The Importance of Asking Honest Questions

Sometimes Christian pastors, parents and teachers are afraid of the questions young people and others might ask. Questions of another generation, or generated by secular teachers and other models can seem rebellious and threatening. Questions arising out of other cultural and worldview assumptions than those of the local church can seem to be coming from another planet. Even if the questions are honest they can be very difficult to understand and the reaction is often suspicion or rebuke. It is known that Jesus is the answer, but there is a strong inclination to limit the questions to familiar ones. This situation is often very stressful and alienating.

At CityGate the situation and atmosphere are quite different. The workers know that Christians don’t need to be afraid of questions because Jesus really is the answer to all the questions. They also know it takes a lot of patience, love, hard work, prayer and deep thought to realise what the answers are and how they apply.

In preaching and teaching it is often more effective to raise and stimulate questions than to make statements. Which do you think would be more effective: To get on a city bus and shout out “Jesus is the answer!” or to shout out “What are your questions?” before sitting down. In which case would someone be more likely to come to sit with you and open up a conversation? Which would be the more frightening thing for you to do?

People come to the Gospel in Society Learning Community sessions from many different countries, cultures, family and educational backgrounds and in varying conditions of mental and spiritual health. The questions of someone from an atheistic, mafia-connected Russian family, or a Moslem family or a newly converted Evangelical from a nominally Orthodox family will be very different. Their questions are part of who they are and must be carefully and compassionately understood before they can be directed to the answers of Jesus.

As we relate to the culture around us, we are called to be salt and light. This requires us to know something of the nature of the rotting darkness in which we live. Asking questions is a key way of understanding the lost world that Jesus came to save and redeem. In relation to the world people often think of Philippians 4:8 “Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.” This is a very necessary advice, but something is often added to its meaning: The last phrase is read “think ONLY about such things”. It does not say that. Paul needed to think and write about many ugly and negative things, but he knew that while living IN this lost world we must think OF the Kingdom of God and its various manifestations around us or we will be depressed and disheartened.

As Christians we need to constantly ask ourselves: Am I doing right? Am I behaving in a loving and inviting way? Am I respecting the lost people around me whom God made and Jesus died to save? Do I trust God to sustain and use me in uncertain circumstances? We also need to ask questions of the people around us and stimulate them to ask questions for themselves. In this way their appetites for Truth are stimulated, which is so important because it is only the hungry that are fed. Teaching by questioning is often connected to Socrates, but Jesus also used this method. The rich young man said to him “Good Teacher”. This is polite and politically correct. Jesus’ answer was not polite—it was real: “Why do you call me good? Only God is good.” Jesus challenged the man to see that if he is really good, he is really God. You can’t have it half and half, “sort of,” “you know what I mean,” or “whatever.” Yes is yes and no is no. Jesus pushed the man. We need to push (as gently and lovingly as possible) our neighbours.

On another occasion, the confrontation Jesus made was quite rude and violent, deeply loving and fruitful. When the Syrian/Phoenician woman asked him to heal her daughter, he basically called her a dog. This opened a door for her and her response was magnificent: “To the Jews first, yes, but then to all of us.” When the woman who had suffered from bleeding for many years tried to “sneak a blessing”, Jesus turned and asked, “Who touched me?” The question was absurd to the disciples, but not to the woman. This was her great moment to confess and proclaim Jesus and publicly rejoice in his goodness to her. He opened the door for this by his question.

Questioning is often associated with doubt and is thought to be rebellious or unfaithful. But, we only learn more about God and our lives as his children by asking questions. To ask questions is to desire to find out if there is more to reality or a part of reality than I sense or experience or understand in the present moment. It is to desire to have clarification or translation of concepts, impressions or ideas so that we might confront and evaluate them. It is to participate in reality and be enabled to participate in reality. It is to avoid prejudiced or automatic reactions. It is to confess our faith in God who can and will sustain us in the struggle and process of asking, learning and growing. (Is there any kind of growth without pain?) Asking questions is sceptical because we don’t know, yet. T.S. Eliot wrote: “Scepticism is not infidelity or destructiveness, or unbelief due to mental sloth, but the habit of examining evidence and the capacity for delayed decision”. (Not avoided decision.)

Jesus told us we must become like little children in order to belong in the Kingdom of Heaven. Little children constantly ask questions because they have faith in mommy and daddy, the world and God to give good answers. As “adults” we cripple ourselves with sophistication and fear and live in the smallest possible world because we think we can keep it clean.

Christians and non-Christians need to be careful about the agenda or purpose of their questions. Why do we ask? In the New Testament, two different words are used for “test”. One is dokimazo, which means to assay, or to test to find out how much good is there. The other is pierazo, which tries to find out what is bad or wrong. In I Thessalonians 5 Paul teaches us how not to put out the Spirit’s fire or hold the prophecies in contempt; it is by asking questions or “testing everything”. He uses the word dokimazo and follows it by saying “Hold on to the good. Avoid every kind of evil.” If we dokimazo to find the good, the light of the good will expose the evil. If we pierazo to find something wrong, it will not show us the good. As we interact with the world and its people, we should ask questions to find out how God’s image and character are manifested in it. Then, starting with what is praiseworthy, we can lead people to see what is still lacking. “Men of Athens, I see that in every way you are very religious.”

Finding the good was the motive in Jesus’ questioning of both the rich young man and the bleeding woman. The result was positive in the case of the woman and not in the case of the man, but in both cases the test was brilliantly loving. We should follow Jesus and test each other, the world and ourselves as he does. Questioning and testing are hard, painful and frightening. At the end of the Old Testament, Malachi writes of Jesus sitting as a refiner of silver. We are all cooking in the pot. He carefully keeps us just at the point of boiling, but not boiling over, while he skims away the black scum that floats to the surface. As more and more of the scum gets taken away, the silver becomes a mirror and Jesus sees Himself in our lives. Boiling is not pleasant, but very effective in purifying. Can we receive the boiling questions of others, allow God to keep us boiling, and live in trusting hope that good will be shown and produced? I believe and hope so.

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