Back to series

Listen or Download the Podcast

EPISODE 67: The Question Behind the Question


There’s more to answering people’s questions than just knowing the right answer. Making sure we understand what they’re really asking and knowing how to present a response takes wisdom, patience, and sensitivity.

Recommended Resources:


Welcome to Questions That Matter, a podcast of the C.S. Lewis Institute where we explore discipleship of the heart and mind. I'm your host, Randy Newman, delighted to be with you. Today, on Questions That Matter, I'm alone in the studio, and it'll be just me talking. This is an experiment, and we'd love to hear from you if you think that this is worthwhile and helpful for you in your own personal discipleship and ministry. I'm thinking about doing a whole series of these relatively short podcasts about how we handle certain situations in evangelism.

And so, for today, I want to talk about sort of a general way of thinking about how we answer questions. A lot of us think that if we just know all the questions that people are likely to ask us and we know what the answer is, then it's almost like a matching game. They, in this column, ask question number three, and so we go down to this column and look at answer number three and provide it. And if you've done this a bunch, you've probably already seen that that doesn't always work. Sometimes you give the exact right answer, the theologically accurate, philosophically watertight answer, and it doesn't seem to really move the person from unbelief towards considering and towards belief. So we need to think about how we go about doing this.

So the first thing I want to say is, when it comes to answering questions, there's really three stages of this process. We usually think that there are only two, the stage of what is the question and then what is the answer, but in reality, as I have lived this out and had conversations with people from a whole wide range of different perspectives, I find that we need to ask what is the question that they're really asking, and then secondly, what is the answer? What does the Bible give us as the answer or components or ingredients of the answer? But then there's that third section, which is, “How do I answer them?” or, “What do I say?” Or, if I'm going to be delivering the answer in an incremental way, “What are the first things I say? What are the second things I say?”

So let's walk through that a little bit. The first part is not quite as simple as it sounds. The first part is, “What is the question?” but very often, if someone asks us a question or if we're talking and they say, “Well, wait a minute. I want to ask….” They want to jump in. We want to listen carefully of what are they asking? Why are they asking? What posture are they coming at this question from? So for example, one of the most difficult and common questions we're going to get asked is, “Why does a good God allow evil and suffering?” or, “Why is there so much pain in the world?” or, “Why is there so much evil and suffering?” So okay.

But people ask that very same question from a variety of different postures, different starting places. For some people, it’s a genuine question. They’re genuinely disturbed about things, and they want to try to make sense of the world in which we live, that has a whole lot of chaos and evil and problems. Other people might ask that question, and it's not a sincere question at all. It's just an attack. “Oh, how can you believe in a God when there's so much evil?” That's a very different encounter with someone. Or someone may be asking it, and they may be very philosophically minded. Maybe they're even… they were a philosophy major in college or they are a philosophy major or they like to think that way. And so you want to give a philosophically minded answer. Or you want to get them in touch with… you want to help them read something written by a philosopher.

By the way—commercial break—one of the best books written by a philosopher about this problem is Making Sense Out of Suffering, or How to Make Sense Out of Suffering. I'll put a link in the show notes. It's by Peter Kreeft, K-R-E-E-F-T. Anything you can find by Peter Kreeft is very, very helpful. But again, he's a philosopher e and he writes for people who are minded in that kind of way.

So when someone asks that question, we first need to do just a little bit of diagnosing. Like why are they asking that question? Because if the person's asking the question out of a tremendous sense of pain, that they're the one going through suffering right now, a philosophical answer is not what they need and certainly not what they want. And if it's a mocking question and they're not really asking a sincere question, you may want to probe a little bit and say, “Now, is that a real question?” or, “Is that really the most important question that you're wrestling with?”

I go into this a lot more in my books: Questioning Evangelism, which just came out as a third edition. I also explore this a bit in Bringing the Gospel Home. I also tell some stories in Unlikely Converts that could help you see how this plays out.

