Rules for Engagement: Getting at the Heart of the Questions
“How can you believe in a God that you can’t see, hear, or touch?” my friend asked.
Without waiting for an answer, he continued: “I’m not saying the idea of God isn’t useful; some people need help facing life’s disappointments. But I don’t believe Santa lives at the North Pole, and I don’t believe God is up there looking down.”
We sat in silence.
Peter and I had taught university courses together for a year. I respected him as a colleague and valued him as a friend. Still, his conclusion that God was a grand coping mechanism for needy people made me angry. I wanted to set our relationship aside and dismantle his claims point by point like a defense attorney at cross-examination.
But Peter was no stranger sitting next to me at Starbucks. My relationship with him was not one I could easily set aside. And while the Scriptures command us to present our beliefs with gentleness to everyone (1 Pet. 3:15), it’s particularly important to do so when someone we’re close to—a family member or a good friend—questions our faith. On such occasions, we face the challenge of responding to the questions while preserving the relationship.
As I’ve talked with Peter about my relationship with God and nurtured our friendship, I’ve discovered a series of helpful communication principles. When you apply them in your conversations (bearing in mind that they aren’t intended as a rigid checklist to work through in a specified order), I believe you’ll find that they lay the foundation for engaging, God-honoring dialogues about faith.
Os Guinness argues that, when presented with a difficult question, “part of the answer initially is to have no answer, for the genuine answer counts only if we have genuinely listened first.” The writer of Proverbs agrees: “A fool does not delight in understanding, but only in revealing his own mind” (18:2, NASB). In contrast to the fool, a wise person “acquires knowledge” (Prov. 18:15).
When my oldest son started complaining of headaches after we moved to southern California last year, we scheduled a doctor’s appointment. I expected the doctor quickly to prescribe something to lessen my son’s pain. The first thing the doctor did, however, was ask questions.
“Does your son have a history of headaches?” “Do you or your wife have frequent headaches?” “When did your son first start to experience these
“Where is the pain located?”
Without answers to these questions, the doctor couldn’t proceed wisely. Similarly, I couldn’t properly respond to Peter’s comparison of God to Santa Claus without some insight into Peter’s
personal history. So I asked Peter some questions.
“How long have you felt this way about God?” “When did you first start to think this way?” “What books or individuals have influenced your
The writer of Proverbs reminds us that the “purposes of a man’s heart are deep waters” (20:5). The job of a good conversationalist is to “draw them out.” My questions slowly plumbed Peter’s history and revealed two key pieces of information.
First, Peter grew up in an atheistic home where the notion of God was laughable. His parents taught at a university and repeatedly told him that Christianity was for the uneducated. For most of us, our parents are the first and most important influence on how we see ourselves. Were Peter to consider seriously the existence of God, he would alienate himself from the two most important people in his life—his parents. That was a risk he couldn’t take.
Second, Peter’s parents were very sparing in communicating approval to him. “When I debated issues with my parents,” he once said to me, “they were quick to point out the weaknesses of my ideas.” When I asked if he’d ever won a debate, he looked down and slowly shook his head.
“If we could read the secret history of our enemies,” wrote Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “we should find in each man’s life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility.” If learning the history and sorrow of an enemy disarms hostility, how much more might it disarm us to learn the history and sorrow of those close to us? When I saw Peter’s affection for his parents and his longing for their approval, my desire to defeat him in a debate dissipated. What child hasn’t wanted his parents to be proud of his convictions?
Remember that All Communication Exists on at Least Two Levels.
When someone close to you asks you a question, the ensuing conversation exists on two levels: the content level and the relational level. The content level expresses the literal meaning of the words being spoken or the question being asked. The relational level expresses the amount of affection, concern, commitment, and respect that exists between two people.
When Peter asked how I could believe in an invisible God (content level), he was also waiting to see how I would react to him and his questions (relational level). Would his questions change our relationship? Hidden within his verbalized questions about God were other unspoken questions.
“Are my feelings OK?”
“Will my questions push you away?” “Do you still respect me?”
“What will happen to us if I never believe as you do?”
Peter needed to know that, regardless of how our conversation went that day, we would be friends the next. He needed to know that our relationship wouldn’t suffer because we had differing opinions. The loved ones you are in conversation with need the same sort of reassurance.
In his massive treatise on religious affections, Jonathan Edwards wrote that the nature of human beings is to be inactive unless we are motivated by a powerful feeling or affection. These feelings—hatred, love, anger, despair, hope—serve as a “spring of action” that propels us forward. In answering tough questions we need to discover the underlying emotion that “propelled” the question.
