What Is a Good Question?

Don: Mankind’s quest to know about God has always been based upon answers. There is great comfort in answers, as if somehow I salvation depends upon them—upon their truth being underwritten by a body of knowledge. In science, too, we value conclusions, solutions, and cause and effect answers. But over and over, God and Jesus rely on questions, rather than answers.

We value questions too. We’ve asked if an entire doctrine could be made up of them. Would they be questions that we ask God, or that God asks us? As knowledge accumulates and provides more and more information about ourselves and the universe we live in, do the answers grow more uncertain, less ambiguous, more secure? Or are they like Hydra’s head, with each new answer spawning a multitude of new questions?

It seems that the God of the Bible values an existence based not upon the cause and effect we so value, but upon questions, ambiguity, and ultimately grace—the ultimate suspension of cause and effect, since we do not get what we deserve.

In the garden of Eden, the two trees illustrate the point. The forbidden Tree of Knowledge is also the tree of uncertainty, of reason, of discrimination, and of cause and effect (eat the fruit and die). The Tree of Life is certain, unambiguous, and secure. But when Man ate the forbidden fruit, he heralded the beginning of a new paradigm based on questions rather than answers. In the immediate aftermath of the Fall:

They heard the sound of the Lord God walking in the garden in the cool of the day, and the man and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the Lord God among the trees of the garden. Then the Lord God called to the man, and said to him, “Where are you?” He said, “I heard the sound of You in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked; so I hid myself.” And He said, “Who told you that you were naked? Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?” The man said, “The woman whom You gave to be with me, she gave me from the tree, and I ate.” Then the Lord God said to the woman, “What is this you have done?” And the woman said, “The serpent deceived me, and I ate.” (Genesis 3:8-13)

God asked four questions: “Where are you? Who told you that you were naked? Did you eat from the forbidden tree” and “What is this that you have done?” They are a pattern for God’s subsequent questions throughout Scripture and throughout the ages, said in many different ways, sometimes partial, sometimes complete. These are the great existential questions of life.

  • “Where are you?” is a question God asks Man through the Ages. It is a call to assess where we stand before God. Are we standing before God’s light, or are we shirking on the darkness of the bushes?
  • “Who told you that you were naked?” This is a call to re-assess one’s self-evaluation. The question forever calls into suspicion the notion that Mankind has an accurate self assessment. With this question, God establishes eternally that He is the assessor of Mankind; that we are not assessors of ourselves.
  • ‘Did you eat from the forbidden tree?” Does God not know the answers to His questions? Is God seeking information? Our questions always seek information, but God’s questions seek to enlighten the person He questions. As in this case, they are designed to elicit confession and acknowledgment of our failed human condition and of course, ultimately, of our need of God.
  • “What is this that you have done?” This is a summary question; a call to reflect upon all the previous questions and on the consequences. The consequences are that everything has changed: Wo/Man’s standing before God is changed, their self-assessment is changed, their standing before their fellow wo/man has changed. In essence, God established a new doctrinal paradigm based on these questions alone.

All of the subsequent questions he posed to Abraham, Sarah, Moses, Jacob, David, and all the way to you and me, are variations of these four fundamental questions.

When Jesus was asked:

“Teacher, which is the great commandment in the Law?” 

He replied:

“‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 22:36-40)

This was one of God’s very few direct answers. It parallels the questions asked in the Garden. It shows the love of God, our standing before God, and our relationship with our fellow wo/man—the central and key ingredients of the law and even the Ten Commandments, whose unambiguous detail can be encapsulated in two fundamental principles.

Questions can elicit powerful insights. Can they be a basis for enlightenment? Or do we need answers as well? According to Hal Gregersen, Executive Director of the MIT Leadership Center, questions open the mind to unexpected and potentially transformative solutions to seemingly intractable problems. And yet, while questions are innate to our nature, we tend to suppress them as we mature, because they betray our ignorance.

Gregersen has found that brainstorming for questions while disallowing answers is a way of forcibly overcoming this reluctance. Questions make it easier to push past cognitive biases and venture into uncharted territory. Even organizations that ostensibly encourage questions may have internalized the culture-driven habit of not asking them—especially the tough ones. To change this habit, the culture must let people feel safe pursuing the truth, no matter where it takes them. To do so takes humility, vulnerability, and trust by the leadership, who must empower others and treat them equitably. Absent those conditions, questions tend to be constrained or even crushed.

Gregersen has developed what he calls a “question burst” methodology. In traditional brainstorming—the kind that focuses on generating answers—group dynamics and social anxiety can hinder original thinking and stifle the voices of introverted members. But question burst methodology, by design, prompts people to depart from their usual habits of social interaction. It creates a safe space for anyone, including a quieter person, to offer a different perspective. Because a question burst doesn’t demand that anyone instantly assert a point of view, people often feel more comfortable speaking up. The sole focus on questions also suspends (in some, but not all; especially not leaders) the automatic rush to provide an answer—and ultimately helps expand the problem space for deeper exploration.

According to Gregersen, about 80% of the time, the first question burst produces at least one question that usefully reframes the problem and provides a new angle for solving it. These questions are then used to seed a second question burst, and so on.

The result, he suggests, is a sense of enlightenment, of understanding a problem or issue in such a way that you can apply an enlightened, pragmatic solution or approach to it.

Donald: I don’t know if churches would describe themselves as providing solutions to life, but they do tend to be uncomfortable with difficult questions, because their identities rest on providing answers. Where Scripture doesn’t seem to provide ready answers to the difficult questions, churches endeavor to fill the gap.

