Life Together: Asking Good Questions
Asking Good Questions: Curiosity that Cares. My sermon notes from January 15th, 2023, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.
Good morning again, and as we begin some time with scripture talking about building our life together, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to God our Rock and Redeemer. Amen.
We began our Life Together series with a reminder that we need to develop a caring posture of listening for one another, emulating our God who lends an ear to us when we pray. Listening well is truly an act of caring, and you may recall that my fear is that when we stop listening we too easily begin competing. The day wasn’t over last Sunday, in fact I wasn’t out of the building before someone said to me, “You know, I find that listening well means that I ask clarifying questions to test to my comprehension.” I tried not to panic, but I was like wait, please, that’s next week! They were exactly right. Even as we use our hearts, minds and bodies to listen well, we still might not understand what the person is trying to communicate. We’re only human and hopefully doing our best, but entering into a posture of listening is just the beginning.
Our Next Foundational Practice: Asking Good Questions
Asking good questions. Someone might immediately ask why we’re talking about this at church? Listening? Asking good questions? It might sound like at first glance we’re getting into some other field than theology like communications or linguistics, but just a moment. These aren’t just good communications principles which we’re studying: Jesus asked questions constantly! And just as importantly, Jesus didn’t always give answers! That’s maybe a striking admission or realization for some of us. We like answers. We like having the right answers. We like having the only answers. But Jesus was not an Answer Guy who roamed the countryside of his day giving out copious amounts of information. In fact, he was a storyteller who in classic Jewish rabbinical tradition often asked questions, often answered questions with questions, and always encouraged deeper thought.
I recommend the 2014 book Jesus Is The Question by Martin Copenhaver which explores this idea in detail. The author asks us to consider why “Jesus asks many more questions than he is asked. In the four Gospels Jesus asks 307 different questions. By contrast, he is only asked 183 questions.” He also points out that Jesus begins and ends his life with questions, “Why were you looking for me? I’m going to be in my Father’s house” and “My God my God, why have you forsaken me?”
In his ministry Jesus uses questions to engage his audience and bring them into the process of his ministry. In our Gospel reading today in Mark 10 we find Jesus on a normal day, traveling about the countryside, passing through Jericho when he is hailed by someone wanting his attention… “Son of David, have mercy on me!” The crowd isn’t pleased and tries to shush the man, but Jesus does exactly what we’ve been talking about with heart, mind and body… he values this man, stops his walking and calls the man to himself… he’s prepared to listen, and he opens with a wonderful question, “What would you have me do for you?”
This is really a beautiful scene. Jesus stops and prepares to listen to this man, and doesn’t make any assumptions about the situation, but invites the man to speak. Oh, I’m sure Jesus could have known what was up. We often are told in scripture that Jesus knows something through the Spirit. Jesus could have used what I suppose we’d label common sense. If he can see by movement or different clues that the man is seeing-impaired, and he probably wants to be healed of his blindness. Jesus stops and says let’s talk. What do you want? What mercy can I give?
It might seem like a small thing, but I think it’s huge. Jesus shows a caring curiosity toward the man. He does this often actually. Asking questions which bring him closer to people, engender conversations and get people thinking. When a woman sneaks up in the crowd to touch the hem of his clothes believing that will be enough to make her whole… Jesus stops and asks who touched me? And he finds and speaks with the woman. How valuing and validating that must have been for her!
When asked what someone must do to inherit eternal life in Luke 10, Jesus answers with you tell me, how do you read the Law? And you probably know the story, the one who asked the question gives the right answer, love God and love neighbor. But then he asks another question, “Who is my neighbor?” Jesus answers with a story we call the Good Samaritan. Ultimately Jesus answers the question with a question, “Who acted like a neighbor?”
Jesus masterfully uses questions to bring people closer to himself, to engage with them, to make relationship with them, and to push them into thinking deeply about issues.
Questions & Confirmation Bias
I enjoy reading across disciplines, so I rarely just read about something from a theological or faith point of view. I enjoy reading from a business and scientific perspective as well, and in studying this kind of questioning curiosity from a business perspective I read a powerful article on the importance of curiosity in defeating confirmation bias. You know the phrase confirmation bias?
confirmation bias, is the tendency to process information by looking for, or interpreting, information that is consistent with one’s existing beliefs.
