As you can imagine, several decades into a lifetime I’ve had a lot of teachers: in school, in higher education, on the job, and even in the church. Time and again I’ve heard the phrase, “Don’t be afraid to ask questions – there’s no such thing as a stupid question.” As I’ve trained others over the years, I too have used that same phrase, not anticipating how wide that opened the door to some students, some trainees, some new employees or some recent converts to make some pretty outlandish inquiries. Still, good teachers appreciate good and not-so-good questions – for they present opportunities to delve deeper into a subject matter. Good teachers ask good questions for much the same reason.
Good teachers ask good questions
Jesus never asked a question because he needed to know the answer. He used questions the way a surgeon uses a scalpel, to delicately cut into a new level of understanding – of God and of themselves.
“But who do you say I am?” Jesus asked His disciples. He wanted them to really think about what they believed about Him and His claims that He was the Son of God and the Messiah to mankind. The question forced each of His disciples individually to think about and make a decision: did they really accept those statements as true or not?
“The baptism of John—was it from heaven or from men?” Jesus asked the Pharisees. He forced the Jewish religious leaders to look into their own hearts, to talk amongst themselves and consider what they really thought about John and his ministry work, something they had previously rejected. These leaders revealed that they knew the truth, yet they refused to speak it, for to do so would expose their own hypocrisy and evil hearts to the people. Their odd declaration of ignorance even had the secondary effect of revealing to the people how their leaders were two-faced.
“Is it lawful to do good or to do harm on the Sabbath, to save a life or to kill?” Jesus asked the Synagogue leaders before healing a man with a shriveled hand. As men knowledgeable in the scriptures, they knew God’s compassion for hurting people. Yet, they chose to keep silent. He exposed the hardness of their hearts. They were without excuse for their attitude.
“If you love those who love you, what reward have you? And if you greet your brethren only, what do you do more than others? Do not even the tax collectors do so?” Jesus asked the people in His Sermon on the Mount. He prefaced the questions with a discussion about love toward all men and concluded it by telling them to strive to be perfect as their Heavenly Father.
There are Stupid Questions – namely those that intentionally trigger strife
One thing Jesus did not do was ask a question to trigger a debate, or cause dissension among His followers. The only time He spoke of division was in terms of those who would receive Him as Lord and Savior and those who would reject Him. “Do you think I have come to give peace to the earth? No! Rather, strife and division! From now on families will be split apart, three in favor of me, and two against—or perhaps the other way around. A father will decide one way about me; his son, the other; mother and daughter will disagree; and the decision of an honored mother-in-law will be spurned by her daughter-in-law.” In all other cases Jesus sought to resolve differences. For example, when most of His disciples were upset that John and James had asked to have seats of importance in the Kingdom of God, Jesus used the opportunity to teach about servanthood – something they (and we) all need to strive for.
Sometimes the kinds of question we’re asking – or not asking – reflect a great deal about our attitudes toward others and our motives in communicating with them. Are we out to help a person arrive at a correct answer, or do we just want to demonstrate our superiority and win a debate? People who consider themselves leaders need to be especially careful of the words they use – in one-on-one conversations and in the public domain – and for most of us the latter implies social media. It’s so easy to rationalize a harsh word or question: “I just like to make people think about and reconsider their core beliefs.” If we don’t take care with the use of language, instead of helping a person our words may well cause the other to entrench themselves deeper in their unhealthy opinions, values and lifestyles, closing the door to all other options.
There is an art to asking the right questions without appearing abrupt
One ministry I’ve studied for its success in conversing with people who hold strong positions contrary to my own, calls its approach the Columbo tactic. It’s named after the 1980’s and 90’s seemingly bumbling TV detective whose remarkable success was based on an innocent query: “Do you mind if I ask you a question?” or “What do you mean by that?”
The general topic can be just about anything. Some people hold beliefs for no reason whatsoever – it’s just something they heard or that someone they liked or trusted vocalized it and they accepted it without giving it much thought. Others hold strong convictions and simply don’t recognize the weaknesses, flaws, or contradictions in their position – for if they did, they probably wouldn’t continue to adhere to it.
The Columbo tactic is most effective when delivered in a mild, genuinely inquisitive fashion. If you are patient and polite it’s usually very easy to probe even further, gently guiding the conversation in a more productive direction. Simple follow-up questions such as, “How did you come to that conclusion?” graciously assume the other person has reasons for her view and is not just emoting. It gives her a chance to express her rationale (if she has one), giving you more material to work with. If someone actually responds, “I don’t have any reasons; I just believe it,” then it’s genuine and appropriate to ask, “Why would you believe something when you have no reason to think it’s true?”
In the end, if even this approach fails, then we must be willing to respect the person’s final decision, even if we feel it’s to their physical and spiritual detriment. Arguing, insulting, even mildly debating after a person has obviously “dug in” is of no further value, and is not Christ-like. If we’ve been respectful and loving in our approach, then we must trust that the little pebble we put in their shoe during the conversation will one day make them uncomfortable enough to cause them to seek relief by making further inquiry on their own – either of us or from another akin to ourselves.