Sometimes there is a question behind the question. The initial question might be something theoretical like this: “Daddy, what dessert is the healthiest?” Now that sounds suspicious to me. It’s crafty, especially when coming from a particularly wily 8-year-old. But that’s not the real question. You only get to the real question a bit later after you go through a series of others. The REAL question is this:
“Can we have ice cream tonight?”
That’s what he really wants an answer to, and I think we do the same thing when we ask bigger, more substantial questions about the nature of life, God, and humanity. Most of the time these initial questions come in the same hypothetical form. You know: “Could God make a rock too big for Him to move?” kind of stuff.
People pose questions about theology, the nature of good and evil, suffering and sovereignty, and even suicide. But when people are really honest, the questions aren’t so theoretical. There’s something else going on.
Another question is driving the question.
Here’s what it might look like in your church context this week. Let’s say that someone in one of your groups poses a question like this: “Why do bad things happen to Christians? Why doesn’t God choose to stop them if He’s really both loving and powerful at the same time?”
That’s not a new question. The question of evil and suffering in the world has been asked countless times in countless contexts throughout the years. But most of the time, the person isn’t merely asking for purely intellectual reasons. If they were, then that group might well move into a discussion about sovereignty, free will, God’s exercise of His power, and everything else that goes along with it. Problem is that none of that discussion really addresses the question behind the initial question.
Instead of being a purely intellectual query, that person is really asking:
“Why did my mom get cancer?”
“Why did God let my daughter have that car wreck?”
“What am I supposed to do about my job loss?”
These aren’t hypotheticals — this is the stuff of real life. As pastors, we can’t be content to merely dispense information. We have to help people get to the question behind the question, even if they don’t know what that is. And that process takes personal investment and time; it takes an intentional effort to actually know these people God has entrusted to our care.
Before dispensing a factual and theologically accurate answer, maybe we should first answer the person’s question with a question: “Why do you ask?”
Michael Kelley is director of discipleship at Lifeway Christian Resources and the author of Wednesdays Were Pretty Normal and Boring: Finding an Extraordinary God in an Ordinary Life. He holds a Master of Divinity degree from Beeson Divinity School and lives with his wife and three kids in Nashville, Tenn.