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The Question Behind The Question

Last year my wife and I were involved in a university mission week in the Netherlands. As part of the outreach, the students organised an “Ask a Question, Get a Doughnut” event from a table on campus. The idea is simple: anyone could have a free doughnut if they were willing to ask the Christian students a question about Jesus or the Christian faith. It was a real success, and many great conversations were had with students from all over the world.

One teenager somewhat sheepishly asked me, “Erm… how many patron saints are there?”

“Really?” I silently thought, “That’s your question?!” It didn’t take me long, however, to figure out that the real question behind the question was, “Please can I have a free doughnut?”!

Although we were very happy to give him a doughnut, I still answered his question, saying that, while I had no idea how many patron saints there were in various denominations, my view is that the Bible calls all true believers, ‘saints’, in that we are made holy through the cross of Christ. That was all I said. Any more information than that would have been overkill for a boy looking for a free snack; any less, and I would have not shown him the respect of taking his question seriously.

Although “Please can I have a free doughnut?” is hardly life-changing stuff, I am frequently in situations where people will ask a question that turns out not to be their real question at all. We will look, in a moment, at the various ways this plays out in conversation, but in every case, the ‘Doughnut Boy’ pattern holds true: we respect the question that a person verbalises, but we listen for the deeper, unspoken question that may lie behind it.

I have often found that people’s real questions are hidden beneath what they actually ask. A seemingly academic question about divorce and remarriage in the church may betray a desire to get out of a failing relationship. Impersonal questions about the theology of suffering may hide deep pain, often for a loved one who is ill. Even a hard-edged atheist’s question about science and the Bible can sometimes be unconscious code for please, help me to believe.

we respect the question that a person verbalises, but we listen for the deeper, unspoken question that may lie behind it.

Questions are always opportunities to build faith, whether in sceptics, seekers, baby-believers or seasoned saints. But what people ask, and what they really want to know, are often two very different things. So, how do we know what is really on a person’s heart?

Jesus the question-answerer

You have probably noticed the fact that Jesus had a knack of responding to people’s questions with a question of His own. A quick Internet search shows the following statistics 1 : Jesus apparently asked 307 questions, and of the 183 questions people asked Him, Jesus only gave direct answers to three: (1) when Pilate asks Jesus whether He is a king (John 18:37); (2) when the disciples ask Him to teach them how to pray (Lk 11:1ff) and (3) when a Pharisee asks which of the commandments is the greatest (Mt 22:36-37).

However, let’s not forget that questions may be phrased as statements, and statements phrased like questions. Many times, Jesus did give a full and comprehensive answer, but not in the way that some modern readers would count as ‘direct’. A case in point: when the disciples ask Him what the signs of His return and the end of the age would be (Mt 24), His first words, “See that no one leads you astray” do not at first seem to answer their question. But far from being a change of subject, the danger of being deceived is one of the very signs Jesus spends the rest of the passage explaining.

At other times, Jesus seems to cut to the chase and answer the real issue at stake, whether or not the person articulated the question in that way (as we shall see). Even opponents’ questions meant to trap Him (see Mk 12) were still dignified with answers. Apart from His trial where He chose to give no defence, I can only find one instance where Jesus pointedly refused to answer someone’s question: when the Pharisees (?) asked Jesus where His authority came from. He countered by asking, “The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” (Mt 21:25). And yet, even here, Jesus’ apparent refusal to play ball is all the answer they needed: My authority comes from the same place as John the Baptist’s. Take it or leave it.

Meanwhile back in the 21st Century…

With respect to ‘Doughnut Boy’ above, it is not always easy to spot whether someone is really asking the question that is on their heart, or whether there is more to the conversation than meets the eye (or the ear). So, what can we do to discern what the real issues are? How should we respond when we think there is more going on underneath? Imagine with me the last time you were in a conversation where someone asked you a question about Jesus, the Bible, or the Christian faith – be that in your home cell, lunch in the foodcourt, in the squash court changing room, or at a family event and see whether any of the following fit the pattern you noticed.

