A question is a powerful thing. It'll nag at you, catch your flesh with its teeth and not let go. Soon you're walking with a limp as you drag it around. But if you learn to put a harness on that thing and ride it, learn how to direct it, it'll knock down walls for you, take you into wide open spaces.
It's easy to write off questions. The pragmatism we've been trained in wants us to live in statements, assertions. "Know what you believe and apply it," it says. "Don't get distracted by what you don't know."
And when it comes to questions of God, of theology, of the Bible, the fearful version of piety mistakes ignorance for humility and calls curiosity a vice.
But imagine a man who never asked his wife a new question because he figured all matters were settled. And if you've ever had someone who loves you ask you good questions -- questions that help them know your heart -- you know what a rich experience that is. I imagine God is delighted when we approach Him like that.
There's a pattern in the gospels that I've noticed: ask Jesus a question, and He'll tell you a story.
In one example of that pattern, a religious expert came to Jesus and asked some questions. First, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" Jesus sees the guy is no dummy so he asks him what he thinks, and the guy responds, "Love God and love your neighbor." And Jesus tells him he has the right answer . But the man, wanting to justify himself, presses on with another question: "Who is my neighbor?" And this provokes Jesus to offer one his most famous teachings — the parable of the Good Samaritan.
I've heard this parable taught so many times. A lot of insightful stuff, really. But most of those sermons have missed what is most striking to me about Jesus' teaching.
The man asks "Who is my neighbor?", a question in which 'neighbor' is the word for the object of our obligated love. What category of people does this command require me to love? He's coming to the law of love looking for a limiting principle to keep his conscience clean.
Jesus then tells a story with two central characters. One is a victim of highway bandits who strip him naked and beat him half dead. The other is a Samaritan — a man ethnically and religiously inferior to a proper Jew — who showed mercy, tended to the man's wounds, and provided for lodging and care while he recovered. Now, if Jesus wants to answer the religious expert's question, this is a poor effort. The recipient of love in this story is naked and unconscious, indistinguishable by socioeconomic class or regional dialect. What stands out is that he is in need, and since this world has no shortage of people in need, there is no real limiting principle offered here.
But when Jesus is done telling the story, he reveals that he had no interest in answering the man's question. After all, the guy already had the right answers. After telling his story, Jesus asks the expert, "Who was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?" In other words, you think the high-stakes question is, "Who should be the recipient of my love?" But a better question is, "Who will be an agent of love?" Jesus told a story that dismantled the guy's question and replaced it with a better one. And the answer to the better question is an uncomfortable one, since he makes the Samaritan the hero of the story. It turns out that when you ask the right question, you might get an answer you don't like. But that's where we are changed -- when better questions lead to challenging answers.
I took a class from a visiting scholar at Notre Dame a few years ago. The class was for students in my master's program, but a few PhD students were sitting in, too, just because it was a big deal to have this guy on campus. He was a fantastic teacher. Engaging, charismatic, sharp, warm-hearted toward the students, electrified by the subject at hand. But often he would respond to a student's question by simply saying, "That's an uninteresting question. Let's move on." The first couple of times it happened, it seemed rude.
Over time, however, it became clear that he was saying it's possible to ask a question of the text that the text isn't interested in answering. If you open your Bible and look for the answer to the question, "How can I become wealthy?" you may very well find some answers to that question. You may even find some good answers, ones that work. But you may not even notice all the places where the Bible talks about contentment or generosity. If you come to the cross plagued by guilt, you will likely look to the cross for an acquittal. But what if the death of Christ is the answer to other questions, too, like questions about the power of evil or God's presence in suffering?
I've heard there's no such thing as a bad question. That's ridiculous. Of course there is! And the problem with a bad question is that there may not be a good answer. But I'm trying to listen to the stories God tells when we bring Him our questions -- even our bad ones -- and I'm starting to learn a few things.
Bad questions are motivated by defensiveness. Better questions are motivated by curiosity.
Bad questions build walls. Better questions build bridges.
Bad questions come as a reaction. Better questions come from reflection.
Bad questions trample the text. Better questions are shaped by the text.
Bad questions keep us entrenched in bad theology. Better questions move us toward truth.
Bad questions make our hearts small. Better questions expand them.
Bad questions lead to the same dead ends. Better questions create new possibilities.
Wherever you're stuck, maybe it's time for a better question. In your theology. In your family. In your career. A question can act like a sort of magnet in your chest, powerfully dragging you toward whatever end that question is drawn to. If you keep running into the same dead ends, it may be time for a better question.
The word 'question' comes from the latin quaerere, which literally translates 'ask', or 'seek.' Jesus makes a promise to us in Matthew 7: "Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened."
He often fulfills that promise by providing answers. But I'm discovering that sometimes His greatest gift to us is a better question.