I’ve been thinking lately that there are two types of questions, genuine and rhetorical.
The essential nature of a genuine question is that the asker does not know the answer. He or she is seeking to understand. This is the ‘sincere’ question.
I like a sincere question. If I don’t know the answer, it gets me thinking. I love it if it is from a non-believer about the faith, if only God gives me wisdom to answer well.
But the devil hates a genuine question. After all, it might lead to truth. He will shut down sincere enquiry wherever he can. A few times I have been shocked to see angry responses to good questions from pastors, the very people who should be encouraging them. When a sincere question touches a nerve, something is very wrong.
But the Lord promises that he who seeks, will find, for the kingdom of heaven is taken by that kind of effort. (I do not deny the sovereignty of God in salvation. But in part, he calls us to him by causing us to seek, and in part, I believe, the child of God knows that something is missing from his life, and cannot rest until he finds his father in the face of Jesus Christ.)
Of course, the devil will also lead the seeker astray if he can. We have all been led into error of one sort or another. None of us is perfect or understands everything, but the Lord is often merciful to deliver us out of error. He even uses error to teach – not only to sharpen our grasp of truth, but also to help us understand how fallible we are, and to foster compassion in us when we see others making the same mistakes.
The essential nature of a rhetorical question is that the questioner knows the answer, or thinks he does. This is the ‘pointed’ question. It can be used for good or for ill. On the stage or in the classroom such questions may be well used, but my thinking is that in personal relationships they are best avoided.
A rhetorical question is asked for one of two purposes: to prove a point or to stimulate thought. It may provoke laughter when well used by comedians. Jesus used pointed questions to teach and to reprove. For example, he encouraged thought about the mystery of his incarnation as both Lord and son of David when he asked this question:
How then does David in the Spirit call him [Jesus] Lord, saying, The Lord said to my Lord, Sit on my right hand, till I make your enemies your footstool? If David calls him Lord, how is he then his son? (Matthew 22:43-45)
He also used rhetorical questions to prove hypocrisy and insincerity:
Jesus answered and said to them, I also will ask of you a certain question, which, if you answer me, I likewise will tell you by what authority I do these things. The baptism of John: whence was it? from heaven, or of men?
Then they reasoned among themselves, saying, If we say from heaven, he will say to us, why did you not then believe him? But if we say it was of men, then we fear the people. (For everyone held John to be a prophet.)
And they answered Jesus and said, We don’t know.
And he likewise said to them, Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things. (Matthew 21:24-27)
The Pharisees refused to answer Jesus’ question because they cared nothing for truth, but only for their own reputation and appearances. There was no answer that would make them look good, so they kept quiet. Jesus said to them, “You are of your father, the devil … there is no truth in him” (John 8:44).
Jesus used pointed questions against the Pharisees to show them (and us) who they really were. They of course hated him for it. After relating the parable of the unfruitful vineyard the wicked vinedressers, which they knew from Isaiah 5, he asked two questions:
Now when the lord of the vineyard comes, what will he do with those husbandmen?
They said to him, He will miserably destroy those evil persons, and will let out his vineyard to other husbandmen, who will render to him the fruit in their seasons.
Jesus said to them, Did you never read in the scriptures: The stone which the builders refused, the same is set in the principal part of the corner; this was the Lord’s doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes? Therefore I say to you, the kingdom of God will be taken from you and will be given to the Gentiles, who will bring forth the fruits of it. And whosoever falls on this stone, he shall be broken; but whomever it falls upon, it will grind him to powder.
When the chief priests and Pharisees heard these similitudes, they perceived that he was speaking of them. And they went about to lay hands on him… (Matthew 21:40-46)
So Jesus offended many with some of his questions, and earned enemies. This he did for the sake of truth and judgment.
But pointed questions in the mouths of fallible humans can often be needlessly offensive. Sometimes our motivation, conscious or not, is to show our moral or intellectual superiority, which of course requires that the other be proved wrong or foolish. The other person will soon catch on, and if we make a habit of this, we will find ourselves unpopular. This I suppose could be called the ‘barbed’ question. Some people use barbed questions deliberately and even cruelly. Others are unaware they use them, or even think they are being ‘helpful’ – an unpleasant sort of nagging. Conversation with this sort of questioner can lead to strife. I hate to see children confused and entrapped by unfair, pointed questions from parents and other adults who lack empathy.
I’m thinking that for the most part it is a good rule for us to restrict our questions to the sincere variety – unless we are like Tucker Carlson, on stage to make a point, or are teaching or debating a point in an appropriate setting. What do you think? (That’s a sincere question.)
(Scripture quotations are from the October Testament)