1. The Random Opener

I slightly misread a situation recently when I had coffee with ‘Tom’, a student who had started coming to church. Tom was not a Christian but was very open and seemed to want to explore Christianity before he committed to anything. But what I found totally disconcerting was that he didn’t seem to have any obvious questions to ask me. He just seemed content to soak everything in, seemingly by osmosis!

Perhaps simply just to be polite, he did ask me one question: how can a God of love allow so much suffering in the world? Often, as I said, this one comes from a place where someone has known suffering, perhaps of a loved-one. But not, it seemed, in Tom’s case. It was not even an especially big issue for him. He just needed to ask something to appear like he had thought deeply enough. Unfortunately, because it was his only question, I unloaded everything I had on the subject. When I finally stopped talking 10 or more minutes later, I realised I had overdone it. He didn’t know how to respond, and that was more or less the end of our conversation!

The truth is that many people find it hard to articulate their real questions of life and faith, especially if they don’t have much knowledge to base their question on. In fact, people often do not really know themselves well enough to be clear in what it is they need to know (likely so in Tom’s case). No one likes to lose face or ask something inappropriate or stupid. So, it is very common for people to ask a question about Jesus and the Christian faith that may either seem obvious, totally random, or parroted from others.

Be that as it may, their question should still be taken seriously. Like Nicodemus visiting Jesus at night without a clear question that he could articulate (Jn 3), people may be unconsciously sifting through to get to the point where they know what they really need to ask, or they may be ‘circling’, slowly, as they assess whether there is a safe place to land by the way you listen and answer their more standard questions.

2. The Front Door

‘Front Door’ questions are not the real question of the person’s heart. But they are nevertheless such a big issue that they need to find some semblance of an answer, before they can ask what they really want to know. Front Door questions (so-called because you have to get through them first) usually take the form of big, seemingly unsurpassable objections that someone’s culture or religion, their peers or the media, declare to be unassailable reasons why Christianity cannot possibly be true. A Front Door question can sound a lot like a Pre-emptive Strike (see below), but if answered well, the ‘door’ often opens surprisingly easily, and the person quickly moves onto other things more meaningful to them.

The person may feel that they are obliged to ask, “Wasn’t Jesus just a man/prophet/teacher?”, or “Hasn’t science disproved God?”, “Hasn’t the Bible been changed?”, “Aren’t all religions the same, really?” or “Isn’t Christianity a western religion?” (or… fill in the blank), because they have been told those are the reasons you cannot accept Christianity. People are often genuinely surprised that we have actually thought of the same questions and that we do have some decent answers to all of them. It is amazing how promptly, once they have realised this, they seem to feel they have permission to go onto questions more personal and pertinent to them as individuals.

3. The Headliner

Headliner questions are ones which are not very far from the real issue on someone’s mind, but which are usually couched first in somewhat impersonal, general terms.

For example, a new believer or seeker may ask, “Does Christianity teach people to respect their parents?” They may well already know the answer to their own question (i.e. yes, of course), but they may be struggling with a decision regarding Jesus’ exclusive claims over specific ancestral traditions. A ‘headliner’ may be a way to find an answer through a more general discussion of the topic, especially in a group setting. If so, we need to watch for the right moment to bring the focus down to personal application. It may be better to offer your own personal stories first and allow them to comment on that, rather than press them for details they may not be ready to give. We need to watch for the hesitant but more pertinent follow-up question, giving time and space for people to find the words to ask it.

4. The Pre-emptive Strike

“How can you stand there and tell us that your Jesus is the only way, when the world is filled with sincere people from many different religions? What makes you think you are right, and they are wrong?”