Without good questions and a healthy sense of curiosity a business can lose touch with customers and their needs. That company can lose track of what sells and why, and what might important in the future. Instead, things seen and heard are understood only within the interpretive framework of pre-existing views and beliefs about the market and customers.
Ok, enough about business… can we agree that confirmation bias could be as devastating for our relationships? How about its stifling and devastating effect on our religion and spiritual communities? Once I have decided something about a particular person, if I don’t have a caring curiosity, I can easily make up my mind about them and hear and interpret every single thing through those beliefs. A caring curiosity can not only help us get closer and increase our understanding of each other, but also help us break out of cycles of confirmation bias which could keep us from getting past mistakes, disagreements and even injuries. A caring curiosity is needed to ask good questions and move us past mistaken ideas, ignorance and assumptions.
I believe Dr. King understood this and pushed us to ask important questions, only using a different vocabulary of his day and specifically addressing the ignorance, falsehoods and biases which the civil rights movement confronted in our society. He warned about confirmation bias and a lack of a caring curiosity in a church which closed it’s mind and stopped learning. In the pursuit of the biblical command to love God and love one another, he said:
Must we not admit that the church has often overlooked this moral demand for enlightenment? At times it has talked as though ignorance were a virtue and intelligence a crime. Through its obscurantism, closedmindedness, and obstinacy to new truth, the church has often unconsciously encouraged its worshipers to look askance upon intelligence. But if we are to call ourselves Christians, we had better avoid intellectual and moral blindness. Throughout the New Testament we are reminded of the need for enlightenment. We are commanded to love God, not only with our hearts and souls, but also with our minds. When the Apostle Paul noticed the blindness of many of his opponents, he said, “I bear them record that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge.” Over and again the Bible reminds us of the danger of zeal without knowledge and sincerity without intelligence.
King Jr., Martin Luther . Strength to Love (pp. 39-40). Beacon Press. Kindle Edition.
Dr. King called on us to have the moral and intellectual strength to challenge assumptions and beliefs, to be open to learning and growing and being wrong if it’s part of the journey to being right.
A Caring Curiosity
What do good questions from a caring curiosity look like? Those questions are open-ended and express a desire to understand. You can ask, “Tell me more about…” or “What you think (or feel) about…?” Good questions don’t supply an answer or steer a person in a direction. Jesus didn’t ask Bartimaeus, “Do you want me to heal your blindness?” He asked, “What can I do for you?”
Can we step back a moment to our earlier discussion of contrasting Jesus as an answer man vs. a questioner? What a gracious question: “What can I do for you?” How gracious is that question compared to trying to always have the answer, to explain or fix things? I had a friend years ago who had this amazing capacity for memorizing scripture, so much more than I have ever had. The problem was, he also believed that quoting scripture at folks around him was the correct response to every single situation. If I was feeling down one day, he’d be quoting rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice. If I was angry about something, he’d quote do not let the sun go down on your anger and do not give the devil a foothold. If I was struggling with something and had a big decision to make, he’d quote let everyone in need of wisdom ask the Lord and they will receive. It got to where I wanted to strangle him for quoting the Bible! It was so conflicting! Honestly, it got to where I wouldn’t tell him what was going on with me. If he just could have had a little more effort to make relationship instead of trying to always have the answer. Some good questions and conversations would have gone a long way.
I believe sincerely that Jesus modeled a caring curiosity for us in the way he engaged with people and asked questions, the way he did not make assumptions but instead created conversations and space for more than just answers. I also believe that St. Paul picked up on the principle of caring curiosity and carried it into his letters to the churches, as we see in our reading from Philippians this morning, take the joy and consolation of knowing Jesus and let it be what drives us to value and be interested in those around us. We’re not being nosy or busybodies, but creating a caring community where everyone’s interests matter; we’re creating a community where everyone matters.
As we face a new week of opportunities to ask good questions and have a healthy, caring curiosity, we go with this prayer of Dr. King’s…
“God, we thank you for the inspiration of Jesus. Grant that we will love you with all our hearts, souls, and minds, and love our neighbors as we love ourselves, even our enemy neighbors. And we ask you, God, in these days of emotional tension, when the problems of the world are gigantic in extent and chaotic in detail, to be with us in our going out and our coming in, in our rising up and in our lying down, in our moments of joy and in our moments of sorrow, until the day when there shall be no sunset and no dawn. Amen.”
Amen, amen and amen!