“Live the Questions,” with Jeff Keuss
Jeff Keuss is a professor of Christian ministry, theology, and culture at Seattle Pacific University, and executive director of Pivot Northwest. In this special episode of Inside Voices, we caught up with Keuss to talk about his new book, Live the Questions.
Amanda Stubbert: Let me start by kind of the obvious question. Between teaching and coaching, you can’t have a lot of free time and you do a lot of writing, so I’m curious why Questions, why this book, why now?
Jeff Keuss: We’re at a moment, I think, in culture where certainty tends to be the most transactional thing people are looking for; just give me the straight answer. Having over two decades in the classroom in higher education, I have a lot of students who just cut to the chase: “What’s going to be on the test? What’s the right answer I need to get to? If you just tell me that, then we can move on.” And that’s where we start moving from education being more transactional, just little boxes that are tight answers to-
Amanda: I want a degree, not an education.
Jeff: Yeah, exactly. As opposed to transformational, which are the things that are going to change you. The more I started to inquire in Scripture as far as how Scripture is actually put together, there’s more space than there is solidity. God keeps opening more and more space to be filled. And so as I started interrogating the questions that Scripture is filled with, I found that that was actually growing students’ faith. So a lot of the chapters in the book come out of the classroom, out of the church, places I’ve taught, sermons I’ve given, and I found more and more as I started asking people the bigger questions, they started following after where God’s going to be.
One of the things I found is that when we get to the point of an answer, the relationship is over. When you have a question, the relationship deepens and it seems to be that’s the trajectory that Scripture has with all of its questions, is it wants to keep you leaning closer and closer to the one who wants to give you a response and not just merely an answer.
“One of the things I found is that when we get to the point of an answer, the relationship is over. When you have a question, the relationship deepens …”
Amanda: I want to go back to what you just said because I find so much truth in that, that an answer can actually end relationship. I feel like we tend to think of having certainty and hard answers are the answer to relationships. Like in a marriage, I love you, I will love you forever, therefore we’re going to be okay for a long time. And yet anyone who’s been married for a while knows we grow and change as people, circumstances around us change. And if we’re not living with some amount of uncertainty and questioning, then all of a sudden we’re so afraid that the answers don’t ring true anymore. So anyway, I just love that idea of that you need to live with the questions to stay in relationship.
Jeff: Yeah. And that’s a great analogy to use. In the middle English, going back to the Elizabethan period, when you’re looking at Shakespeare and other writers of that period, the use of the word, troth, that began to evolve and to be used, which often would use in marriages and relationship, is one of the cognates that became our modern use of truth. So troth and truth are actually interchangeable in the period in the 16th century with the Elizabethan writers, which I think is really appropriate. Because when we talk about asking good questions, it requires me to lean into somebody to help me find what I’m looking for. So it’s a relational bridge. And so good questions create bridge between people and hopefully, bridging into where God is calling this an ultimate meaning.
So it pledges a troth, it’s this huge thing for truth. It’s a binding of relationships, and good questions bind relationship together where certainty cuts those off and says, “Okay, now I’m done. I’ve got it,” right? And so we can walk away. One of the things I love about the questions that Scripture asks is it puts us in a position where we always have to rely on God, plain and simple.
Amanda: Because we don’t have all the answers.
Jeff: Because we don’t have all the answers. The moment we do, then we can walk away and God becomes an option. It becomes a recommended reading as opposed to required reading on the syllabus. And so the questions that people ask in Scripture all the way throughout, they’re constantly leaning deeper and deeper into where God is calling. And God keeps opening the aperture larger and larger to show his light, to provide the Holy Spirit with more space. So that’s what I find very convicting about the questions that we follow in the Scriptures. I mean the big lens that I really hope that people get out of the book, and as I’ve talked about it with students in particular really is this, is that if we allow the questions of our life to be formed by the questions of Scripture, we’ll be pointed toward the questions God wants us to ask, and then we’re more ready to be shaped for what the Holy Spirit has in store for us.
Oftentimes, I think we ask the wrong questions. We ask very simple, very easily answered questions that are based on human-level scale: salary questions, job questions, which are all noble and important. But questions like, “Am I my brother’s keeper? When will this burden be taken from me? How long must I dwell in darkness?” These are actually Scriptural questions, asked directly of God, demanding some kind of response, and God’s response to these questions and many more, opens the hearts and minds of the people who hear them to be filled in such a powerful way, that then they’re ready to move into the world and move in deeper love with each other. So I think it’s a spiritual discipline to ask good questions, not to get good answers.
“Because we don’t have all the answers. The moment we do, then we can walk away and God becomes an option. It becomes a recommended reading as opposed to required reading on the syllabus.”