The attack left me reeling, my heart suddenly racing because I simply wasn’t expecting it. I had been having a nice question-and-answer session with a lovely group of seniors at a community outreach meal, so was lulled into thinking this was an ‘easy’ one. But this surprise attack that seemed directed at me personally, came from the quietest, most unassuming gentleman in the room. The temperature in the room suddenly dropped.

People unused to speaking about personal or spiritual things can often misjudge the force needed to frame a question, so they can sound harsher than they intend. Nevertheless, the Gospel can hit very sensitive areas in people’s lives. They either recoil like touch-me-not plants, or else they might play offence by asking a hard question, quite out of the blue, and with surprising force.

We should learn to recognise the signs of a ‘pre-emptive strike’, and respond with compassion, rather than defensiveness. If someone is willing to risk an apparent show of disrespect, it may well be pain that is speaking louder than even they realise. The essential thing is to keep the conversation and relationship open. It often amazes me when people say that one of the things that witnessed strongly to the love of Christ was the way that Christians listened to them and answered their questions kindly, instead of taking offence at their rude or harsh approach.

5. The Smokescreen

When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at Jacob’s well (Jn 4), the conversation took a surprising turn when Jesus revealed His supernatural knowledge of her rather complex marital history. Though she did not deny her past, she deftly tried a change of topic by raising the age-old issue between Samaritans and Jews – whether to worship God in Jerusalem or on the mountain. While Jesus was not fooled for a moment by her red herring, He gave her the dignity of answering her theological question, whilst leading her gently back to the issue at hand: “Woman, believe me, the hour is coming when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father… the true worshippers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” (Jn 4:21-23).

Smokescreens come in all shapes and sizes and are not always easy to spot. But, like the ‘Pre-emptive Strike’, at the heart of each Smokescreen question is usually a hurting soul which does not dare to allow the truth too close to its pain. And pain, admitted or not, should always be met with compassion.

A seemingly academic question about divorce and remarriage in the church may betray a desire to get out of a failing relationship. Impersonal questions about the theology of suffering may hide deep pain, often for a loved one who is ill. Even a hard-edged atheist’s question about science and the Bible can sometimes be unconscious code for please, help me to believe.

Listening and loving

But while we can learn lots from Jesus’ example, we must remember we do not have His supernatural insight into the hearts of those we are talking to. Trying to be too clever by second-guessing people’s questions might do more harm than good.

People’s questions are important. It takes courage to ask about matters of faith and deep questions of life, and we should honour that, even if they sound harsh or superficial to us. Most people are earnest in their questions, even if they do not know how to explain how they feel. In Mark’s version of Jesus’ conversation with the Rich Young Man (Mk 10:17-22), before He delivers the real answer to the man’s question (which he would sadly find impossible to accept), we read, ‘Jesus looked at him and loved him” (Mk 10:21 NIV, my emphasis).

Perhaps the disciples noticed Jesus pause for a moment, that familiar look in His eyes as He smiled kindly, and maybe placed a gentle hand on the young man’s shoulder – all before speaking those hard, loving words, “One thing you lack…”

I used to view answering people’s faith questions like a tense game of tennis, trying to return each question with a clever answer so they could not hit back at me. But, over the years, I have learned to enjoy listening to what is on people’s hearts. I discovered the value of a moment’s pause before answering. To stop long enough to value the person in front of me, to lift them to the Lord in a heartbeat’s prayer, and to really listen to what they are saying, bears infinitely more fruit than trying to ‘win’ a debate or even be ‘right’. When someone sees that you “looked at them and loved them” it will speak far more to their spirit than the answer you actually give.

Peter Teagle was a teenage atheist who regularly interrogated his Christian friends about science and faith. By God’s grace - and God’s sense of humour - he came to know Jesus and has since spent almost 30 years using his experience to share the gospel in China, Singapore, the UK and Europe.


What is in this new issue?

VOL. 48 NO. 2 of IMPACT Magazine

WHERE ARE YOU? By Roland Chia


By Peter Teagle 



... Some contributors weigh in.



~ The Impact Panel responds ~


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