Five Reasons Churches Need More Unanswered Questions

comments form first comment

This has the potential to get pastors fired for following Jesus’ example. It will confuse anyone who sees me as a Christian apologist, and apologetics as being in the business of giving answers. The fact is I believe we need more unanswered questions. Pastors in particular need to leave more questions unanswered.

There are (at least) five reasons this is true. Jesus set the example, as seen best in the book of John.

1. To Follow Jesus’ Example

Jesus’ first words in that gospel are a question: “What are you seeking?” His introductory statement to Nathaniel provokes sheer confusion. His mother asks him to help with the wine in Cana, and he asks her a most surprising question. He bewilders the Jews in Jerusalem by telling them he will raise up “this temple” in three days. Nicodemus offers him the honor of recognizing he came from God, and Jesus says, “You must be born again.” What?

He puzzles the woman at the well with an offer of living water. He asks Philip (a native of that region) where they can buy bread to feed thousands (again, What?). He drives off the multitude with truly incomprehensible teachings about eating his flesh and drinking his blood, and then he asks his close followers, “Will you leave, too?” He confuses the Jews by telling them where he is going they cannot come.

And so it continues. I could point to similar tactics of our Lord in the Synoptics. His Beatitudes leave at least as many questions open as they answer. He explains his parables only to a few (Matthew 13). When the Jews ask him where he gets his authority, he asks them whether John’s baptism is from heaven or from men.

2. To Prepare Ears To Hear

Of course I do not mean to say that Jesus never answered anyone’s questions, or never followed through to satisfy hearers concerning the questions he raised. It was always a matter of timing and and of sensitivity to the Spirit and his audience. The unifying principle is this: he gave answers to those who were ready to hear. (“Let him who has ears to hear…”) The rest he goaded toward readiness by stimulating their curiosity, provoking dissatisfaction with where they were, and refusing to inoculate them with half-received truths.

Even the Sermon on the Mount, for all its simple clarity, must have provoked considerable consternation when he gave it. It certainly does that for me. There are places in it where I have trouble understanding just what he meant, and I have to dig in hard to figure it out; and there are even more places where I have more trouble yet understanding how I can live up to it. It is not a sermon meant to satisfy on the surface.

3. To Accomplish Your Real Purpose

Of course this is a problematical model to follow. I can’t remember the last sermon that left me wondering what?, the way Jesus’ messages so often did. I don’t know how any pastor could keep his job doing what Jesus did, for it is the pastor’s job to provide answers, isn’t it?

No, it is the pastor’s job to lead the flock toward richness of life and service in Christ.

Often this means turning us, their listeners, away from habits or beliefs that lead toward death. The difficulty there is that it means leading us to change, which few of us will do as long as our current ways seem to be working for us.

Answers soothe. Unanswered questions rankle. They throw us off balance. The right questions may just jostle us out of our conditions of comfort so that we can see what’s not really working for us after all. Some questions can help us see the distance between who we think we are (Nicodemus, the teacher of Israel, for example) and who we really are (spiritually ignorant and confused, in his case).

4. To Do the Questions Justice

One reason to leave some questions open is because even a sermon-length answer may be too short to do them justice. Some questions are hard. Compressing answers into thirty minutes, intro and illustrations included, may well be misleading; and the more serious thinkers in the congregation will know it. Some of them may even start to wonder whether all of Christianity is equally superficial. This applies equally to questions of intellect and of application, by the way.

5. To Answer the Questions They’re Really Asking

I am of course an apologist, one whose business it is to understand and to communicate answers. I could dream (if I dared) of the day when my wisdom was so manifest that every answer I gave was unquestioned. Alas, that won’t happen: it didn’t happen even to Jesus!

There is another sort of unquestioned answer, though, that happens in thousands of churches every Sunday: it is the answer given by preachers to un-questions. Teachers explain how to be more like Christ when congregations are not asking. Pastors teach how to show God’s Kingdom love in their communities, when no one is wondering. And the people walk away with answers, never having felt any urgency to know, or any deep need to practice.

This may have happened to Jesus, too, but by his teaching technique he always strove to prevent it.

When To Answer After All

A leader’s questions can also encourage followers to ask questions, which is often the very best thing for us. How can we understand better without probing deeper?

Which leads to the point at which the pastor/teacher really must be prepared to supply answers: when the people are finally asking — when they desperately need to know.

Too often this happens only when life causes pain. “Why, oh God?” is the most frequently articulated question of them all, followed by, “How will I make it through this?” These are fine questions; the Psalms are replete with them. But they are not the only ones, and not always the most important. They do tend quite reliably to be expressed when they need to be.

Not all questions are. There are many that we should be asking but usually are not. “How can I truly be more like Christ?” or “What would God have us do to show his Kingdom love in this community?”

More Unanswered Questions

I suspect — I hope! — this has raised a lot of questions for you. One of them, I’m sure, is how it would be received if you shifted to following Jesus’ pattern by leaving more questions unanswered.

But of course I must close with a question of my own: Can you imagine what it would be like to teach your answers to a congregation that was ready and eager for them?

top of page comments form

3 Responses to “ Five Reasons Churches Need More Unanswered Questions ”

  1. Tom, Thanks for this post! As a school teacher, I pondered selection, & how & when to present essential questions (as education schools call ’em). How to engage with a question or provocative assertion? How to move through superficial questions (“on this mountain or in Jerusalem?”) to intimate questions to transcendent questions?

    This post presumes that the presenter has explored somewhat where the question leads, may have the better questions, and has an answer, at least a process. By contrast, you have probably known people wanting to retain an air of authority who offer up questions or assignments to give themselves time to explore a question. I think that’s fair if qualified by “let’s explore this together…”

    I’ve been considering a related concern, epitomized by the pithy Talmud advice, “teach your tongue to say, ‘I do not know’.” I am concerned about frameworks to declare, “insufficient data” for apologetics questions. For example, “Was the disciple Luke described in the NT actually the guy who penned the Gospel of Luke?” While one can find a majority opinion among the church fathers, is that sufficient? How comfortable in faith are we entertaining our own unanswered questions?

  2. Yes, it’s very true that we often think we are obligated to always have an answer for every question someone has. Jesus didn’t throw pearls to swine, He knew the motives of the people who were asking Him questions. Some were sincere and some were trying to trip Him up. We get the same treatment from various people. It takes Holy Spirit discernment to know when to answer and when not to.

    Some further observations: When young people in the church ask tough questions, and they get a dismissive answer, this will often be the beginning of the end of their church attendance and involvement. So we should never shy away from their questions. However, if we don’t know the answer, we should honestly say so, and let them know we will research their question and get back to them.