The Value of Asking Questions

Matthew Lee Anderson
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I have never really doubted that God exists. I have considered the arguments on each side and have tried to do so honestly. But those inquiries were prompted by people around me—by friends and family who stood on the shores of unbelief wondering whether they should swim. I looked with them but was never seriously tempted. The universe seems too orderly, too rational to be here by accident.

I have doubted whether God is good, though, and especially whether He will be good to me. There have been moments where my uncertainty about God’s kindness has almost crushed me. We think of doubt as an “intellectual” problem, but it can dramatically transform our entire posture toward the world. “I would have despaired,” the psalmist writes, “unless I had believed that I would see the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living” (Ps. 27:13). When we see God, will He smile at us? There is no neutrality, no cool detachment in the face of such a question. Nothing less than the universe depends on how we answer it—or, perhaps, how it is answered for us.

God calls us into the questioning life through questioning us; His questions liberate us to question Him. The psalmists knew the strange joy of laying bare our frustrations, sorrows, and anger before Him:

“Why do You stand far away, Lord? Why do You hide Yourself in times of trouble?” (Ps. 10:1)

“How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?” (Ps. 13:1)

“Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?” (Ps. 77:9)

These are questions that God has authorized us to ask, questions that our Lord Jesus would even have regularly had on His lips. Even so, hearing God’s questions is the cost of our freedom to question God. The psalmists question us, not only God: “Oh Lord, who shall sojourn in your tent? Who shall dwell on your holy hill?” (Ps. 15:1) “Why do you boast of evil, O mighty man?” (Ps. 52:1) “Who considers the power of your anger, and your wrath according to the fear of you?” (Ps. 90:11) “If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130:3) The psalmists’ approach to questioning embodies the Golden Rule: we should question God only as we would have Him question us.

And Jesus does put questions to us. “What are you seeking?” Christ asks two disciples who had begun following Him at the outset of John’s gospel (John 1:38). They answer His question with one of their own: “Rabbi,” they say, “where are you staying?” “Come and you will see,” Jesus tells them, inviting them into the inner confines of His home. The disciples know they are not equals with Jesus: they begin following Him only after hearing John the Baptist announce, “Behold, the Lamb of God!” But Christ’s first word to them is an invitation to say what they seek, to name the desires of their heart.

The universe seems too orderly, too rational to be here by accident.

Many of Christ’s questions in the Gospels are rhetorical; we find them opening His parables and embedded in His sermons. Sometimes Jesus uses questions to trap His foes, admonish His disciples, or vent His frustrations. Christ’s questions draw people deeper into His own life by prompting them to make their thoughts and desires explicit.

“What do you want me to do for you?” (Luke 18:41)

“Do you believe that I am able to do this?” (Matthew 9:28)

“Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matthew 20:22)

“Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15)

The questioning life is responsive and responsible to God. In questioning, we direct our attention outward, away from ourselves toward another who can give us an answer. We might put questions to our parents, to professors, or to proteins, like a chemistry teacher would. In every case, questioning opens us to the world and puts us in a position where we can only receive what we are offered in response. Sometimes we find what we are looking for, and sometimes we do not. Questions invite the other person to speak—an invitation we should also be willing to receive. Jesus asks His disciples what they want, and they ask Him where He is staying. In His questions, Jesus invites us into a relationship of giving and taking, of mutuality and reciprocity. He does not merely question us; He questions with us, speaking and listening to us as His friends.

What does it mean to live a questioning life? What are we doing when we put our inquiries to the world? Where do questions come from? What does a question feel like, and how is it different than a statement or assertion? If we are going to learn to question well, we must first see what questioning is.

The Anatomy of Questioning

What happens when we ask a question? The practice is one of our most common ways of interacting with the world, yet its mechanics remain ambiguous. We know what questioning is not, namely, making an assertion that is either true or false. We wake in the morning and declare, “What a beautiful morning!” when we see the sun shining through the open window on a spring day. We make assertions with less confidence as the world becomes more complicated. Still, the declarative sentence, the indicative mood, is how we describe the world as we know it.

A question does something different than declare what we know or think is true. It points us toward the unknown, directing our attention to something that is currently hidden from us. “Why is it raining?” the child asks his mother. The child knows that it is raining and knows what rain is, namely, drops of water falling from the sky. But is it raining because atmospheric pressure has dropped, allowing clouds to form so that water droplets become heavy enough to fall to the earth—or is it raining because God is crying, and crying because of something the child did (as comedian Jack Handy once quipped)? There is a right and wrong answer to the question, but the child does not know it. So he interrogates his mother until he is satisfied or she is exhausted.