Amanda: Well, and it feels like humility is a prerequisite if you’re going to live with questioning, right? Whether you’re asking the question or someone’s asking you and trusting you with that question, it demands humility, doesn’t it?
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Oh, absolutely. In the New Testament and the Greek use of where we get the word, humility, in Galatians 5, when he gives all the fruits of the spirit and lists humility as one of those, Purnutos, which literally means “a leaning into.” And I love that use of humility. I mean, to be humble means I’m willing to lean. I’m willing to kind of put my weight on something other than myself and I think that’s absolutely true. I mean, to ask a question does admit, I don’t have it all and I’m also ready to receive. I mean, it’s one of the things I love about Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount is when Jesus lists all of these people of blessing, Mercarious, blessed are those who are meek, blessed are those who are weeping. Now, blessed are the peacemakers.
This listing of all the Mercarious, all the blessed people, they are all empty in some way and they’re ready to be filled. And that’s what makes them blessed is because they actually have space for God. Right? And that’s the glorious thing about questions: they admit that, okay, now I’m ready and I now have space. Right? God wants that from us, you know, wants to fill us, wants to find space within us to dwell and closing off uncertainty blocks the capacity for us to find what God has in store. So I think following those questions is wanting me to get there.
Amanda: Yeah. I’m going to read a sentence from your introduction, which talks a little bit about your own life and what led you to this. So you’re talking about when you first were really searching out God as a teenager and you said, “I wanted to get the answers about God more than I wanted a living, breathing relationship with Jesus.” And that so rang true with me because not only was that me, I think as a teenager, but at different times in our lives, we’re kind of full and so we stop asking the questions, right? Just give me the answer. That’s all I want.
Jeff: Yeah. I think in our accelerated culture too, we worry that if I stop, what’s going to happen after all the acceleration? I’ve been kind of pushing and going and rushing because in order to ask questions, you also have to stop, look, and listen. You have to be willing to wait. And I think that’s the part, too, that makes people really nervous: We work so hard trying to construct this thing called a self in our world and individualism is so problematic as far as when you try to read Scripture, as seeing yourself as an individual because there are no individuals as far as the Bible sees us. We’re seen as persons, which are different than individuals. Individuals are this post-enlightenment thing that supposedly can exist without anything else in the room. Right? And that’s foreign to the way that we were created and formed to the way the Bible speaks about who we are.
Persons necessitate relationships. I have a name. My name is given to me by my parents. I may struggle with my family and relationships, but it’s a reality. I’m surrounded by a cloud of witnesses, of friends and past and future people. I mean, every room I walk into comes with this cluttered tribe, squad of people, that are in my head all the time. Sometimes it’s I’m dealing with shame issues around that. Sometimes I’m listening to, “Attaboy, hey, you can do this,” right? But this is the people we walk with every day and as persons we’re always embedded in people, right? The lowest common denominator of a human in the Old Testament is the Kahall in Hebrew, which is the congregation. If you leave that congregation or that tribe or those people, you cease to kind of be a person, and this is when people start wandering into wilderness and becoming these things that are other than human, right?
“We’re seen as persons, which are different than individuals. Individuals are this post-enlightenment thing that supposedly can exist without anything else in the room. Right? And that’s foreign to the way that we were created and formed to the way the Bible speaks about who we are.”
They become these beasts unto themselves and they forget their own identity. This is what makes Job such a compelling part of our Old Testament, is that even in Job’s loss and his pain and his sickness and all the things are stripped from him, he still is under the unbelievable burden, he’s in relationship with God. But he’s never an individual in the wilderness. In chapter 23 of Job, which I talk about in the book, he’s always aware that God is there, right? And so we don’t even lose our personhood in suffering when we acknowledge that, too. So I think that’s a really important part, too, is that it keeps us in relationship in those deep and abiding ways.
Amanda: Well, and let’s bring it back to the questioning that sometimes we feel like when we’re in a bad place and we’re questioning, that to get out of that place is to get the answer, right?
Amanda: When we stop questioning, then we’ll feel better, when that really isn’t true at all. It’s learning to live with the question and not having all the answers that’s going to bring us through that. I’ll again quote from the book. There’s a little chapter heading here. “Fear is fed by worshiping the wrong things in life,” and I think I stopped and read that like three or four times. Fear is fed by worshiping the wrong things in life, and isn’t that true? When we’re seeking the wrong things, we’re constantly in fear because we’re not arriving at that place where God wants us to be.
