The question “Why?” is perhaps one of the most insightful questions in the English language. It seeks to penetrate our subconscious and unveil our motives for acting the way we do. It is a word that often demands a response. When someone asks us why we did a certain thing, we feel obliged to explain ourselves; particularly if we are accountable to a person or group of people for our actions. It is a question which encourages self-examination. When we are asked why, we are being asked to search deep within our hearts to discover our intentions and aims; to unearth a root cause.

The word “why” is frequently used by God, the angels, and the Lord Jesus Christ himself, to elicit a response which exposes true feelings and motives. God knows all things. He doesn’t need to ask why individuals behave the way they do. He knows our thoughts afar off and is acquainted with all our ways (Psa 139:2-3). So, when He asks the “why” question it is because He is encouraging mankind to probe their own thoughts and learn about their own motives. In this way He fosters self-scrutiny and self-correction. If the individual can answer honestly then there is room for repentance and forgiveness.

The first “why” questions appear in Genesis when Yahweh said to Cain: “Why art thou wroth? and why is thy countenance fallen?” (Gen 4:6). God clearly knew the cause of Cain’s anger, but this line of questioning was designed to force Cain to face his anger and disappointment and look inwardly. Hence the next few questions in verse 7 were designed to explain to Cain that he needed to evaluate his life, examine the cause of his wrath, and do the right thing to avoid the disastrous consequence of letting that anger boil over further.

The ESV captures the sense of Genesis 4:7 in this way: “If you do well, will you not be accepted? And if you do not do well, sin is crouching at the door. Its desire is for you, but you must rule over it.”

Doing well meant repenting, submitting his will to God’s by offering the right sacrifice, and transforming his hatred of his brother to one of loving fraternity. The alternative was to experience the further force of sin seeking to rule and have dominion. This evil desire to sin was likened to a wild animal seeking to pounce and maul. In 1 John 3:12 it is personified as “the wicked one” or “diabolos” because his thoughts and desires had become hostile to the desires of God. Tragically, Cain refused to examine his life and change, and therefore sin had the mastery.

Another example of the “why” question appears in 2 Chronicles 25:15 when the anger of Yahweh was kindled against king Amaziah: “Why hast thou sought after the gods of the people, which could not deliver their own people out of thine hand?” He had successfully defeated the Edomites and then irrationally took the defeated idols and worshipped them! God asked him, why? It made no sense at all and it was contrary to His will. But like Cain he chose to ignore the invitation to examine himself and, in fact, the record tells us that he ordered the prophet to desist or else face the consequences (v16).

There were those in Isaiah’s day who thought that their way of life went unnoticed by God.

There were others who were complaining that God was ignoring their plight and had disregarded their circumstances, that He had no interest in strengthening the faint and feeble. God sought to expose that foolishness with the “why” question once more: “Why sayest thou, O Jacob, and speakest, O Israel, My way is hid from Yahweh, and my judgment is passed over from my God?” (Isa 40:27).

He asked them to think about His creative power and explained that there is no searching of His understanding. He is aware of our every thought and He does care for His people: “But they that wait upon Yahweh shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings as eagles; they shall run, and not be weary; and they shall walk, and not faint” (v31). How could we think that God is any different to this? Why would we dare think otherwise?

We find that the Master frequently asked the “why” question during his ministry:

  • And why take ye thought for raiment? (Matt 6:28)
  • And why beholdest thou the mote that is in thy brother’s eye, but considerest not the beam that is in thine own eye? (Matt 7:3)
  • Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith? (Matt 8:26)
  • Why stand ye here all the day idle? (Matt 20:6)
  • Why tempt ye me, ye hypocrites? (Matt 22:18)
  • Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me (Matt 26:10)
  • Why doth this generation seek after a sign? (Mark 8:12)
  • Why reason ye, because ye have no bread? perceive ye not yet, neither understand? have ye your heart yet hardened? (Mark 8:17)
  • Why sleep ye? rise and pray, lest ye enter into temptation (Luke 22:46)
  • Did not Moses give you the law, and yet none of you keepeth the law? Why go ye about to kill me? (John 7:19)
  • Why do ye not understand my speech? even because ye cannot hear my word (John 8:43)
  • And if I say the truth, why do ye not believe me? (John 8:46)
  • Why smitest thou me? (John 18:23)
  • Jesus saith unto her, Woman, why weepest thou? whom seekest thou? (John 20:15)
  • Saul, Saul, why persecutest thou me? (Acts 9:4)

Each time the Lord asked this question he was inviting those he addressed to search deeply within themselves, to bring their motives to the light and to understand the change that was needed. It is no different with us. Do we become over-anxious for the morrow? Do we minutely examine others but ignore our own worse faults? Are we fearful? Do we lack faith? Are we standing idle all the day in the things of God? And if we do, why are we acting like this? It is indeed a time for reflection for all of us.

The Apostle Paul asked similarly penetrating questions. In Romans 14:10 he wrote: “But why dost thou judge thy brother? or why dost thou set at nought thy brother? for we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ.” Notice the emphasis on the words “thy brother”. There was this tendency for some to see themselves as absolutely superior, making others feel totally inferior by their haughty demeanour. They had contempt for their brethren; judging and condemning their actions. Others despised their brethren; setting them at nought and devaluing their service in Christ.

Why are you doing this, asks Paul? Why indeed. He warns them forthrightly that they will one day stand before the Lord of all the earth and answer the same questions for themselves.

In relation to our dealings with each other, the Apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 6:7, also asked this question: “Now therefore there is utterly a fault among you, because ye go to law one with another. Why do ye not rather take wrong? why do ye not rather suffer yourselves to be defrauded?” He is asking us to examine ourselves as to why we don’t just submit to any injustices we may receive at the hands of other brethren! Why are you retaliating, he asks, and seeking redress through the courts? There is a strong tendency for flesh to seek justice through ungodly means, to demand an apology at all costs, to pursue some kind of reparation. Paul asks us: “Why do ye not rather take wrong?” This sentiment cuts right across what we expected him to say. As he taught in another place: “We then that are strong ought to bear the infirmities of the weak, and not to please ourselves… For even Christ pleased not himself; but, as it is written, The reproaches of them that reproached thee fell on me” (Rom 15:1,3).

We cannot afford to follow the way of Cain. We must constantly examine ourselves honestly and ask ourselves why we are doing this or saying that? It is better to face the “why” question now than to face it when the Master returns.