When is the last time you were really curious about something? And what were you curious about? It may happen more often than you realize. Maybe you wanted to know what the weather would be like for the weekend. Or you wondered what your friends were posting on social media. Or you wanted to know more about an exotic vacation spot someone mentioned recently.
Perhaps you’re curious about the nature of the universe and our place in it, or why we dream, or how we can painlessly lose or gain a few pounds. And what about big mysteries in our lives every day, like the sun? Are you curious to know what keeps it burning? And how it shapes and influences our weather? How does it do what it does, and how long will it keep doing it?
Just a little over a week ago, NASA and the European Space Agency together launched the two-ton Solar Orbiter to gather just that kind of data. Over the next seven years, the spacecraft will travel more than two thirds of the way to the sun, getting closer than we’ve ever been to the burning surface. The technology will send back information that will hopefully answer basic questions about many unknowns we still have about this source of all external light on our planet.
But maybe instead of big, cosmic questions, you are curious about the tiny everyday kind. Why do our fingernails grow so fast? Or what is it in a spider’s brain that causes it to create such elaborate and strong webs that human architects are now studying them as inspiration for earthquake-proof housing? It’s been said we can see God at work through a microscope or a telescope. We can also let our curiosity direct our attention inward and we find God there, as well.
Here’s something we’re often curious about. Just who was that angel that wrestled with Jacob that long dark night when he was alone in the wilderness? And how does God know just what we need when we need it, providing just the right leadings at just the right time. And come to think of it, what is a leading, anyway? And where, exactly, is God—within us, around us, in another dimension, or all of the above? As we let ourselves ponder, we discover there are lots of things in this life to be curious about.
Curiosity is an energy and an emotion of engagement that nudges us toward learning, toward growth, toward change. It’s an invitation to look more closely, to focus our attention on something and let it draw us in. It we pay attention to our curiosity and follow it, it will lead us down a path that shows us more.
This can happen in big and small ways. For example, suppose that you’re sitting on the couch this afternoon, and you wonder whether the Mister Rogers movie is still playing. What do you do? Most likely, you pick up your phone, you tap the search tool, you type what you can remember of the movie title, and the answer pops up. There, done. Your curiosity did that. It got that answer for you. The thing you were wondering about stirred up your energy, which prompted you to act by picking up your phone and doing what you needed to do to get the answer. That’s how, curiosity—in the simplest and most mundane of ways—helps to facilitate not only our learning and growing in life but the satisfaction of very simple basic daily needs.
Scientists who study these things tell us there are two different classifications of curiosity: One kind, called state curiosity, refers to our wondering about things in the external world, things out there: How heavy is the moon? Why is the backyard always marshy in the spring? I wonder what kind of snacks we’ll have after meeting today?
The other type, called trait curiosity, refers to the curiosity we have inwardly, and it helps us learn and grow and master things. Perhaps we’d like to try painting with watercolors, or write a book, or learn Spanish. Those of us studying the gospel of John right now are following our trait curiosity, wondering about the meanings of the text and how those ideas connect with our lives and our faith.
Both our Old Testament and New Testament stories today demonstrate a different type of curiosity. First of course there is the classic story of Jacob wrestling with the angel. He has sent his wives, his maids, his children, and all he owned ahead of him—on the journey to meet and hopefully reconcile with his brother Esau. You probably remember the bad blood between the two of them: because Jacob had stolen his brother’s birthright, there had been anger between them all these years. On this journey Jacob is hoping to make things right with his brother. It’s interesting that at a moment when he’s sent away all that represents the considerable success of his adult life—his wives, his maids, his children and livestock–he finds himself in a mortal wrestling match that will leave him a changed man. We need that quiet, alone time with God. Maybe he’s wrestling with his conscience. Perhaps a part of him still feels justified in what he did to Esau. Perhaps he is struggling with his pride. Maybe his fellow wrestler is truly an angel, helping him find the humility he needs—for the first time in his life—to make things right and begin again with a clear and contrite heart.
When the stranger gives Jacob a new name, the answer becomes clear: “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.” Jacob asks again for the man’s name and receives a blessing instead. At this point, Richard Foster’s commentary says,
“Filled with mystery, this encounter with God is also characterized by remarkable intimacy. Notice that the wrestling stranger refuses to be named. God comes so close we cannot even see exactly who or what has gotten hold of us. However, after such an encounter we go forward blessed—wounded perhaps, but always changed.”