Jeff: Yeah, I mean in the New Testament, the word fear is phobia, which many people are familiar with. It’s a certain part of ourselves that is an estrangement from the truth is what phobia actually is. This estrangement from what’s actually true amplifies the thing in the room and makes this phantom much bigger and certainly much more dangerous than it’s supposed to be right now. There are real fears in the world and actually, that’s why Scripture tries to separate between what are called holy fears and these false fears. There are holy fears. I mean, there are things that are real that you need to be very attentive to because it drives you into God’s capacity to care. That’s a holy fear. An irrational fear draws us into our own shame, our own darkness, our own sense of self-sufficiency, our own scarcities, you know, that I need to hoard this thing because somebody’s going to take it from me.
This is the Gollum complex: My precious, you want to hold it close to you. One of the ways that we get that is a sense of idolatry. We worship the wrong things. One of my colleagues, Stephen Fowl, who teaches at Loyola Marymount, and he was with us as a scholar in residence here at SPU a couple of years back, just completed a new book on idolatry that he worked on while he was with us as a faculty. Stephen’s premise is that basically the entirety of the New Testament can be summed up in this: Do you worship the right God? It’s kind of a really basic question, which is the question I start off with in the book, which is Genesis 3:9: Where are you? You know, God wanting to know, do you understand where you are in relationship to me, to others, and to creation? And it’s a question of idolatry. If we don’t worship the true God, we’re going to create idols. And sometimes those idols are our fears. We’ll spend a lot of time in our life trying to deal with those in often painful ways.
Amanda: And which, of course, then comes out in all of our relationships because we’re asking the wrong questions and we’re coming up with the wrong answers. Can I ask you, maybe this is too personal a question, but for someone who’s obviously spent quite a bit of time living with this idea of questions, what do you find is the question that you’re dwelling in? What question sits with you on a day-to-day basis?
Jeff: Yeah, I started the book, and the first question that God asks the man and the woman in the garden, which is the one I just quoted, which is in Hebrew, Heneenee, which is, where are you, still haunts me. So I’ll talk about that first and then I’ll talk about the one that Jesus asked that haunts me as well. But in the garden, the man and the woman become separate from God. They turned their backs on God’s wisdom and they listened to the serpent and they trusted their own understanding. And as a result of that, they hide in the trees. They separate themselves from the ground, they scramble up these trees, they clothe themselves with these leaves to separate themselves from each other. And then they close their ears to God’s wisdom. So these three levels of brokenness, between each other, between them and God, and then the earth itself, they separate themselves from creation.
Then God shows up. And then it’s the first audible question in our canon of Scripture: Where are you? And for my money, that is the question that all the rest of Scripture is trying to deal with. It’s like, why have we wandered away? You know? And God is literally playing this sense of just yelling, you know, “Come out, come out, wherever you are. You know, why are you still hiding? You don’t need to anymore.” It’s this echo shot down the canyon of time that God keeps saying, “Where are you? Where are you? Where are you?” So I think that’s one that certainly, for me, has caused me a lot of theological wrestling points.
“It’s this echo shot down the canyon of time that God keeps saying, ‘Where are you? Where are you? Where are you?'”
It’s a spiritual discipline of mine to listen to that question when I’m getting far away from God, when I’m hiding in shame or I’m running to God to kind of get my sense of my ego built up. That reminds me to, hey, what are those games you’re trying to play right now? You know, do you see God in the midst of all this static you’re creating? But the question that Jesus asks in the New Testament that’s been haunting me recently is, “Do you want to be well?” I love that question and it cuts me to my core because it makes me realize how often I hold onto my own problems. Maybe I don’t want to be well. Maybe I like being sick. Maybe I like this thing that I’ve become. I’m reminded of Eustace Scrubb in the Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis’, one of his Chronicles of Narnia books.
In that book, Eustace Scrubb finds this gold band on a dragon hoard of gold and he puts it on and he wakes up one morning and becomes a dragon himself. The thing about the book that I love in this scene is that Eustace becomes useful when he becomes a dragon. He can carry big boxes, he can fly around, he can do all these things and people start applauding him. Before, they had kind of dismissed him. But now that he’s become this thing of power, people applaud him and use him. It’s not until much later that we have this very famous scene for people who love this book about how he becomes freed by Aslan.
But that idea of becoming the dragon and holding onto that, I think of that myself. I think about how many times I hear Jesus’ question: “Do you actually want to be well, Jeff? Do you want to be healed of this fear you have of your need for this and that, of being separate from people …” What would it like to be well, and how scary it is to hear that question and realize everything that comes with it. So those are the two questions for me, I think.
Amanda: Yeah, I would agree with that. I think even also in the book, you define words sometimes because we use a lot of these words. Then when we’re in relationship with people, we’re using the same word but with very different meaning. So the difference between a belief and an opinion, because we all have opinions, but unless we’re walking it out and living it every day, it isn’t really a belief to our core. And don’t we all ask ourselves that all the time? This is what I want to do. I want to write a book, I want to accomplish X marks the spot, right?