Questioning is a form of intellectual poverty, as it is an encounter with what we do not know. In questioning, we practice becoming “poor in spirit,” which Jesus commends as “blessed” in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:3). We ask because we do not have the answer already within ourselves. The question discloses our ignorance, our perplexity, our want or need for understanding. The paradox of the questioning life is that we must become so comfortable with our intellectual poverty that we are not ashamed to ask for help and so eager to leave it that we persist in asking our questions. The only path to wisdom lies through the confusion and bafflement we feel when we come to the limits of our knowledge.

Questioning directs our attention to what is hidden from us, to what we cannot see.

Questioning directs our attention to what is hidden from us, to what we cannot see. Which is a little weird if we are being honest. How can we look at what is not there? Artists speak of “negative space,” which is a helpful concept for understanding how questions work. The negative space around a sculpture or an image is the area where something is not. Consider Michelangelo’s statue of David. His majestic right hand rests on his thigh, creating a space between his arm and torso—the space where his arm is not.

In questioning, we notice the negative spaces in our understanding—the parts of our mental picture that are not there—and try to fill them in. In learning, we piece together our facts, morals, and everything we know to tell a coherent story about the world. Along the way, though, we are likely to encounter aspects or features of the world that do not make sense. We encounter an event or idea that does not fit our picture. Such moments bring us into contact with the edges of our understanding, the negative spaces of the unknown that surround us at every moment. Questions emerge when we come up against an unknown that we would like to explore and find out.

The unknowns we encounter have a shape, though: they are not “formless and void,” as the world was before God spoke in Genesis 1. As we see negative space only by discerning the outlines of an object, we see the unknown only by attentively considering what lies around it. The ignorance that motivates questions depends upon knowledge. The boy who asks his mother about rain must know enough about the world to know what he does not know. If he does not know that rain is water falling from the sky, then he cannot ask why it is raining. What he sees gives form to the negative spaces he asks about; what he knows gives shape to what he does not know.

Questioning does not only make us aware of our ignorance; it also deepens our understanding of what we know. Consider how we respond to losing our keys—a feeling I am too familiar with. We do not know exactly where to look to find them. If we did, they would not be lost. The impotence and ignorance that beset us in such moments can be infuriating. So, what do we do? We retrace our steps. We eliminate possibilities. We look at the most plausible locations first until we eventually wonder whether they somehow ended up beneath the kitchen sink (nope). In that process, we give our house attention it rarely receives. We discover money beneath couch cushions and find photos hidden in desk drawers. Similarly, searching for an answer reveals depths to what we already know that we might never have encountered otherwise.

Knowledge makes the world mysterious and helps us investigate it better. In the case of the keys, the longer we search the more baffled we become by their location. We start our search by idly wondering where we left them. After an hour of hunting, though, we might begin to wonder whether we ever owned keys to begin with. We feel the mystery of their location most when we have exhausted our options for where they might be.

The questioning life thus has time for mystery—both at the beginning of our search and at its end, when we are “lost in wonder, love and praise” of God. It is appropriate to confess that our knowledge of God is limited. But the true mystery of God’s life only becomes manifest when we carefully investigate His revelation of Himself. Our knowledge of God’s mystery must be won, not used as a cheap way to escape thinking clearly about God. Those pursuing doctoral degrees sometimes quip that they learned how much they do not know. (The wise ones actually believe it.) Socrates became the wisest man in Athens through questioning his teachers and discovering they claimed knowledge they did not have. Socrates was wise because he knew his ignorance, while others were ignorant but were not aware of it. Yet Socrates learned his ignorance only through persistent and patient inquiry, which routinely demonstrates his considerable learning. Ignorance is not the enemy of knowledge, but its origin and companion. And our final inability to comprehend God’s life is not really ignorance, anyway, but a studious wonder at a mystery we cannot finally unravel.

Understanding is cyclical and compounding: we question better as we learn more and we learn more as we question better. We associate questioning with youthfulness, for understandable reasons. Children are naturally inquisitive. They search and explore their surroundings with abandon. But if the young question most, the wise question best. The art of questioning takes a lifetime to perfect, for the most interesting questions flow from a deep well of insights. The more we understand, the more aware we will be of the negative spaces around us. Those who have learned best and longest will explore forgotten nooks and corners that those of us starting out cannot begin to imagine. They will see questions that only well-trained eyes are strong enough to detect.

