise about brotherly relationships. Laman and Lemuel are angry with their brother Nephi because all their lives had been endangered in trying to procure the brass plates containing their genealogical record from the wicked King Laban. They basically start beating him up when an angel appears and says, "Why do ye smite your younger brother with a rod?" (1 Nephi 3:29). I'm not sure there is ever going to be a good answer to that question.
For some reason, being reprimanded by an angel isn't quite enough for Laman and Lemuel. They doubt the Lord's power of deliverance just after the angel leaves: "How is it possible that the Lord will deliver Laban into our hands? Behold, he is a mighty man, and he can command fifty, yea, even he can slay fifty; then why not us?" (1 Nephi 3:31). Nephi immediately follows with a question of his own: "Let us be faithful in keeping the commandments of the Lord; for behold he is mightier than all the earth, then why not mightier than Laban and his fifty, yea, or even than his tens of thousands?" (1 Nephi 4:1). In other words, he asks, "[W]herefore can ye doubt?" (1 Nephi 4:3). We learn from this account that there are questions of doubt and questions of faith. I prefer the latter. Wherefore can ye doubt?
We get a similar question from the Lord Himself, the first one recorded in the Doctrine and Covenants. The year was 1829 and Oliver Cowdery, later a scribe for the Book of Mormon and among the first of the restored Church's apostles, had received a confirmation from on high that the Lord intimately knew his heart. Yet, he was facing some additional questions and frustrations. God reminds Oliver of a night of fervent prayer: "Did I not speak peace to your mind concerning the matter? What greater witness can you have than from God?" (D&C 6:23). This is one of my favorite faith-inspiring questions. What greater witness can you have than from God?
However, there are some really sincere and holy questions that come from a place of hurt. Not the least of these is the plea of our Savior on the cross: "Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?" (Matthew 27:46). David had prophesied this question in Psalm 22, and the same line of questioning was later reiterated by Joseph Smith in a beautiful prayer he offered while imprisoned in Liberty Jail: "O God, where art thou? And where is the pavilion that covereth thy hiding place?" (D&C 121:1). I think this creates an interesting parallel with God's asking after Adam in Genesis. There are wonderful scriptural precedents for those times when we feel to ask God why He has forsaken us. His response to Joseph is inspiring: "My son, peace be unto thy soul; thine adversity and thine afflictions shall be but a small moment" (D&C 121:7). I take comfort in a related passage from Isaiah 54:7, "For a small moment have I forsaken thee; but with great mercies will I gather thee." I think the Lord honors our sincere questions, even if they express pain or loneliness. Maybe especially so.
In the face of a really devastating loss some years ago, I had an earnest conversation with one of my professors. "I know everything will be okay in the end," I told him. "But what do I do in the meantime?"
"That's it!" he exclaimed, probably too enthusiastically for my tastes at the time. "You have it figured out! Life is all about what we do in the meantime."
"Wait... but... I don't have an answer."
"You don't need it," he responded. "You have the right question. Now go work on it."
It was right around that time when I offered up one of my most earnest prayers to date. I'm sure I asked God why He'd forsaken me or why I had to undergo such a thing and feel so utterly alone. I'm sure I asked Him what was the purpose, why so much suffering. But maybe the most important thing I asked on my knees was: Do you even love me?
And yes, my child had never sounded so sweet.