Returning to graduate school in mid-life has re-introduced to me the importance of asking questions. There are the all-important pragmatic questions that involve the mechanics and the specifics of various assignments. Should one use a particular style guide in writing papers, for example, or what material will be covered on the next exam? There are the questions of curiosity about a particular topic or subject, and there are research questions intended to take a student more deeply into the minutiae of her course of study. I often find that questions beget other questions, and many are not as easily answered as when I first began “formal” education. Instead, I am often led from one question to another on this journey of inquiry that is often only tangentially related to the original question.
When this happens, I wonder whether or not I am in fact asking the “right” questions which would generate answers. Perhaps inquiring into the motivation behind the questions is an even more important task. Do I simply ask out of curiosity? Or am I asking in order to fill my head with as many possible answers as there are question? Or do I continually ask questions as a way of blocking answers—answers that I may not want to hear, or to receive. Of course, asking questions is one of the wonderful qualities of being human. And anyone who has spent even a small amount of time around young children knows that asking questions about every possible subject preoccupies their early verbal expressions.
Whenever I begin to fret about either the volume of my questions, or the apparent lack of answers for them, I recall a conversation I once had with a colleague when I began my first ‘job’ after seminary. We had gotten into a discussion about the nature of heaven. Like many, I had insisted that it would be a place where all questions would be answered and all that was unclear would be made clear—immediately upon arrival. I’ll never forget his response to me. “Oh no,” he replied. “I don’t think it will be that way at all. Otherwise, there would be no more discovery or learning; no more wonder.” Instead, he mused about how heaven would be a place of endless discovery and learning. The impediments of finitude being removed, heaven would be very much as C.S. Lewis envisioned in his novel The Last Battle where the inhabitants would be taken “further up and farther in” for eternity. My friend believed that moving “further up, and farther in” would involve questions, imagination and discovery, because the capacity for learning would be limitless and endless.
While I am unclear about whether or not my colleague’s vision of continual questions and learning in heaven will in fact be the reality, the kingdom of heaven revealed by Jesus looks a great deal like this. It might come as a surprise—even to those who claim to be Christians—that Jesus asked more questions than he answered, at least as his life is recorded and revealed in the gospel narratives. According to author Martin Copenhaver in his systematic study of the questions of Jesus, Jesus asked 307 questions. Furthermore, he is asked 183 questions of which he answers three.(1) In fact, asking questions was central to Jesus’ life and to the way he taught those who followed him. More than using didactic teaching, Jesus often explored the reality of the kingdom by asking questions, or by telling stories or through using metaphor. Far from presenting easy answers, Jesus often left questions unanswered, or his teaching unexplained.
But Jesus did not simply ask questions or leave them unanswered simply to be mysterious or enigmatic. His questions took his listeners deeper into wonder, discovery, and into discomfort: Do you wish to get well? What do you want me to do for you? Who do you say that I am? Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord’ but do not do what I tell you? Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?(2) Significantly, Jesus’s questions went straight to the heart of the matter. They were piercingly intimate and vulnerable, as when he asked his disciples if they wanted to ‘go away’ after he gave the very complex teaching about consuming his body and blood as recorded in John 6. Far from requiring immediate answers, the questions from Jesus were asked to prompt careful and considered reflection, even as they invited the listener to wonder and amazement: Who then is this that even the wind and the seas obey him? Even Jesus asked the question that resounds on the lips and in the hearts of humans throughout the ages: My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
Surely, there is a time to put away endless questions and rest. There is a time to pause and simply to be grateful for the human journey of discovery. But when questions arise and they are not easily answered or dismissed, there is a space for them as well. Like the student who questions in order to better understand a subject, our questions can lead us closer to the One who created us to ask in the first place.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Martin Copenhaver, Jesus is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and The Three He Answered. (Nashville: Abingdon Press) 2014.
(2) See John 5:6; Mark 10:36, 51; Matt. 16:15; Luke 6:46; Matt. 7:3