In college, I took several classes from Jerry Root
. He was one of my favorite professors and one of the few whose lessons have left an etching on my Teflon brain. One of the most significant lessons Jerry taught me was about asking questions.
Jerry made it a point to lay a foundation for basic understanding in his classes. He did it by teaching the class the importance of questions such as “When you say _______ do you mean ______?” and “What do you mean by _____?” As a pretentious, obnoxious Wheaton College underclassman these questions were perfectly timed for me. I needed to learn how to understand and hear a person before making a judgment as to their correctness or character.
This is a lesson I am still learning, and it’s one that most people, it seems, need to learn as well. The number of snap judgments, inferences, misinterpretations, and character defamations thrown around, especially on the internet, is absurd. How often have you seen commenters on a blog question the author’s intelligence or faith? How often have you heard a parishioner throw out an entire sermon based on one opaque point?
Where does this disinclination to understand come from? Given each of our experiences being misunderstood and misrepresented, shouldn’t we turn those thoughts toward others and realize our propensity for doing the same? We must always remember that our inability to fully understand somebody does not mean they haven’t communicated well; it just as often means we aren’t comprehending well.
The first step to beginning to respond in an understanding way to others is to realize how little we tend to understand them. Only one man in history had the ability to hear the words of another and know perfectly the heart behind them and all the meaning loaded in them. And that man wasn’t me and he wasn’t you. (See Matthew 9:1-8 for more info.)
So we must ask questions. We begin by questioning our interpretations and then we pass the questions along to the communicator. We must question the words used and the heart from which they sprung. We must question tone and temperament. And we must do so not with the intention of finding flaws or challenging the communicator (“Are you an idiot?” “Do you have any idea what you are talking about?”) but with the intention gaining real understanding.
But we must also be comfortable not getting answers, and, therefore, not making judgments. We can only glean so many answers from something that is written. We rarely get to know the full character or intention of the author. And without those answers we must be limited in our response, especially in angst, anger, and accusation.
One of the things I appreciate most about the commenters on this blog is the number of questions that are asked (along with the very gracious and thoughtful feedback). I am thankful for readers who respond with grace and with requests for clarity rather than lambasting me for some assumed intent. It is encouraging to be able to clarify. It is discouraging to be misunderstood. It is encouraging to be questioned for the sake of understanding. It is discouraging to be falsely judged.
So I encourage all of you to do the same for other writers, for your pastors, or in conversation. Give them the grace to clarify, explain, and expose their hearts. And be willing to withhold a judgment if clear answers are lacking.