What Are They Really Asking?

How to answer spiritual questions.
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One of my colleagues told me the story of a professor, a brilliant man, whose father couldn't support the family. As a boy, this professor listened as the extended family argued over who was going to get stuck with raising him. In the middle of their arguing, feeling abandoned and unwanted, he slipped away to his room. There he found solace and escape in books.

His initial reaction to Christianity was to ask skeptical questions. He's not the only one for whom intellectualism becomes a way to mask pain. More than he needed his thinking corrected, he needed his heart mended. That brilliant boy did find healing in Christ, and today teaches seminary courses.

My ministry has brought me into contact with thousands of curious, questioning people. I've discovered that people ask spiritual questions because something in their lives isn't working. Uncertainty, fear, and pain provoke their questions. What they really want isn't information, but relief.

Most seekers' questions, whether intellectual or emotional, indicate underlying issues. Choosing to believe in Christ carries major internal ramifications. Snappy, pat answers don't satisfy these inner struggles. Nobody wants a two-cent answer to a million-dollar question.

Behind every question is a person asking that question, and we need to minister to that person—if we can find him.

What Do You Think?

A great irony in Scripture prompted me to rethink how I answer seekers' questions. When the Son of God walked the earth, people came to him with dilemmas, doubts, and questions. He had all answers available to him. And yet he met their questions with questions of his own.

In Luke 10:25-26, "An expert in the law stood up to test Jesus. 'Teacher,' he asked, 'what must I do to inherit eternal life?'"

Jesus didn't give the answer. Instead, he asked a question in return. "'What is written in the Law?' he replied. 'How do you read it?'"

In Matthew 18:12, Jesus asked, "What do you think? If a man owns a hundred sheep, and one of them wanders away, will he not leave the ninety-nine on the hills and go look for the one that wandered off?" The heart of the parable is nothing but two questions!

In Matthew 22:41-46, Jesus conducted a little Bible study on Psalm 110 with the Pharisees. "What do you think about the Christ? Whose son is he?" Through this conversation Jesus affirmed that the Christ would be more than an earthly son of David, but also the Son of God. Jesus' answer was to recite one verse and ask four questions.

He responded not to the question, but to the person behind the question.

I remember overhearing a college professor talking to a student about spiritual matters. The student claimed she didn't believe in God. Rather than argue, the professor asked a probing question. "What is this god like, the god you don't believe in?"

The student described a vengeful god, a god who looked to punish her as soon as she steps a little out of line.

By asking a probing question, the professor uncovered the underlying fears that caused the student's doubt. She wasn't looking for proof of God's existence. She was looking for relief from condemnation. Up to this point, only her claim that God didn't exist provided that relief.

"Well, I don't believe in that god either," said the professor. "Let me tell you about the God I do believe in, the God of Jesus Christ."

What to Ask

I've found several specific questions effective at reaching the underlying issues. Now, when someone asks me a spiritual question, I almost always reply, "That's an interesting question. What do you think?"

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