But I was so very thankful that Lee Strobel agreed to write the foreword for Questioning Evangelism, and in that, he tells about how he got… Someone sent him an email, and it was kind of a nasty worded email, and I think he used the word snarky. “How can you believe in a good God when there's so much evil and suffering in the world?” And Lee said that he started to write an answer that he's given many times, a philosophically minded answer, and then he thought, “Wait a minute. I'm going to ask a question. I'm going to answer a question with a question.” And so he said to the person, “Of all the possible questions you could have asked, why did you choose that one?” And then the person came back and said—and the tone was much more gentle and more vulnerable and honest. That person had really seen a tremendous amount of pain in their life. And so Lee said that he was then able to have a much more meaningful engagement with this person, beginning with things like, “Oh, I'm so sorry to hear that. That really is painful. That is difficult. What have you found to be helpful to help you get through these difficult times?” So all of that comes under the category of what is the question. From what vantage point are they asking it? What's their posture in asking it? Which variety of the question are they asking?

So that's the first stage. The second is what is the answer, and that's the part where we just need to do some good homework. We need to study our Bible. We need to read some good apologetics books. We need to look at books that try to answer some common questions. I'm always recommending Rebecca McLaughlin's book Confronting Christianity, and she has several other books now. I think she's one of the best voices for apologetics in our world today. So we just need to do some homework and know what the answer is, but then we need to think through, “Okay, but how do I deliver this?” I don't just dump truck, unload a dump truck full of answer material on a person. We may need to think, “Okay, what's the sequence with which they need to hear this?”

So, going back to the evil and suffering question, once we've determined that the person is really asking a sincere question, we may want to start with, “Well, how do we determine what's good and what's evil? Is there a standard? Where do we get this idea that evil is bad, that there really is a standard?” But for some people, that's the starting point, and you can't really move too much further than that. So you need to just think through, “What are some of the first issues that I need to establish with the person?” And sort of deliver it in a gradual style.

Very often, I liken this to how we might follow a recipe. I'm assuming that you've seen a recipe, whether you've tried to follow one or not, that’s a different thing. But I'm sure you know that recipes always have two parts, a top part and a bottom part. And the top part is just the list of ingredients: A cup of sugar, cup of flour, two eggs, et cetera. Then the bottom part is the procedure, the sequence, and if you just had the top part, just the list of ingredients, it may not be too likely that you would produce anything edible. You need the procedure, about “Take these two ingredients and combine them and let them sit overnight in the refrigerator. Take these two ingredients and mix them together and let them come to room temperature. Preheat the oven for 350 degrees. Fold these ingredients in gradually slowly, being careful not to create too many air bubbles,” and all that kind of stuff. So we need to think through the procedure part, not just the ingredients part, of our answer.

And for some times, let's go back to this evil and suffering question. The starting point, the first stage of the procedure for some people may be just expressing sympathy or empathy. “Oh, my goodness! That's really terrible what you're going through. I'm really sorry to hear that. How have you been able to find strength in the midst of that? Are there any answers that you've been given that have been helpful? Are there any answers or things people have said to you that have been not very helpful at all? And you wanted to hit the person.” So you want to kind of move gradually as we deliver the answer.

If you like this podcast, we would really love it if you'd give us a good rating. Go to wherever you get your podcast—I know there's so many different places, iTunes, etc., but give us a rating and let people know. We think we've got a lot of good resources here that people connect to, and their first start of it is through this podcast or our other podcasts. We have several. But if you'd be willing to give us a good rating, we'd really appreciate that. Thanks.

But then there's another issue about answering people questions, and it's a very, very important piece of this process that I hope you'll think deeply about. And that is we need to find out, in a lot of cases, not always. But in a lot of cases, we need to know what's the question behind the question. If they're asking a question on the surface, “How can a good God allow evil and suffering?” Is there a question behind the question? Is there a question of, “Is it okay for me to even ask this question?” Or the question behind the question is, “Do you have good solid answers for my questions?”

