5 Strategies for Tough Questions–Part 1: Find the Question Behind the Question

He sounded like the short, bald guy from Princess Bride that walked around saying “inconceivable” in that strange, nasally voice. He looked a bit like him, too (but don’t tell him I said that). I was sitting in the hard, blue, plastic chairs of L101 at Multnomah University in a class called Adolescent Psychology, and he was the professor. In that nasally voice he kept saying, “The question is rarely the question.”


(Photo by Isah on http://www.sxc.hu)

It’s true. Someone asks, “How can you claim you have the only way to God?” But they really might mean, “Isn’t that arrogant of you to claim that you, of all people, know the only truth?” Another asks, “What about all the evil and suffering in the world? Is God really good?” But they actually might be asking, “Can I really trust or believe in a God who allows so much hurt?” A third person asks, “What proof do you have for me? Why should I believe this is actually real?” But they really want to know, “How can I be logically certain this is true?” There is almost always a Question Behind the Question.

Until you find the Question Behind the Question, all your energy is wasted.

Until you find the Question Behind the Question, they won’t really hear anything you say.

So, how do we find the Question Behind the Question?

  1. Always assume there is a deeper question. When I started in youth ministry, my dad told me, “Rob, you need to ask the questions that students want to ask but are afraid to ask. And, you need to ask the questions that students should be asking but don’t yet know to ask.” Assume a deeper question, and ask that question for them.
  2. Always assume that the question guards something personal. Hard questions are often like a shield—they guard the soft, tender stuff beneath. We need to wrestle with the questions—and do it well—and we must always assume that the question guards something personal.

  3. Always treat the question as more serious than it is, not less serious. Too often we take difficult questions and try to give easy answers. This only discredits any trust we had. Instead, we must take hard questions and treat them with upmost sincerity and deep wrestling. People often feel very vulnerable when asking hard questions. We must join them in the discovery process.

  4. Always aim to be able to explain their question better than they can. In the famous words of Steven Covey, “Seek first to understand, then to be understood.” When a student offers me a hard question, I’ll often respond by saying, “You know, that’s a hard question, and I remember asking it. And is what makes it even harder is …” This feels wrong to do! But it’s actually the best possible response, because it shows that we truly understand their question—and the Question Behind the Question.

Jesus does this all the time. Think Rich Young Ruler (“Sell all you have”) or the story of the Good Samaritan (“Do this and you will live.”). Jesus is always digging into the Question Behind the Question, or the issue behind the issue. Maybe this is why genuine seekers were always drawn to Jesus.

Knowing the question behind the question is like having the key to a strongly guarded door. When I demonstrate to a student that I really ‘get’ their question—at the deepest level—they’ll share their heart with me. And, they’ll let me join them in the journey of finding answers. (It’s another way to be the mid-wife, not the pregnant lady.)

Question: How do you discover the Question Behind the Question? What questions do you notice young people asking? Leave a comment here: comments

(This post is part of a series on 12 Questions Young People are Asking. To see the start of the series, click here. To get a sneak peak of the 12 Questions material, sign up to receive my free e-book on the right sidebar.)

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