Using Questions to Get People to Think
Recently, one of my friends posted the following: “It’s hard to reason with a person who places feelings as the ultimate determiner of truth.” I responded, “Education and culture have been cranking out that truth is relative and/or that there is no truth for decades. “My truth”, that is, my feelings, are the only truth. We have to teach them to question, to ponder, and to think beyond the shallow rhetoric they’ve been given and yet to listen for still, small voice of God who is Truth.” Another respondent wrote, “So, then, the question is how does one relate lovingly and thoughtfully. Are there questions one can ask to encourage thought?” His question is the key to addressing the original problem.
For some time, I have believed, spoken, and written about the importance of asking questions whether we’re discussing faith, politics, or some other potentially controversial subject. I have been reacting to those who think that the right words are the key, but they are not. Of course, in situations where someone is seeking knowledge or understanding, well-written or well-spoken ideas, evidence, explanations, and arguments can help the seeker. Even then, I think it is important to ask, “Why do you believe that?” “Where did you get that idea?” or “How do you know?” Challenge unbelief and doubt as well: “Why not?” “Are you sure?” and “Based on what?”
Take Jesus, for example. “Woman, will you give me a drink?” She was a Samaritan, and Jesus was a Jew. Jews avoided contact with Samaritans, even avoided walking in their territory. Jesus’ questions not only showed he would talk with her but risk physical contact with her. He showed her compassion and thereby opened up a theological discussion as well. How many of us avoid strangers, those evidently of other religions, or those of whom we disapprove? How often do Christ followers express judgment or condemnation instead of love as if our sins don’t stink as badly as theirs? How easily do we avoid people because we are afraid, instead of reckoning that “perfect love drives out fear“? Incidentally questions make such contacts so very much easier.
What about the seeker looking in the wrong place or already thoroughly confused? In the rare case, that person may trust you, as a teacher or guide, enough to truly consider redirection; most times, they won’t! We humans are pretty proud and intently stubborn, even when we are ignorant. Sadly we often invest our trust in those who are little more knowledgeable or wise than we are. Education once taught things like freedom of thought and expression; now it often promotes ideologically based propaganda. Teachers, professors, political leaders, and pastors should be honest as well as trustworthy, but many freely lie, make promises they have no intention of keeping, and utter propaganda that many accept as true. On the other hand, even those who are themselves well-educated, anchored in truth, and gifted communicators will often be ignored or rejected. To make matters worse, people have learned to respond to different views with hostility and anger. Gently asked questions can diffuse and bypass such negativity.
One one occasion, years ago, two Mormon boys knocked on the door where I was living. No one else was home, so I invited them in. Of course, I had no interest in their religion, but I had an interest in them. They began to present their memorized spiel, and I began to ask questions. I was genuinely interested in the answers, so I could better understand them. I had no fear of counterfeits because I know the truth. In time, one of the boys began to say things like, “You have a good point.” Soon the other decided to bail, for fear of losing his partner. I hope my questions planted a seed of doubt that the Holy Spirit grew into true faith in the Savior.
Asking questions serves several valuable purposes. They show interest in those being asked the questions; and, at the beginning especially, some should be intentionally posed to get to know them better and to let them know they are loved for themselves, not just as prospective converts or allies. Ask questions genuinely to inquire as to their beliefs and, particularly, the reason for them. These are what and why questions, and they will avoid the embarrassment of discovering, later on, that some assumptions were incorrect. We cannot read minds, after all. The third important use for questions is to draw important ideas from the person’s own thinking prompted by good questions. This is the Socratic Method, and it’s sad so many of us have neglected knowing and using it. I am sorry to admit that includes me. Although I have long prompted the wise use of questions; for some reason, it just recently clicked in my reflections, that my ideas may have substantive support in the work of the ancient philosopher. So I have some homework to do.
For now, permit me to add one further observation. The use of questions must be lovingly paired with listening skills. To much of our evangelistic and political rhetoric tend toward a pretentious posture or “Listen to ME!” This is the basis for largely pointless and frequently angry battles of words, too numerous to count. Yet, if most of us consider it honestly, we will admit that we measure the love, esteem, and respect of others by their willingness to listen to us. The opposite attitude we call being “inconsiderate,” that is, refusing to consider or even listen to what we think or say. Inconsiderate actions arise from paying no attention to what another has expressed or indicated as important or desirable. Is it any wonder, then, that our attempts at changing people’s minds frequently fail? That is why I wrote “Listening, the Key to Evangelism.”(https://jrogerw.com/2007/11/27/listening-the-key-to-evangelism/), which was originally part of a series of messages called “Listening, the Key to Almost Everything.”
Unfortunately, too few American believers give a damn! And, no, I’m not just swearing. The consequence of our neglect is the literal condemnation of those who are never truly presented with the Gospel. Trivial tracts and slogans don’t count. In a time and culture thoroughly brainwashed with lies, propaganda, emotional sentimentalism, atheist progressivism, materialism, and hedonistic narcissism, we must work to penetrate their complacency. Sadly many of us are polluted by some of these ideas, enough that we are equally comfortable in our disinterest, except when our comfort is threatened; then we get angry! Jesus has more than amply challenged us: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you.” He also warned us, “ If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.” I fear many religious Christians are too quick to think, “To hell with you then,” as if their resistance to our too blunt, condescending, disinterest is not our problem.
Don’t misunderstand me. I know that sharing Christ among those who are becoming increasingly hostile to Christianity may be difficult, but let’s not assume that as an easy excuse to be lazy and uncaring. Personally I haven’t given up on a spiritual restoration of the American people, however impossible it sometimes feels. Jesus came into the pagan Roman Empire and was executed after only three years, but, wow, what happened as a result defies mere human schemes. I am convinced we have many ways we can open up positive relationships and dialog with unbelievers. The combination of good questions and attentive listening can be both loving and powerful, but like anything worthwhile and effective, it will take time. While our families should be a primary focus of our attention, they should not be our only focus. Close by are co-workers, neighbors, friends of our children, people we contact in our everyday activities, people we meet when we volunteer, take vacations, play or attend sports and events, as well as those we go out of our way to meet and help. Questions were an effective tool for Socrates, Jesus used questions powerfully, and I urge you to put questions to work for you as a gentle loving way to interact with those who need Jesus as well as those who might benefit from a bit of kind redirection.