Maybe the best way for me to describe this to tell you a story, and I tell this story in the book Unlikely Converts, and I label it the story of Lawrence and the pigs. So here's the story about Lawrence and the pigs: Lawrence was a very, very intelligent university student. He was on a scholarship at a really great university. And I met him and asked him to tell me his story about how he became a Christian, because I was meeting college students who had become Christians. I got their names from campus ministers. So I knew that Lawrence really had become a Christian, but the way he began his story was that he grew up with no real religion or not really much of a religion and came away to college and met a few Christians and thought they were not very intelligent. And he said that he got invited to an event on campus where a really smart person was going to get up and answer anybody's questions about anything to do with God. He was also told that there was going to be pizza there, so that's why he went. He went for the pizza. He wasn't really sincerely asking any questions. In fact, he said he decided to go there and his main motivation was to embarrass the person who was up front speaking and to make fun of the Christians. And he said that he was really pretty mean and nasty to these people. What he remembers is they were actually quite nice and kind to him, which he thought was strange. But the person got up and spoke for maybe ten, fifteen minutes and gave some reasons why he thought it was reasonable to believe in God. And it was a promo to try to get people to sign up to come to an 8-week Bible study where it was going to be exploring the gospel of Mark and exploring the person of Jesus.

So when it came time for the Q&A, Lawrence raised his hand, and in kind of a wise guy kind of way and said to the speaker, “Well, what about aliens?” And the speaker looked at him and said, “I'm sorry. What do you mean? What about aliens?” “Well, if there are aliens on other planets or other galaxies, doesn't that ruin your whole Christianity thing? Because there's no way that God could rescue them. And doesn't aliens ruin your whole Christianity thing?” which by the way is a pretty weak question. I'm sure you can pick that up. But I love what the speaker did was…. He could tell that Lawrence wasn't really being all that sincere and that no amount of an answer was really going to help him a whole lot, and so what he said to him was, he says, “Gee, I'm really sorry. I don't really know much about aliens. I haven't read about them. I haven't followed stories about them. I'm really sorry. I don't know. If there are aliens, my understanding about God is He’s big enough to figure out ways to connect with people at other planets or beings and creatures on other planets. But I don't know. I just don't know. I don't really know much about aliens, but you know, I think you really ought to go to this 8-week Bible study, the gospel of Mark. I think you'd find it to be helpful.”

So Lawrence went. And Lawrence told me that he went every single week. And each week, he heard more and more of the gospel. And eventually, he got to the point where it just all kind of came together, and it made sense, and he became a Christian. And toward the end of my conversation with him, I said, “Okay. Well, now looking back at the whole thing, what were some big obstacles that you had? Was there any big obstacle that you had in coming to believe in Jesus?” And I thought it was going to be some intellectual questions about science or evolution or something like that. And what Lawrence said to me was, “No, no, there really weren't. Oh, wait, wait, wait! Yes, yes, there was.” That's what he said. He said, “Yeah, wait a minute. I just remembered. Yeah, there was this one question I had. You remember that story where Jesus cast the demons out into the pigs, and all the pigs ran over the cliff and died. I remember hearing that story. I just thought, ‘That's just so weird!’” He says, “What’s up with that? What does Jesus have against pigs?” So actually, I was kind of marveling that this was the big issue holding him back, but I didn't say that. I said, “So did you ask that question in the Bible study?” “Yes, I did.” “And what did the Bible study leaders say as an answer?” And he said, “Well, you know, the first thing he said was, ‘Gee, I don't know.’” And I said, “Oh, that's a bad way to start.” He goes, “No, no. No, that was a great way to start. That was a great way to start because I thought Christians were a bunch of know-it-alls who always thought they had an answer. So the fact that he started by saying, ‘I don't know,’ was actually helpful for me, almost disarming. But then the second thing the guy said is, ‘Well, you know, I think what this story does tell us is that we shouldn't mess around with demons, and there’s probably a very big difference between being a person and being a pig.’” And I said, “Oh. So did that answer the question for you?” And he goes, “Yeah, actually, I thought that was a pretty good answer. I thought that was good. And I thought, ‘Well….’ See, I thought there weren't any good answers to my questions, but I thought, ‘Well, if there's a pretty decent answer to that question, then maybe there are answers to all of my questions.’” And so I said to him, “So did you start barraging him with a million questions?” He said, “No. I didn't have to. I just figured there probably were good answers, and so it kind of like took care of all these questions.” He said, “You have to understand where I was coming from. When I was growing up, there were religious people around me, and whenever I asked them questions, they just told me that I asked too many questions. They said I should stop asking questions so much. If I just believed in Jesus as my Lord and Savior, He’d take away all my questions. And I just remember thinking, ‘Well, that's stupid! If that's your religion, that's a religion for stupid people.’ So when this guy gave me a pretty decent answer, I thought, ‘Oh! Maybe Christianity isn't a stupid religion. Maybe there are answers for my questions.” So for Lawrence, the question on the surface was, “What did Jesus have against pigs?” but the question behind the question was, “Is it okay for me to ask questions? Is your religion a stupid religion?” So the question behind the question was actually the more substantial one. And we need to listen and try to see if we can find out what's the question behind the question. But now, wait. The story gets better.