Jeff: Mm-hmm (affirmative).
Amanda: But if we’re not doing it, there’s a reason. There’s a reason why.
Jeff: Yeah. I think also that point, too, is about belief is that step stepping out into a commitment to the questions that we ask and then acting and leaning into where it’s going to take us. This is what belief actually is, right? This is what faith is and the word in Greek, Pistus, is where we get the word epistemology and philosophy. It’s the ground that which everything is based upon. That’s what faith is. It’s something that actually firm. It’s not ephemeral. It’s something that, everything builds on this. And oftentimes, we think that the things that we’re kind of spending a lot of time arguing about are these hard core beliefs that we’re building a foundation on. Like for example, I mean, whether you’re somebody who believes in flat earth or round earth, that’s a really interesting position to be in.
I love those conversations, but at the end of the day, for me, it’s not costing me anything whether the earth is round or flat because I’m not an airline pilot. I’m not a ship captain. My commute is not going to be changed that much by the earth being round or flat. So even though that’s a great intellectual exercise, it’s not costing my family anything to throw myself into that argument. So why am I spending that much time on this argument? Now, I’ll let scientists deal with that one. I’ll let some people really passionate deal with it. But what is the question of belief that is really where I’m landing?
Oftentimes, it’s the question that Scripture asks: “Do you love your neighbor or not?” And how do I know it? Are you actually showing your true face to the people you’ve committed to or is it a persona? Is it a false face to one another? Are you admitting there’s darkness in your heart? I mean, these are real questions. And again, not to espurge any of the flat earth people or round earth people because these are beautiful people, but in my world, the question of darkness in my heart is where I’ve got to start first before I get to the curvature of the planet.
Amanda: And being willing to sit with others in this polarized society …
Amanda: Being able to sit in relationship, even though we may have different opinions and I think sometimes there again, with the fear and the worshiping the wrong things, sometimes I feel like we can worship the answers. If we can’t sit and discuss something, even though I’m pretty darn sure you’re not going to change my opinion, if we can’t sit and civilly have a discussion about it humbly, then what are we afraid of?
Jeff: Yeah. Yeah. It’s a great way to put it. I think so many of the questions that I found in Scripture and the personalities that are asking, that one of the universal themes of the people that populate Scripture, who ask questions of God, they’re really trying to ask this question: “What’s worth loving?” I think that’s a beautiful place to start, particularly when people are politically polarized, when they’re theologically polarized, is let’s begin together by saying, “What is love for us right now? What does it look like to love one another and what are we pointing toward in love and we’re getting that.”
And not to oversimplify it, not to kind of, you know, do flower power. Even though I love the ’60s flower power movement, to ask what is worth loving is a good place to start. Even though you and I may disagree on where we’re standing on a political issue, because we’re both loving something. If we can get to what is that that we’re trying to guard? What is it we’re holding onto so tightly? What is it that I want to hold closer to my chest and make sure that doesn’t get lost in this discussion? If I can name that with you, it may be very close to what I’m holding to my chest as well and maybe our common humanity can find each other. And I think God wants to find that space for us, so we can release the grip on these things we hold so preciously and let God hold those things.
“Maybe God cares in ways that we don’t understand yet. That helps to break down some of the divisions.”
And we can see afar that maybe God cares in ways that we don’t understand yet. That helps to break down some of the divisions. I’ve seen this on issues, on so many different polarizing issues, as I’ve worked as a consultant with various churches who are divided by getting to ask better questions of one another. They can find common ground as opposed to fighting for their platform.
Amanda: Because usually, that fight really is fueled by fear versus the love, because most likely, we all want the same thing. We want more people to have a better chance in this world. And if we all come from that place, then we can disagree about the details, but at least we’re coming from the same place with the same goals instead of being fueled by that fear of, if they win, then I lose.
Jeff: Right. Yeah, exactly.
Amanda: Yeah. Well Jeff, it’s been fabulous having you here with us today. I like to end every single episode with the same question, and I’m very interested in your answer. If everyone in Seattle woke up tomorrow and did one thing differently that was going to make this place a better place, what would you have everybody do differently tomorrow?
Jeff: I would have every person find five people in their day before they go to bed and face them and say, “You are a unique, unrepeatable miracle of God.” If they could do that to five people across this city, I think the next day when everybody woke up, it would be a little bit brighter.
Amanda: Well, thank you, Jeff. I love that and I’m going to start doing that myself and I’m going to end with one quote here from the conclusion of your book, and it’s the definition of the word risk: “A believer’s hunger for meaning is stronger than the fear of being wrong,” and I’m going to put that up in my office. I’m going to try and live by it. So thanks for being with us here today.
Jeff: Yeah. Thanks, Amanda.