What do Steve Jobs, Voltaire, and my mother have in common?
They all received trivial answers to tough theological questions.
Steve Jobs left Christianity at the age of 13. As a teenager, Jobs was troubled by a magazine cover depicting two starving children in Biafra. Raised in the Lutheran church, he brought the magazine to his pastor and asked if God knew about these starving children. And, according to Walter Isaacson’s biography of Jobs, his pastor answered, “Steve, I know you don’t understand, but yes, God knows about that.” This answer prompted him to leave the church and never return.
Voltaire wanted an answer to a tough theological question, too. After thousands had died in a November 1, 1755, earthquake in Portugal, Voltaire began asking tough questions about human suffering. Disappointed by the theological answers he received, he set out to write Candide. The book was a stinging critique of Gottfried Leibniz’s theological answers to human suffering.
My mother asked a tough theological question. At the age of 6, she confronted a question no child should have to ponder: Why did God let her father die? The night he died of a heart attack, she asked her pastor this question. He said God needed her father with him in heaven. She said she needed her father with her at home.
Trivial Answers Are Harmful
Each of these stories should be a warning to us: trivial answers are harmful. Serious theological questions demand serious responses. Eternal truth is at stake.
Providing thoughtful answers to tough theological questions is a persistent challenge. Every generation of Christians has engaged in this task: Paul gave serious theological answers to Christians living in Rome, Corinth, Galatia, and elsewhere in the Roman Empire. The early church faced hard questions about Scripture, Jesus, and the Trinity. Other generations of Christians have responded to tough questions about crumbling empires, senseless plagues, and incomprehensible genocides.
Serious theological questions demand serious responses. Eternal truth is at stake.
And Christians today continue to receive tough questions. Providing thoughtful answers to serious theological questions is especially difficult in this age of confusion. We’re addicted to hasty conversations, fragmented thought, and rapid responses. It’s challenging to develop a habit of careful reflection, cautious words, and patient dialogue.
So, how can Christians give better answers to serious and hard questions? How can we respond to difficult questions in a way that respects the asker and speaks the truth? Here are four suggestions.
1. Why Do They Want to Know?
When I was studying to be a pastor, one of my seminary professors taught us to respond to tough theological questions with a question: Why do you want to know? This advice has helped me on numerous occasions. There is often something motivating a person to ask a particular question. Understanding why someone is asking a question helps you to know how best to respond.
2. Serious Answers Take Time
During the Protestant Reformation, many theological questions were being raised. And many reformers showed a willingness to give serious answers to these serious questions. For example, in the Apology of the Augsburg Confession, the article on justification begins: “But since this controversy deals with the most important topic of Christian teaching . . . we ask His Imperial Majesty kindly to hear us out on this important matter.” They knew a thoughtful answer would take more than a few seconds.
Rather than giving a theological hot take, take time to prayerfully and thoughtfully formulate a cogent response.
Rather than giving a theological hot take, take time to prayerfully and thoughtfully formulate a cogent response. It is wise to respond to a difficult question by saying, “Can I get back to you on that? I’d like to give you a thoughtful response.” While a quick and pithy response may be easiest, humility invites us to consider that our first reaction—or perhaps even our second or third—may not be the best: “The patient in spirit is better than the proud in spirit” (Eccl. 7:8).
3. Gentleness and Respect
“But in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet. 3:15). It’s easy to let the first part of this verse (be prepared to make a defense) eclipse the second (yet do it with gentleness and respect). A gentle, respectful answer doesn’t mean using your public-radio-host voice. Rather, gentleness and respect means asking for further clarification before answering, respecting the other person enough to give the question adequate time, and offering a thoughtfully nuanced response. Respect might also mean humility—admitting to the asker you don’t have a fully adequate answer and that you have wrestled with the question too.
4. Switch Media
Responding in kind is not always the best practice. Simply because someone has posed a question in one medium doesn’t mean you must respond in the same medium. Comment sections, text messages, Twitter, and email are fraught with communication challenges. Sometimes switching modes of communication—especially toward more personal forms of engagement—is helpful. Research about social media suggests that personalized communication has a greater effect on people than impersonal communication such as public comments or posts. If someone tweets a tough question, consider sending a direct message. If someone texts or emails the question, set up a time to talk face-to-face.
We should respond to difficult questions with a certain degree of fear and trembling. “Rightly handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15), after all, is a tremendous responsibility. Cavalier and thoughtless responses can do great harm. Instead, we ought to respond to tough questions with gentleness, respect, seriousness, and patience. We should also be grateful the person is asking the question at all—sincere wrestling is better than inert apathy—and that God saw fit for you to have the conversation.