Our New Testament story is a fascinating one from the book of Acts, and curiosity has a connection here, too. Paul’s journeys have taken him to Athens, Greece, the center of intellectual inquiry, home to the world’s great philosophers. Instead of Paul making a case for Christianity through the story of Jesus’ life, teachings, and death, Paul appeals to the curiosity of these well-educated men, using a fascinating approach. He begins by affirming the care and seriousness with which they approach their lives of faith—he sees that they are very religious people and tells them so, affirming their efforts in finding the truth. He then mentions that one of the altars he saw had an inscription reading, “To an unknown god,” and he proposes that this God that he, Paul, knows—“the God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth”—is just this very God that had been unknown to them. “For ‘in him we live and move and have our being’,” Paul adds, “As even some of your poets have said, ‘For we too are his offspring.’”
Some of the scholars in the audience scoffed at the idea that Jesus had been raised from the dead—this was a new and novel idea–but others wanted to hear more. And some, scripture tells us, who were there that day became believers because of Paul’s spirit-inspired teaching.
In both of these cases, curiosity that drew Jacob inward and curiosity that drew Paul outward, the result was a new understanding, a new sense of connection, with God. The change in Jacob’s life created a closeness with God that fitted him to become the forebear of the children of Israel. The change Paul brought offered the language of inclusion and respect that was needed to help a new people find and understand God in their own culture and lives.
In my message last week I mentioned that I was reading the book, Prayer Can Change Your Life. It was written by Dr. William Parker in the 1950s about a research study that evaluated the effectiveness of prayer. The results showed that the most success came from combining group counseling with prayer techniques that helped participants let go of their issues and deepen their relationships with God.
Dr. Parker makes the case that our curiosity is important here, too. We can pray more effectively and draw closer to God when we become curious about what limits or hurts or seems to block us in our lives. Parker say that when we find ourselves struggling—like Jacob with the angel—it’s likely we’re having trouble in one of three areas.:
- If the problem has to do with our emotional life, we are wrestling with our feelings about ourselves, our reactions to others, or our relationships. The solution here is always a bigger and more present awareness of God’s Love.
- If the problem is related to our intellectual life, we feel we have a lack of knowledge, understanding, or experience; not enough information about something we really need. Confusion comes into play here. The answer, Parker says, is always a broader view of God’s all-present wisdom.
- If the problem is related to our social life, we feel out of sync with social groups or we’re struggling to fit into our environment or community. We may feel isolated, lonely, disconnected. In this case, our souls long for an all-embracing experience of God’s Harmony.
No matter what our problems may be, and no matter how complex and mixed up the answers may seem to be in the moment, turning toward God is always the answer—we can pray to know more of God’s Love, God’s Wisdom, God’s Harmony. As we let God’s presence begin to heal us from the inside out, our external situations gradually unknot and change.
But before this change can happen, we need to be able to be honest with ourselves about the struggle. That’s where our curiosity serves as God’s invitation to notice where we need God’s help in our lives. When something happens, we can be curious about it, wondering why our feelings are hurt, why we repeat the same patterns over and over, why we always have trouble with a particular personality type, why our projects never seem to get off the ground. God will use that holy curiosity to teach and lead us, deepening our understanding. And along the way, our trust in God’s leading and our sense of God’s nearness—that intimacy that changed everything for Jacob–will grow.
In her poem, “Are You Happy?” Bianca Sparacino shows how curiosity leads her into a richer sense of life’s blessing:
Are you happy?
In All honesty? No.
But I am curious—I am curious in my sadness, and I am curious in my joy.
I am everseeking, everfeeling.
I am in awe of the beautiful moments life gives us, and I am in awe of the difficult ones.
I am transfixed by grief, by growth.
It is all so stunning, so rich, and
I will never convince myself that I cannot be somber, cannot be hurt, cannot be overjoyed.
I want to feel it all—I don’t want to cover it up or numb it.
So no, I am not happy.
I am open, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
Our curiosity too is a blessing—a holy blessing—serving as an invitation to us to get to know God more, to feel God closer, to see God at work in our inner and outer lives each day. We may go through times of struggle and confusion and aloneness—we are human, so we will–but we won’t go through those things alone. And over the course of the journey, we discover that God—once unknown and faceless, far-away—is now dear and true and loved and close, a Friend living in the warmth of our hearts, leading our steps day by day with a golden light.
- OT Genesis 32: 22-31
- NT Acts 17: 22-28
- ESA, NASA’s Solar Orbiter: https://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2020/esa-nasa-solar-orbiter-launch-voyage-to-sun-heat-shield
- Prayer Can Change Your Life: https://books.google.com/books/about/Prayer_Can_Change_Your_Life_Experiments.html?id=hWyXvQEACAAJ&source=kp_book_description
- Scaracino, Bianca. Seeds Planted in Concrete: https://thoughtcatalog.com/bianca-sparacino/