I decided to write up this story when I was writing the book Unlikely Converts, and I contacted Lawrence, and I said, “Hey, listen. I'm thinking about writing that story up. Do you give me permission to do that?” And I want to make sure I got the story right, so I sent him what I had written. I said, “Why don't we get together and we could talk about it?” So we got together for lunch, and he said to me that, yeah, I had pretty much gotten the story right. He had a few suggestions about, “Well, I wouldn't quite say it this way,” and just a few minor tweaks. And then he said, “You know, I've really been thinking a whole lot about that. When you and I got together the first time, it was about a year after I had become a Christian. And so what I said to you, that was accurate,” but now, at this point, it was almost four years later. And he said, “I've been thinking about that a whole lot and thinking about why was I drawn to that story? And I think I just realized something within the last year of my life, looking back at it, now that I've grown as a Christian.” He said, “I was drawn to that story not because of the pigs but because of the man.” Remember the story about that man? He was in chains. They had to put him in chains because he was doing so much damage to himself. He was cutting himself. He was harming himself, harming people around him. And what Lawrence told me is, “I was drawn to that story because of the man.” He said, “I was that man. I was doing stuff to myself that was really, really bad. I mean, like cutting myself and even worse.” Isn't that amazing? In other words, there wasn't just the question behind the question. There was the question behind the question behind the question. And it was a question that he was asking, but he didn't even realize he was asking it at the time. He didn't realize, when he was sitting in that Bible study and said, “What’s up with the pigs?” that what was really going on inside him was God working on the question behind the question behind the question of, “How can this man get set free from the demons that are destroying him?”

And so I hope that that's great encouragement to you, that there could be, there are things going on in people's lives that we may not be aware of when we're interacting with them, and they might not even be aware of those things going on inside them. But God knows, and God is working on a level deeper than we can even understand, maybe that we'll never understand.

And so I want to encourage you to do your best to listen to people, to give them the best answers, and then ask God to work in ways that only He can work, on levels that only He can see and sense, because He’s all knowing.

I hope this is helpful for you. We probably have to come up with some title about what this kind of subset of Questions That Matter will be called, but it'll be just me and trying to give you help on how to answer people's questions or how to be more effective or confident in evangelism. If you think this is a good idea, could you send us some kind of feedback. I think on our website, there are a number of different ways you can send us emails or texts or something to tell us, “Yeah, keep doing more of this,” or, “Gee, Randy, thanks for that one episode. I think I got all I need.” So that'd be great to hear from you, if that would be helpful. We hope this podcast, all of the episodes of Questions That Matter, and all the resources that we have at the C.S. Lewis Institute are helpful for you as you love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, strength, and mind. Thanks. See you next time.

Brought to you by the C.S. Lewis Institute and the Questions That Matter Podcast with Randy Newman

COPYRIGHT: This publication is published by C.S. Lewis Institute; 8001 Braddock Road, Suite 301; Springfield, VA 22151. Portions of the publication may be reproduced for noncommercial, local church or ministry use without prior permission. Electronic copies of the PDF files may be duplicated and transmitted via e-mail for personal and church use. Articles may not be modified without prior written permission of the Institute. For questions, contact the Institute: 703.914.5602 or email us.

0 All Booked 0.00 All Booked 0.00 All Booked 19682 GLOBAL EVENT: Revival! 8:00PM ET 2023-10-20
Next coming event

GLOBAL EVENT: Revival! 8:00PM ET

Print your tickets