The problem is, we aren’t very good at identifying emotions. When someone is upset we say he or she is “angry.” Or when people seem withdrawn we label them “sad.” Such a limited emotional vocabulary does little to help us understand the specific emotion that gave rise to the question.
For example, after my wife and I explained to an engaged couple God’s standard concerning premarital sex, they reacted strongly. “Do you mean God thinks nothing of our love?” the young woman asked in dis- belief. “He just looks at us as two people breaking one of His rules?” said her fiancé, staring at me. (Like half of the couples in the United States planning on getting married, they were living together.)
Knowing what emotion was driving the questions from this non-Christian couple helped me frame my response. If I’d simply assumed they were angry, I might have accused them of arrogance and insisted that God had every right to tell them what was off limits. However, I recognized that they were hurt. They took their relationship seriously and thought I was saying that God cared more about rules than about their deep concern for each other. Instead of an explanation of God’s right to establish rules, this couple needed to hear God’s heart behind the rule. By reserving sex for marriage, God was taking their relationship even more seriously than they did and was graciously seeking to protect what will become the most intimate part of their future: their sexual union.
The next time you are trying to understand the emo- tion behind a person’s difficult question, try probing further with the following questions and comments:
“Why do you think this issue is important to you?”
“You said you are angry at Christians. What specifically makes you angry?” “How does my answer to your question make you feel?”
“Help me understand why you feel that I’m intolerant.” “What leads you to say that God has abandoned you?”
“Say more about why this issue evokes such strong emotions.”
The best questions for uncovering emotions are open-ended (“How do you feel?”) and allow a variety of responses. Closed questions (“Are you mad?”) provoke a one-word response.
When listening to a person’s story or feelings, how we react is crucial. People become defensive and withdrawn when their feelings are met with detached neutrality. Conversely, when people’s doubts or questions are met with empathy, they feel valued. This doesn’t mean that we have to tear up with emotion for the person. Rather, it means that we acknowledge that what they are going through must be difficult, and we communicate that we feel for them.
At one point in our conversation, Peter told me that his parents didn’t tolerate children challenging their beliefs. “Imagine if I came home and told them I
found religion,” he said with a laugh. Listening to him, I thought of the proverb that states, “Even in laughter the heart may ache” (14:13).
“I can’t imagine my parents not allowing me to disagree with them,” I said.
“You get used to it,” he replied. I wasn’t so sure. Acknowledging people’s feelings is not difficult.
First, it means letting them know that you are attempt- ing to understand the significance of their questions or doubts. Second, it means communicating that their feelings matter to you, that they themselves are important to you.
Focus on the person, not just the answer.
When giving a truthful answer, it’s not enough to think about what I’m going to say; I must also think about what response is best for this person at this time. Does he or she need assurance of my commitment to the relationship (relational level)? A well-thought-out reply (content level)? Or both? Jesus models this kind of discernment. In John 11, both Mary and Martha say to Him: “If you’d been here, Lazarus wouldn’t have died.” Jesus responds differently to each woman. To Martha, He gives theological truth that places emphasis on the content level: “Your brother will rise again. . . . I am the resurrection and the life” (vv. 23,25). With Mary, He sees her tears and is “deeply moved and troubled” (v. 33). He weeps. He acknowledges, on a relational level, the intimacy of their relationship. This last reminder is perhaps the most important. When someone we care about rejects the answer we give to his challenging question, we must keep the lines of communication open. Reuel Howe notes: Dialog is to love what blood is to the body. When the flow of blood stops, the body dies. When dialogue stops, love dies and resentment and hate are born.
Howe was so struck by the power of communications that he named his now classic book The Miracle of Dialog. However, for dialogue to work its wonders we must be tireless in pursuing those dear to us. We must address their questions and preserve the relationship. In doing so, we will leave a door open for future conversations and further consideration of the beliefs we cherish and know to hold the key to eternal and abundant life.
a b o u t t h e a u t h o r
TIMOTHY M. MUEHLHOFF is a professor of communication at Biola University in La Mirada, California. He completed a Ph.D. in communication theory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (2003). Since 1986 he has served with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) in the campus ministry, short-term missions (Kenya, Russia, Lithuania), and currently with Keynote as a trainer for The Comm Lab—a center that trains Cru staff, pastors, and lay people in evangelistic speaking and apologetics. For the past 18 years Tim and his wife, Noreen, have been frequent speakers at FamilyLife Marriage Conferences.
Art by Neubecker.
Used by permission of Discipleship Journal. Copyright © Mar/April 2006, Issue 152, The Navigators. Used by permission of NavPress. All rights reserved. www.navpress.com