Have you ever sat in awkward silence with strangers wondering what to say next? Or, have you wondered how to grow in your knowledge of the world, of people, or of God? Have you pondered how you might more effectively minister to people? One answer to problems posed in those questions is to ask a good question.
Young children ask “Why?” countless times a day. Some of us struggle to mature beyond that stage. I started my first job at age 13. Soon, I frustrated my boss with constant queries, and he finally asked me to stop asking “Why?” Looking back, he was amazingly patient with my abuse of a good thing.
You see, God created the question. He made us as relational beings, and he brings growth through question and answer. If we are to grow in our relationship with God and men, we need to grow as inquisitive creatures.
In our relationship with God, Jesus tells us: “Ask and it shall be given unto you.” James echoes the same, writing: “You do not have because you do not ask.” In our relationship to doctrine, church leaders and parents have for centuries inculcated truth by catechizing students – teaching through question and answer.
But here, let us consider how to grow in our relationships with people through the use of the question. My mentor in college, Pastor Dave Long, assigned our discipleship group the task of studying Jesus’ questions in the gospels as a means of becoming more effective in evangelism. He then assigned us to go out and ask questions – specific in number and type. That study changed my life. Jesus used this tool extensively in his life and ministry. The gospels record about 175 questions asked by Jesus. Inquiries pervade his ministry. If so much of his ministry was taken up asking questions, shouldn’t we learn to do the same?
What kinds of questions did Jesus ask, and how can we learn from them? What follows are seven kinds of questions asked by Jesus. They begin with the easiest kinds of questions and move to more difficult questions. Admittedly, the categories are somewhat arbitrary, but they are still helpful. As you read, ask yourself the questions: “Do I ask these kinds of questions regularly?" or "How can I become more effective with questions?" or "Who could I ask today?” We will only grow in Christlikeness through conscious, intentional effort – so, why not begin today?
- Informing Questions: Mark 8:5: “And [Jesus] asked them, ‘How many loaves do you have?’ They said, ‘Seven.’” Jesus asked questions to gather information, even as the eternal Son of God. These questions are the easiest to ask, and people find them easy to answer, because most people love to talk about themselves, if they sense the questioner really is interested. What do we do in that moment of awkward silence with strangers? Ask about their job, family, hometown, education, or activities. Consider them to be more significant than yourself by humbling yourself with a question that gives them the floor. People are fascinating. Get to know them. Of course, we do not want to overwhelm them with questions such that the conversation is one-sided or so that they sense they are being grilled. But, we usually err on the side of asking too few questions rather than too many. Instead, we ought to begin by asking ourselves: “What does God want me to know about this person that I do not now know?” (see also: Mark 5:30, John 1:38, 11:34, 21:5).
- Discerning Questions: Matthew 16:15: “[Jesus] said to them, ‘But who do you say that I am?’” Jesus masterfully drew out of the hearts of people what was within, just as he did with the disciples in this case. In response, Peter stated his belief that Jesus is the Christ. As we interact with people and draw closer to them (sometimes even in one short conversation) we can appropriately ask questions like “What do you think?” or “What is your opinion?” At a little deeper level we may ask: “What has the Lord done in your heart?” These questions go beyond mere information and begin to reveal the heart. As people reveal what is within, we must carefully listen and be responsible with what they share. These kinds of questions can and should reveal that we care deeply, like Jesus. For both informing and discerning questions, it is usually best to ask open-ended questions that begin with words like “Why? How? What do you think? Would you tell me about?” Closed-ended questions typically begin with “Who? What? Where? When?” and expect one or two word answers. Those can be conversation killers (see also: Proverbs 20:5, Matthew 20:32, Mark 9:16-17, John 5:6, 6:61-64, 6:67-68, 13:38, 20:15, 21:15-17).
- Referring Questions: Mark 10:3: “[Jesus] answered them, ‘What did Moses command you?’" Jesus often referred hearers to the work of God with a question. We can tell people what the Bible says, but it is often more effective to ask if they know what it says, and then take them there. Such an approach directs attention to God’s word, and forces people to look at it, rather than simply take our word for it. Those who feel ill-quipped for evangelism should have a few of these questions ready. The power of the gospel is not in our persuasiveness, but the word of God has power. If all we can do is simply direct people there in a thoughtful way, we will be faithful (see also: Mark 2:24-26, Luke 20:17, John 10:34).
- Leading Questions: John 4:35: “Do you not say, 'There are yet four months, then comes the harvest'?” With this question, Jesus is not yet teaching a truth, but he is setting the table in the mind of his hearers. He goes on then to teach: “Look, I tell you, lift up your eyes, and see that the fields are white for harvest.” Often, it can be helpful to lead hears with questions to the point that they are ready to receive teaching. Parables often include embedded questions as the Master leads to his point. Rather than simply telling a child that a weak inner spiritual life is bad, it is far more effective to take them to a fallen tree with a rotten core and ask: “Why did the tree fall?” and then help the child connect the dots. (see also: Matthew 7:9-10, 26:53, Mark 4:30, Luke 13:7, 17:7).
- Teaching Questions: Matthew 6:27: “And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life?” Teaching questions have the answer embedded right in the question. These are generally rhetorical. Audible answers are unnecessary. These questions are appropriate usually after the relationship has developed further. But they can be powerful and leave a person thinking. How many times have you heard someone say as they tell of their conversion “I kept thinking about that question…” (see also: Matthew 5:13, 5:46, 6:25, Mark 2:8-9, 3:23, 7:18, 9:12, Luke 13:4, 16:11-12, John 11:40).
- Encouraging Questions: John 11:40: “Jesus said to her, ‘Did I not tell you that if you believed you would see the glory of God?’" Here, Jesus’ question was designed to elicit faith in Martha just before Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. In some ways, this is just another teaching lesson, but it calls for a response of faith. We can learn to phrase such encouragements as questions to further engage the listener. How profitable it can be to lead people, even young children to faith, by asking questions like “Do you see that if you call on the name of the Lord, you will be saved? “How can you grow to love God more?” (see also: Matthew 6:30, 16:26, Mark 5:39, Luke 17:18, John 11:40).
- Challenging Questions: Matthew 8:26: “And [Jesus] said to them, ‘Why are you afraid, O you of little faith?’” Challenging questions, like encouraging questions, are a subset of teaching questions. But they challenge the hearer to look at what needs to change within their own life and thinking in a very personal way. These questions are ones that we use often, and often wrongly. For instance, we negatively ask: “What’s wrong with you?” or “What were you thinking when you did that?” We need a lot of grace to know how and when to ask challenging questions (see also: Matthew 7:4, 22:18, 23:33, John 8:46, Acts 9:4).
Scripture quotations from the English Standard Version.