Margaret Manning Shull reflects on the importance of asking questions and the distractions that keep us from truly hearing the answers we receive.
Returning to graduate school in mid-life has reintroduced me to 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 deeper 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 only tangentially related to the original question.
When this happens, I wonder whether I am in fact asking the “right” questions that would generate answers. So, perhaps inquiring into the motivation behind the questions is an even more important task. Do I simply ask out of curiosity? Am I asking in order to fill my head with as many possible answers as there are questions? Or might it be that I continually ask questions as a way of blocking answers I do not want to hear or receive?
Noise often serves as a distraction from truly listening. Perhaps fearful of listening to the tangled thoughts within me, I can sometimes fill my days with the noise of constant movement and activity, so that I rarely pay attention or tune my ears to the stirrings of my own heart and mind.
Silence can be disruptive, as I found out intimately when I lost my husband several years ago. Days would go by without my having spoken audibly to anyone, save my two dogs. I was struck by how loud the silence had become in my own life.
Yet, I was not without sound during this period of my life. I began to pay attention to all the sounds that made up my day-to-day existence. The din of traffic noise, airplanes, and nautical sounds from the harbor all made for a symphony of sound. Because I wasn’t speaking out loud to anyone, I was able to intentionally listen to a whole new world of natural sounds. I heard the wind in the trees and the soft patter of my dogs’ feet as they walked across the hardwood floors. I listened for the distinctive sounds of a variety of birds as they went about foraging for food or calling for a mate. At the time, I did not realize how unique it was to be able to truly listen because I was by myself nor would I have viewed it, as I now do, as a gift.
Paying attention to the world around us and asking questions are some of the wonderful qualities of being human. 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 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 position after seminary. We were discussing 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 will 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. The inhabitants would be taken “further up and further in” for eternity. My friend believed that moving “further up and further in” would involve questions, imagination, and discovery, because the capacity for learning would be limitless and endless.
Interestingly, 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 Think of that!
It turns out that asking questions was central to Jesus’s 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. Other times, he told stories and used metaphors. Far from presenting easy answers, Jesus often left questions unanswered or his teaching unexplained.
But Jesus did not ask questions or leave them unanswered in order 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
It turns out that asking questions was central to Jesus’s life and to the way he taught those who followed him.
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, Jesus asked questions to prompt careful and considered reflection, often inviting wonder and amazement: Who then is this that even the wind and the seas obey him?
Jesus even 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? And through his life, death, and resurrection, he ultimately answered the deepest questions of our minds and hearts.
Surely, there is a time to put away endless questions and to 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. Likewise, Jesus’s questions invite us closer to the One who created us to ask in the first place.
1 See Martin Copenhaver, Jesus Is the Question: The 307 Questions Jesus Asked and The Three He Answered (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2014), xviii. Copenhaver tallies eight direct answers from Jesus but notes, “whichever count you go with, it is an astonishingly small number.”
2 See John 5:6; Mark 10:36, 51; Matthew 16:15; Luke 6:46; Matthew 7:3.
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