Nearly a decade ago, I spent a few days in the French countryside on a silent retreat. The leader gave the handful of us a thought exercise to complete:
Put yourselves in the shoes (sandals?) of one of the disciples who followed Jesus along the road in John 1:35-42. You are with your teacher, John the Baptist, when he points out a man walking by and exclaims, “Look, here is the Lamb of God!” Something in your heart clicks, and you are drawn like a magnet towards this man. Your feet start moving even before you really know what you are doing, and you strain to catch a glimpse of His face. Then He turns and looks at you, and you stop walking, heart racing. He asks, “What are you looking for?” How do you respond?
I love to think of Jesus as the ultimate Question Asker and the Welcomer of All Who Question.
I turned Jesus’ question over and over as I wandered along hillside pastures and held staring contests with cows. All these years later, I can’t remember how I answered. What remains, though, is the imprint of Jesus’ gaze on me. The question brought near His open, expectant presence, and, pondering it, I knew that however I answered would be met with kindness and love. Jesus wanted to get to know me.
I love to think of Jesus as the ultimate Question Asker and the Welcomer of All Who Question. Even as a boy, Jesus found His way to the temple and asked questions that left the religious leaders of the day open-mouthed. When His anxious parents found Him after three days of searching, He replied to their question (“Why have You treated us this way?”) with questions of His own: “Why is it that you were looking for Me? Did you not know that I had to be in My Father’s house?” (Luke 2:48-49).
Throughout His public ministry, Jesus posed all manner of simple and perplexing questions—from, “How many loaves do you have?” to the disciples, who were sure there wasn’t enough food to feed the crowd (Mark 6:38) to “Do you love Me?” to the broken-hearted Peter after his denial (John 21:17).
Jesus’ questions, along with those of God’s in the Old Testament, have long posed an interpretive challenge to theologians, because they contradict God’s supposed omniscience. Even if Jesus, having taken on a limited perspective in a human body, wasn’t all-knowing in the way His Father was, we can assume that He knew a lot about the human heart—enough to discern why the two disciples were following Him or whether Peter loved Him. But He asks anyway, and I love Him for it.
Some scholars, writes professor Douglas Estes, have explained away these questions as commands or rhetorical technique. Jesus asking how many loaves the disciples had, for example, was just a way to tell them to go and take inventory (which He does immediately after asking the question). Or, when Jesus asked the disciples what they were looking for, He wasn’t expecting an answer. He was simply making the point that they indeed sought after something they lacked, and He was it.
But Estes argues that there is something more behind Jesus’ questions. He asks questions because He seeks out a relationship. He’s not simply after an “I command, you obey” arrangement. He cares about how we feel, think, and see the world. “The Bible,” writes Estes, “reveals a God who does not just monologue, but who dialogues, creating conversation and intimacy through asking questions.”
Acknowledging this truth can change a lot. In a dialogue, one person takes on another’s perspective, seeking to understand the world through the other’s words, categories, and frames of reference. When perspectives differ, two people will talk back and forth to find points of common ground and perhaps arrive at a new understanding broader than the two individual perspectives.
What does it mean that God dialogues with us? Certainly, He doesn’t change His opinion on a given issue as a result of a conversation with little ol’ me or you. Or does He? This appears to happen a few places in the Bible, such as in Exodus when, as a result of Moses’ pleading, God “changed His mind” about the punishment He was about to bring upon Israel (Ex. 32:14). I won’t try to exegete this story with a fine-toothed comb, but what is clear through the arc of the Biblical narrative is that God values our input.
When Jesus asks His disciples, including me and you, “What are you looking for?”, it is because He wants to hear how we have made sense of our lives in our own words. As I have mentioned earlier in this column, He cares to listen to our stories. What is meaningful to us is meaningful to Him. Dialogue also implies that God invites our questions. He wants to go with us to those places of tension where our understanding of truth doesn’t mesh with our experiences, and He wants to help us integrate our small corner of reality with His larger reality.
The beautiful thing about Jesus is that He doesn’t foist His reality upon us. He stands at the door and knocks, and He dines with those who invite Him in (Revelation 3:20). His kingdom, like the treasure hidden in a field or the merchant who sold all he had for a single pearl (Matt. 13:44-46), opens up to those who earnestly seek it. What are you looking for?
What is clear through the arc of the Biblical narrative is that God values our input.
Statements tend to shut down further engagement, whereas questions open up. What if, instead of approaching nonbelievers with a copy of the Four Spiritual Laws or immediately bombarding newcomers to church with doctrinal statements, we take a cue from Jesus and start with questions? “What are you looking for?” is a lovely one. Or how about, “What have you heard about Jesus thus far? What does He mean to you?” (This is a variation on Jesus’ own questions to His disciples in Matthew 16:13-15, “What do people say that the Son of Man is? ... Who do you say that I am?”) Questions like these demonstrate how much we value people’s lives and perspectives. They are also a refreshing, surprising break from the endless rush of monologue—from tweets to talking heads on television—that drowns our current social landscape.
In this landscape, people win by proclaiming their version of reality in the loudest voice possible. Those who ask questions, who wonder if there might be another way to tell the story, can feel like unwelcome refugees voicing their qualms and concerns to the wild winds while those inside the warm buildings lock the doors and draw the blinds. We who profess to follow Jesus don’t have to go along with this. We can show the world a different way.
Dare we let these refugees in? Can we trust that entertaining these wanderers (angels?), and their questions that make us squirm, might lead us closer to God, to His promises—to His untamable truth?
May we the church live the questions, love the questioners, and follow closely in the steps of Jesus—our wild, wandering, question-asking God.