David: The Pew polling organization makes a business of asking questions about life. They are designed to elicit measurable, empirical data that are hard to dispute. You can’t really argue with “9 out of 10 people said they Surf washes whiter than Tide” if the questions have passed rigorous scientific muster for bias and validity. They can even delve into our psychology. But Pew does not ask the difficult—the existential—questions. It does not ask: “Where are you?” (except in the mundane sense of physical location). Why not? What is the difference between the questions Pew asks and the ones it never asks? Is it the same as the difference between the questions churches tolerate and the ones they don’t tolerate?

KB: A solution is a response to a problem. An answer is a response to a direct question. “I am KB” is an answer to “Who are you?” but it is not a solution to anything. Some questions answer themselves, eventually, if you persist in asking them. As a teacher I use questions to gauge a class’s understanding of my lesson. Sometimes, my question itself makes me realize that I might not have covered the subject adequately, and it gives me an opportunity to remedy the deficit. Questions are vital for growth.

But questions also have a relationship with power. People in authority tend not to like questions that challenge their authority. Yet they can help the authority gauge how well they are governing. They can help churches gauge how well they are meeting their congregations’ spiritual needs.

Donald: Questions can be asked to move someone along on a journey to a place the questioner wants them to go. Or they can be designed to exercise the mind of the questioner in the course of the journey.

Churches are powerful. We tend to pay heed to answers provided by the powerful–by any powerful people, including even Hollywood stars with no deep knowledge of a topic in question.

David: There is laudable humility in the teacher who gauges, through her questions, how well (or not) her students are absorbing the lesson she is trying to teach them. Humility and empathy seem to me to be desirable and beneficial traits in a good leader/authority/power. Gregersen notes that the most difficult part of his methodology is preventing leaders from providing answers the moment their subordinates ask them in a question burst session. To such leaders, the ready answer is a badge of authority. But the result is bad leadership, bad answers, bad decisions.

Donald: Ultimately we expect our doctors to have answers, not questions. And they need to be sure answers, not honestly doubtful ones. They need to be solutions to our health problem.

Don: Is the doctor’s authority different in some way from the authority of the pastor, the husband, the wife, the teacher, the institution, and so on?

David: Weekly meetings of the Jehovah’s Witnesses feature questions prominently. The questions are a mix of existential and pragmatical, and the answers all cite specific passages in the Bible as the authority. But the Scripture is interpreted by the leadership at Bethel and the answers are thus mediated by the leadership before Q and A are published in the Watchtower magazine so the membership can read the questions and learn the authoritative and authorized answers in preparation for being asked the questions aloud during their meeting. Congregants vie to answer each question—there is always a rapid show of hands when each question is asked from the podium. It is like a test.

Donald: What’s the difference between Bible study and a sermon?

David: The JWs do not have pastors but they have elders, who give a precisely timed sermon (which they call a “talk”) which is apparently prepared in Bethel and distributed to every elder scheduled to preach that day. In our class, the format is similar: Don gives a talk and invites questions, but it differs in that he does not give homework—there is no Scripture and prepared Q & A to study ahead of class.

Don: When I returned from India and joined senior class in high school, I was required to take typing with the sophomore class, since I had not been taught typing at school in India. I was not a good typist and the whole thing was embarrassing. So I asked my dad if I should drop the class. He said: “I think you should do whatever you want to do.” I was very uncomfortable with that answer, and pressed him repeatedly for an answer, to no avail. I was distraught at making possibly the wrong decision on my own, but the authority to whom I turned was silent! This never happens with church, which invariably has an answer to its members’ questions. A church will never tell you that another church down the street might have a better answer.

David: That to me is the attraction of religions or quasi-religions like Daoism and Zen Buddhism, where all the value is in questions. Its masters so devalue answers as to give blatantly nonsensical answers to novitiates who ply them with questions. And the questions the masters ask the novitiates often, and meaningfully, have no answer: “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” Western and eastern religions have taken different paths, it seems.

Donald: What do they want one to accomplish in Sabbath school? Is it to be able to answer the questions? If so, why not stop at points during a sermon and encourage people to discuss the point among themselves? It would be considered highly inappropriate to interrupt a sermon with a question, while it is being delivered with all authority by a pastor from a podium on a stage.

Don: Why are we in this position, given that in Scripture we can clearly see God turning to questions? The greatest illustrations of that, and of the enlightenment that results, is in the story of Job, and in the ministry of Jesus, who hardly ever gave a straight answer but answered obliquely through another question, an obtuse statement, or a parable; or, He ignored the question entirely. Why can’t God answer our questions?

KB: God answers our questions with questions. Doctors ask questions too: “Where are you feeling the pain?” “When did it start?” “What did you do about it?” But then the doctor puts it all together and forms an answer. Perhaps God does too.

Don: At the end of the Sermon on the Mount:

When Jesus had finished these words, the crowds were amazed at His teaching; for He was teaching them as one having authority, and not as their scribes. (Matthew 7:29)

We expect answers of authorities, as the Jews expected of the scribes and Pharisees. Yet the crowd at the Sermon on the Mount considered Him a greater authority than them, on the basis of His questions.

Donald: Authority is usually conferred on those who purport to have answers.

Don: …such as the shaman, the witchdoctor, the king; yet unlike Jesus.

KB: We often ask questions in a way to solicit a particular answer we want. How we phrase our questions affects the answer. We can challenge someone who does not answer our question—we can demand an answer, but we can’t do that with God. In that case, we should think about re-phrasing our question. When I ask my dad a question, the power relationship that exists between us makes it difficult for him to say “I don’t know the answer.” So he will say to me: “Please re-phrase your question.” That gives me a clue that he might not know the answer and allows me to “re-phrase” it in such a way that I know he will be able to answer, thus maintaining his dignity and the balance of power.


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