Jesus’ interactions with people are fascinating. On 25 occasions, Jesus was asked a direct question that required a simple answer. He only gave a direct response to four of these inquiries. The other 21 times, he replied, not with a statement, but with a question of his own. Jesus seemed more interested in genuine conversation than giving an authoritative answer.
Certainly, there is a place for preaching; after all, Jesus himself was a teacher in the local synagogues. But the vast majority of his verbal output occurred during spontaneous discussions with people he encountered.
A classic Jesus encounter is recorded in Luke 10:25-37: A Jewish scholar approached Jesus and asked him how he could obtain eternal life. Jesus replied by asking the man how he would answer the question based on his reading of the Old Testament. The man quoted Leviticus and Deuteronomy: We need to love God with our whole being and love our neighbor as much as we love ourselves. Jesus verbally patted him on the back for his accurate answer and told him to live it out.
The man, however, wasn’t satisfied. He asked Jesus for a definition of “neighbor.” Jesus proceeded to tell a story about a man who had been injured. As the tale went on, Jesus shocked his audience by making a Samaritan—a member of a hated neighboring people group—the hero of the story. Then, as his parable reached its climax, Jesus resisted the temptation to launch into a passionate explanation of what he was trying to say. Instead, he simply asked the man, “Who was a neighbor to the injured man?” It was a question with only one answer, and the scholar was forced to acknowledge that the Samaritan was the most-neighborly character in the story. He was essentially admitting that righteousness isn’t about scriptural knowledge but about how we live. Quite a bitter pill for a Bible scholar to swallow.
What Questions Do in Spiritual Conversations
The interaction between the Jewish scholar and Jesus is more than just an entertaining exchange. Rather, as we read the story in Luke 10, we see a few of the ways in which questions work:
1. Questions clarify that everyone needs to answer life’s big questions.
The man wanted to pin Jesus down on the topic of eternal life, but Jesus threw the issue back at him and asked him to state his own position. We can do the same thing.
Randy Newman, in his book Questioning Evangelism, recounts two students asking him if he believed that everybody who disagreed with him was going to hell. Rather than explain the nuances of Christian eschatology, Randy responded by asking the students whether they believed in hell. One of them said that he did. Randy named a famous perpetrator of genocide and asked the student if he thought that heinous criminal was in hell. The student replied “of course,” to which Randy responded by asking, “How do you think God decides who goes to heaven and who goes to hell? Does he grade on a curve?” Randy and the two students then spent a long time in deep discussion about the nature of God, of sin, and of forgiveness. His questions had taken the heat off his own back and made clear that hell was an issue with which everyone needs to grapple.
2. Questions penetrate to the heart of the issue.
The scholar wanted to define righteousness. Jesus wanted him to live a righteous life.
Jesus’ first question, “How do you understand the law?,” allowed the man to articulate an understanding of holiness on which they both could agree.
Jesus’ second question, “Who was a neighbor to this man?” ripped through the pretense, and exposed the pride and racism of the man with whom he was talking. He moved the conversation away from the theoretical and into the realties of everyday life.
Awhile back, I was talking with a girl named Amber who seemed unimpressed with the idea of Christianity. She told me firmly that she didn’t need Jesus to define morality for her; she was capable of figuring out what was right and wrong.
I wondered what to say, and pondered saying something like, “So…if a person decides murder is okay, then what’s to say that they are wrong and you are right?” That would have been a bit unhelpful, though, because it would probably just sound like I was insulting her and calling her a moral relativist. Instead, I said, “Yeah, I guess that’s right. We are all pretty good at defining right and wrong. I’m curious, though, do you find that you are able to live up to your own moral code, or would you say you sometimes fall short on that?” She immediately admitted that she fell short, and a friendly discussion about the nature of sin and the power of the cross quickly followed.
3. Questions open up genuine conversation.
Jesus’ first question was a very open one that allowed the man to answer in a range of different ways. Only as the conversation progressed did Jesus transition to a question that required a one-word answer. To begin with, however, he tried to simply draw the man into a meaningful dialogue.
I was recently chatting with a firmly atheistic student. He asked me how I could possibly believe in God when there is so much suffering in the world. I noticed he was very passionate as he spoke. I said, “You really care about all the awful stuff in the world, don’t you?” He agreed and cited some particularly awful instance of famine. I then asked him, “Can I ask you something else?” He said “Sure,” so I asked, “Why do you care?” He began to explain about the innate value of human beings and how we should care for the weak. After hearing him speak about this for a while, I said, “I think you sound a lot more like a Christian who believes God made people in his image than an atheist who believes we are a cosmic accident. What do you think about that?” This opened up another hour of conversation, and he soon became a regular at our chapter’s evangelistic events.
Questions Can Start A Conversation
You don’t have to wait until people ask you questions before you start asking them some. You can do it with anybody. The trick is to cultivate genuine curiosity in the thoughts and lives of others.
Recently, I was at Starbucks with two of my Christian friends discussing what heaven is like. None of us are professional theologians, so our conversation was a combination of biblical reflection and flights of imagination. Toward closing time, a barista started wiping the tables around us. My friend turned to her and said, “Hey, we were just discussing what we imagine heaven is like. What do you think?” She paused to think and then started sharing some of her own thoughts. Before long, she had sat down and was as engrossed in the conversation as we were. If we’d offered her a Bible tract or asked if we could have a minute to share our beliefs on the afterlife, then the conversation would likely have gone nowhere. But because we’d invited her to be an equal participant in our discussion, she had the opportunity to talk in-depth about the big questions of life with a group of Christians.