Engaging With Difficult Questions

It has been said that there is no such thing as a stupid question, but I don’t think that is true.

Over the years, I have been asked some excellent questions about my faith in Jesus. But I have also been asked questions that have been designed more to provoke than to enquire, more to trap than to seek.

For many Christians, the way we engage with difficult questions is one of the biggest challenges we face as we represent Jesus in the world.

I believe that we can learn a lot from Jesus himself in this regard. Jesus had three different ways that he interacted with difficult questions – two of them he used fairly often, whilst the third was much rarer.

  1. Answering Them

This is something that Jesus didn’t actually do all that often. Certainly not as often as Christians today jump at the chance to pontificate on any vaguely spiritual topic that should arise.

Jesus picked his moments carefully, and we would be wise to follow his lead.

One example of a time when Jesus directly answered a question is in Matthew 22, where he is asked, “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus responded by saying, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and great commandment. And a second is like it: You shall love your neighbour as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the Law and the Prophets.”

It was a straightforward answer to a straightforward question, and it gives us a guide to when answering a question directly is our best strategy.

  • It was easy– Jesus didn’t need to launch into a lecture series, present a complex chain of reasoning or draw in other disciplines in order to be understood. He was able to give a good and full answer in about fifty words, that the hearers would have easily followed.
  • It was safe– Sometimes answering a question means walking into a trap and saying things that will alienate or provoke people. This wasn’t one of those times. ‘Love God and love people’ is not a particularly controversial answer, and so saying it was safe ground for Jesus.
  • It was helpful– This is the key. If a direct answer to a question is likely help your hearer get closer to God, then go for it. Often, when we adopt an overly confrontational style, the effect can be the opposite, even if the words we speak are true.
  1. Avoiding Them

An alternative to answering questions is not answering them, and instead avoiding them by changing the subject.

When Jesus was asked in Matthew 21, “By what authority are you doing these things and who gave you this authority?” he didn’t answer it, but instead asked a question of his own. “The baptism of John. From where did it come? From heaven or from man?”

Jesus completely avoided giving an answer – and he did so because neither answer would be helpful.

He couldn’t say that his authority was not from God, because that would be untrue. But if he said outright that his authority was from God, he would be almost certainly provoking his hearers to further anger, probably pushing them further away from being ready to receive him, and possibly accelerating his arrest and execution before the moment was right.

This was a question to which no answer was a ‘win’.

When there are no ‘wins’ available, the best tactics are playing for a draw and avoiding the question altogether.

  1. Asking Them

Jesus was a master at asking the hard questions.

When he was asked whether taxes should be paid to Caesar, he responded with a simple question of his own – whose face is on the coin?

This question transformed the conversation. Instead of answering directly (a lose-lose situation), or avoiding the question (a draw), Jesus found a win as he shed new light on the issue through his own question.

A friend of mine describes this as planting a stone in the shoe of the listener – it is something that will stay with them for the rest of the day and cause them to consider a new outlook.

Good questions have power (Don’t believe me? Try responding to a toddler’s ‘why’ with a question of your own and you will see). A good question is worth a thousand good answers.

What questions have worked for you?