“Answers before questions,” Henri Nouwen wrote, “do damage to the soul.”
Think about that for a moment, especially as it relates to your religious upbringing. How many times were you given the dignity of being asked a question about God (or anything, for that matter) as a child? How many times were you given answers before you even thought to ask? I’m not saying answers are bad for us. But answers typically don’t help before the right question is allowed to form within us.
In John’s gospel, near the end of the very first chapter, we find John the Baptist teaching two of his own disciples, when Jesus walked by. In a moment of startling humility, John told his disciples that the “Lamb of God” was passing by, implying (I suppose) that they should leave his side and follow Jesus instead, which is exactly what they did.
I’m not sure exactly how this next part happened, but when Jesus saw that these two men were following him, he turned to them. Were they just sort of awkwardly lurking behind him a few steps? Were they nudging each other, insisting the other one say something – anything? Regardless, the very first thing Jesus does is ask they a question, and it’s a delicious one.
“When Jesus turned and saw them following him, he asked, “What are you looking for?” (John 1:38).
If you are the kind of person who likes these kinds of statistics, Jesus apparently asked 307 different questions in the gospels. He was asked 183 questions, and he only directly answered three of them.
That is very badass.
But it’s also illuminating as it relates to his teaching style. He was a master teacher, and he seemed to excel by asking questions, telling ridiculous stories (parables) that left his closest friends scratching their heads in bewilderment, while the religious establishment seemed to walk away seething.
So, we can assume if you sidled up to Jesus today, he’d ask you a question, maybe even that same delicious one:
What are you looking for?
Don’t answer too quickly. Let it marinate until it sinks down to the soul level. What do you really want? Not what should you want, but what do you really want? This question could lead you on a perilous journey. But aren’t you tired of answers without appropriate questions? Perhaps your whole life feels like one big answer without the dignity of the right question.
There are some religious folks that will think this is dangerous, and they’re right; it is. You might actually leave small answers in favor of bigger questions (and bigger answers). If religion could be personified (ha!), my experience is that most of religion unconsciously treats belief like a house of cards, and it’s (unconsciously) afraid that if you pull the wrong card out at the wrong time, the whole house will fall down. They may be right.
My contention is that God isn’t a house of cards, but I guess that’s another blog post.
Ask questions. Allow God to ask you questions. Let them lead you on a journey of discovery. But don’t try to answer them too soon. Let them be questions for long enough so that when you do find answers, they are big enough to hold you, and your precious story.
If I’ve learned nothing else, I’ve learned this: a question is a powerful thing, a mighty use of words. Questions elicit answers in their likeness. Answers mirror the questions they rise, or fall, to meet. So while a simple question can be precisely what’s needed to drive to the heart of the matter, it’s hard to meet a simplistic question with anything but a simplistic answer. It’s hard to transcend a combative question. But it’s hard to resist a generous question. We all have it in us to formulate questions that invite honesty, dignity, and revelation. There is something redemptive and life-giving about asking better questions.
In it together, friends.
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Please consider using the journal I just wrote and released – These Good Words: 30 Days of Scripture and Reflection, available as an immediate download here.
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