Did you know that you cannot hear and understand a question and not at least think of an answer? Let’s try it. I’ll ask you a simple question, and you try not to think of an answer. Ready? (I bet you just answered “yes” in your head.) Here we go. When is your birthday? Without even trying, I’m sure you thought of your birthday. Maybe, though, you’re a smart aleck like me and tried to disprove my thesis, in which case you probably thought something silly like “butterscotch.” However, even though you obviously gave a wrong answer, you did in fact still answer my question. Socrates famously taught using questions. Through what we now know as the Socratic method, he helped his students arrive at the answer themselves by asking them questions, rather than spoon-feeding them information. And if you watch for it in the Gospels, you’ll see that Jesus, the master Teacher, employed questions with great acumen. For some reason our Creator has given great power to questions, and we need to get better at asking them. “Why?” you ask. Good question.
Reason #1: Questions Show Humility.
Before diving into this first reason for asking good questions, let’s consider the variety of motivations behind questions. Think back to your school days for a minute. Remember the know-it-all show-off who tried to outsmart the teacher with his questions? Or the clown who tried to derail the teacher’s plan for the day by asking a question out of left field? Clearly, these types of questions are not motivated by humility. Asking a question to further your agenda (like the class clown) or to show what you know (like the show off) are not good motives for asking questions, and they’re not the type of questions I’m encouraging you to ask. To see these uses in action, read through the Gospels and watch how the Pharisees often used questions to try to trap Jesus. (And then watch how masterfully Jesus handles their ploys.)
But there’s a third motivation to ask questions: to gain information. That means I choose to ask another person about herself, or about something I’m not an expert in. In short, it means I have to get out of the spotlight and let someone else shine. In our selfie-centered, social-media, me-first culture, putting the interests of others ahead of our own is something of a foreign concept. However, it’s exactly what Paul calls us to do in Philippians 2:
Do nothing from selfishness or empty conceit, but with humility of mind regard one another as more important than yourselves; do not [merely] look out for your own personal interests, but also for the interests of others. (Phil. 2:3-4)
What better way to put your neighbor’s interests ahead of your own than by asking good questions when you’re with them? This will also require good listening. Remember the last time you spoke with your neighbor over the fence? What were some of his concerns? Are you ready to inquire about those concerns next time you talk? What is your friend interested in? What does she struggle with? Where has he been lately? Asking questions beyond “how are you doing?” demonstrates a desire to look out for the interests of others.
Reason #2: Questions Make Repentance Easier.
I attended a Bible college that required students to attend chapel every day. That means over the course of four years of college, I sat through more than 500 chapel sermons. And I remember maybe one percent of them. One point from one of those 500 sermons that I have carried with me, though, is this simple aphorism: Questions soften the conscience. Accusations harden the will.
Throughout the New Testament, believers are called to be peacemakers because of the conciliatory work done by Jesus Christ (see Matt. 5:9, 23-25; 18:15-20; Rom. 12:18; James 3:17-18; Col. 3:12-13). This means that we don’t run from a problem or ignore it, hoping that it will magically improve. Instead, we roll up our sleeves and do the arduous work of peacemaking. One of the most difficult parts of that task is confronting a sinner in his sin and helping him turn back to God in repentance. Scripture offers examples and admonitions for how to do this well; and we must take all of them into consideration. But for now, consider just one: use questions.
Because our brains can’t help but answer questions, a person is more likely to answer a humble question than an accusation or assertion. “What happened last night?” will probably be more effective than “I know you lied.” Also, a question asked in humility is less likely to bring a defensive answer. Asking questions allows you to find out more about the situation, more about what is going on in the person’s heart, life, and mind. Asking humble questions communicates compassion rather than self-righteousness. Of course, you’re never in control over another person’s response, but our goal as peacemakers is to make a repentant response the easiest response for the other person. Questions can help with that.
Reason #3: Questions Allow You to Hear a Whole Matter Before Answering It.
Proverbs 18:13 gives a stern warning:
He who gives an answer before he hears,
It is folly and shame to him.
Two scenarios come to mind in application to this proverb. First, ask questions to find out what happened in a situation before you respond. Whether mediating a squabble between siblings or weighing in on the latest reason for public unrest, before opening your mouth or taking to social media, ask some questions. Maybe you need to ask another person involved, or maybe you need to do some good, old-fashioned research, but ask your questions and find out, to the best of your ability, what really happened before you respond.
Second, ask questions before giving advice. Like it or not, we’re all counselors. You may not have any formal training or even any desire to counsel another person, but at some point, counseling will find you. Whether at the coffee pot at work, at the park chatting with another mom, at Starbucks with a friend, or in a Bible study, you will have the opportunity and even responsibility to give sound, biblical advice. That may sound scary, but in the moment, you may just think that you have the perfect answer. You don’t even need to listen to the rest of their whiny little rant. You’ll confidently jump in at the first breath and give them your advice. (I know because I’ve done it.)
Whether you’re intimidated or think you’ve got all the answers, the antidote (or at least part of it) is still the same: ask questions. Maybe your friend doesn’t really need your advice after all; they just need a listening ear. Questions will communicate that. Maybe there’s much more to the story than it first appears. Questions will help uncover that. Maybe there’s another side to the story that your friend hasn’t thought of. Questions will help the other person to see that. Maybe like me, you need to grow as a better listener. Questions will help instill that discipline.
Asking questions seems like an easy task, but it takes effort and intention. Will you put in the work to be a good question-asker?