Ideas / Pursuing Wisdom / Thinking / June 4, 2013

You’re Asking the Wrong Questions

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I took a class on genesis from Dr. John Walton when I was in college. It was one of the most formative classes I took in part because the subject matter was excellent mu mainly because of how Dr. Walton succeeded at re-shaping how I thought. His favorite phrase, or at least the one I remember hearing most often, was “you’re asking the wrong questions.” We would bring our presuppositions and sophomoric confidence to the text and lob questions his way with impunity only to have them deftly and gently parried with “you’re asking the wrong questions.”

What I learned from Dr. Walton that semester was that right thinking and right teaching means insisting on the right questions being asked. He would not fall into the trap of trying to answer questions which came from the wrong place or pointed in the wrong direction. Rather over and over again he nudged us toward a place of understanding that allowed us to begin to ask the right questions – in this case the ones that the text actually was intended to answer.

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Asking the wrong questions is like reading a road map upside down. You might have the best intentions, be exceptionally bright, and be putting forth maximum effort, but there simply aren’t any right answers. You are starting from the wrong point and working from a paradigm that is all wrong. It doesn’t matter where your starting place is – you won’t get to the right conclusion.
Too often influencers, leaders, and teachers make the mistake of answering the wrong questions. Instead of stepping back, evaluating, and redirecting the asker to a better question they end up misleading her by allowing her to use her upside down map. To answer the wrong question is to imply that it will take the asker to a desirable destination. It is to try to give right directions on a map that’s all wrong. In other words it is a waste of effort and misguided from the start. 

Insistence on asking the right questions is much more than just that – it is insisting on working within the right framework. It is teaching the asker to think differently and to absorb the reality of the situation. It is communicating the truth and values that need to be communicated. In the business world this might be the mission statement of the company. Instead of answering the manager’s question of “How can we make the most money this quarter?” you point him to a better question – “How can we best serve our clients?” You didn’t answer his question, but you gave him a clear answer and created a better framework for his thought and efforts.

In the church it means not answering questions like “How far can we go before we get married?” or “How much money should I give to the church?” Instead you suggest questions like “What choice would honor the Lord?” To answer the first two is to create a false truth, a concrete rule or decree where discernment ought to rule instead.

Yes, the right questions require more thought and investment – that’s part of what makes them good. Instead of finding the shortcut answer to nowhere they take the asker on a more arduous journey to a better place. Answering the wrong questions allows the asker to continue being lost. Instead, be bold enough to respond like Dr. Walton and let them know “you’re asking the wrong questions.”   

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