What Questions Do

What do questions do to us? How do they form us? While our questions signal our interest in the unknown, what about the questions that come to us? The questioning life is not a self-enclosed life, but involves an openness to being questioned by others. Think about Job, who after losing his family, work, and health puts his grievances to God: “Does it seem good to you to oppress, to despise the work of your hands and favor the designs of the wicked? Have you eyes of flesh? Do you see as man sees?” (Job 10:3–4) God answers Job, if we can call it that, with a barrage of questions of His own: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me, if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements—surely you know! Or who stretched the line upon it? On what were its bases sunk, or who laid its cornerstone, when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” (Job 38:4–7) G. K. Chesterton wrote of the conclusion to Job that the “riddles of God are more satisfying than the answers of man” (G. K. Chesterton, Introduction to the Book of Job) But why?

Questions call us to reimagine the world. If someone gives an answer, we can either take it or leave it. A question asks something of the recipient, though: it invites a response, drawing them into a conversation. What would it mean for Job to have been there “when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” Understanding God’s question takes us beyond a naked confrontation with God’s assertion of His superiority into the act of seeking understanding. Job is invited to imagine a world that makes sense of the question and provides an answer, much like we do when trying to find our keys. God’s question opens a “negative space” before Job, which underscores Job’s limits as a creature. God might have told Job that he does not have God’s perspective on the world—which He did, in one sense. When God asks, “Have you entered into the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?” there is no doubt about the answer. But by questioning Job, God allows him to explore the gap between them and to view creation as God does. God effectively tells Job, “Come and see.”

Understanding is cyclical and compounding: we question better as we learn more and we learn more as we question better.

And Job does see. “I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,” he says in his response, “but now my eye sees you.” (Job 42:5) God’s questions make Job feel his limits as a creature and invite his response. It is one thing to know that no one can stand before God. It is another to have to answer “no one,” when God asks, “Who then is he who can stand before me?” God’s questions dignify Job. They might be rhetorical, but their audience is real and can really respond. God’s revelation of Himself does not annihilate Job but establishes and confirms him as a creature who can speak with God. God answers Job’s questions with questions of His own—questions that Job must answer, even if only with confession and praise.

Many of the questions Christ puts to us in the Gospels work in a similar fashion. When a question is posed in the middle of a sermon, it heightens the audience’s self-reflection by inviting them to answer silently. The Sermon on the Mount freely uses questions this way. “You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus tells His hearers, “but if salt has lost its taste, how shall its saltiness be restored?” (Matthew 5:13) Jesus’ question simultaneously compels us to wonder whether we have lost our saltiness and confronts us with our inability to restore it. Similarly, Christ’s command to love our enemies comes with a battery of questions that underscores the commandment’s uniqueness and exposes our moral limits: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:46‒47) His relentless questions in the Sermon heighten the drama of whether we will conform to His life. “Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” “Which one of you, if his son asks him for bread, will give him a stone?” “Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?” Even rhetorical questions evoke a response from us—they raise the stakes and make us accountable to the speaker in a way that didactic claims do not.

The Scandal of Questioning Well

Questioning can be uncomfortable. “In much wisdom is much vexation,” the writer of Ecclesiastes states, “and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.”42 We do not always know where our questions will take us, which makes asking them risky. This is especially true as people age, which is why I think so few old men and women are still explorers. The twenty-year-old who questions might risk their relationship with family and friends—but the sixty-year-old who questions might jeopardize their life’s work. If they question too deeply, they might have to turn away from practices they have treasured from their youth. What could make such a risk worth taking, especially if our beliefs have served us well enough? It is safer to drown our questions in a flood of amusements and trivialities, to inoculate ourselves against the unknown. We are experts at avoiding the nagging disquiet of questions we cannot answer. It is better not to be disturbed.

The questioning life might not be safe, but it is good. The only journeys that really matter are ones where the stakes are real. Some questions might require us to leave our father’s religion and enter into a new way of life. We might find ourselves in need of repentance and forgiveness, as we come to terms with the fact that we were wrong and that the damage we inflicted was real. We can only learn this through discovering what is right, and growing in the joy that comes with living in the truth. Either we question ourselves or questions will thrust themselves upon us. Sometimes they will openly attack us—but more often, they will haunt us in the inarticulate regions of our hearts, creating a persistent discomfort with the way we live now until they are brought into the light.

And if we are also wrong about our new beliefs? Well, if we keep on exploring, we shall someday discover that as well. All who seek will find.

For Further Reading:

Called Into Questions

by Matthew Lee Anderson

Do we know what it means to question well? We need not fear questions. By the grace of God, we have the safety and security to rush headlong...

book cover for Called Into Questions