Albert Einstein famously said, “Question everything,” but it was Jesus who practiced what Einstein preached. Contrary to popular assumptions, Jesus was not a robotic Answer Man; he was more like the Great Questioner. According the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), Jesus asks over 300 questions during his earthly ministry. Surprisingly, he answers only three. That’s quite a ratio, but it aligns with the m.o. of Yahweh in the Old Testament. God was known for asking his people lots of questions, too. Like Father like Son.
Now, if omniscience asks questions, it’s not to ellicit information; it’s to reveal it. In everyday life, our responses to the questions put to us have a way of exposing our hopes, fears, values, passions, and aspirations. They unveil our muddled thinking and our gaps in understanding. They demonstrate our innovation and creativity. They uncover our souls, for as Jesus said, “Out of the overflow of the heart the mouth speaks” (Matthew 12:34).
Asking questions can unlock learning and enhance interpersonal bonding, provided they’re not impossible “gotcha” questions designed to intimidate or humiliate (e.g., “Have you stopped beating your wife yet?”). Jesus doesn’t work for cable news. He works for his heavenly Father, who deeply desires a relationship with every human being, his highest order of creation. Since relationships by nature are dynamic and reciprocal, questions are part of the interaction between God and humanity. There’s give-and-take and back-and-forth—a rhythm of geneuine conversation allowing both parties to play the role of a subject, not merely an object.
Writing for the Harvard Business Review, Alison Wood Brooks and Leslie K. John have noted, “The wellspring of all questions is wonder and curiosity and a capacity for delight. We pose and respond to queries in the belief that the magic of a conversation will produce a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. Sustained personal engagement and motivation—in our lives as well as our work—require that we are always mindful of the transformative joy of asking and answering questions.”
God doesn’t ask questions because he needs to know. He asks questions to reveal and relate. Yes, we might have some questions for God in the life to come—who doesn’t?—but God has some questions for us in the life we have right now. Why not spend some time relating to him over some of the questions he’s already asked?
Questions God may ask us about our EMOTIONAL life.
“Why are you angry?” (Gen 4:6b)
“Why are you crying?” (John 20:15b)
“If even the smallest things are beyond your control, why are you anxious about the rest?” (Luke 12:26)
Questions God may ask us about our THOUGHT life.
“Have you never read the Scriptures?” (Matt 21:42a)
“Why are you thinking such things in your heart?” (Mark 2:8b)
“Do you not yet understand?” (Matt 16:8)
“Are even you likewise without understanding?” (Mark 7:18)
Questions God may ask us about our PHYSICAL life.
“Do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit, who is in you, whom you have received from God?” (1 Cor 6:19a)
“Do you want to be well?” (John 5:6b)
Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy? (Isaiah 55:2)
“What do you want me to do for you?” (Mark 10:36a)
Questions God may ask us about our INTERPERSONAL life.
“What are you discussing as you walk along?” (Luke 24:17)
“Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man?” (Luke 10:36a)
“And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8b)
“If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that?” (Matt 5:46)
Questions God may ask us about our SPIRITUAL life.
“Where are you?” (Gen 3:9)
“Have you eaten from the tree that I commanded you not to eat from?” (Gen 3:11b)
“Is anything too hard for the Lord?” (Gen 18:14)
“What is your name?” (Gen 32:27a)
“Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and not do what I command?” (Luke 6:46)
“Do you love me?” (John 21:16)
Questions God may ask us about our MISSIONAL life.
“Whom shall I send?” (Isa 6:8b)
“What is that in your hand?” (Exod 4:2b)
“How many loaves do you have?” (Mark 8:5)
“Are there not twelve hours in a day?” (John 11:9)
“Do you see this woman?” (Luke 7:44b)
Maybe the most all-encompassing question God could ask us is this one: “Where have you come from, and where are you going?” (Gen 16:8b). Certainly the most important question he could ask was raised by his Son, “Who do you say that I am?” (Matt 16:15). The two questions are actually related.
So, grab a cup of coffee, pull up a seat, and “have a little talk with Jesus,” as the old gospel song puts it.
Are we as a nation less civil than we used to be? Maybe to a point, but three factors make it seem a lot worse than it probably is. First, today’s instant media puts the national invective “in our face” quicker and more frequently than in days gone by. Technology gives us hate at the speed of light. And lots of it. The sheer amount of vituperation we see on a daily basis can be disconcerting to one’s sense of personal peace; hence, the recent calls in our society for more civility. Unfortunately, outrage is good for business. The merchants of wrath on social media generate both clicks and cash for their cause, so, don’t expect the fireworks to fizzle any time soon.
Second, our crisis in education has rendered ideological retorts far less effective (not to mention fun) than they used to be in previous generations. Verbal pushbacks today are crafted as little more than ad hominem attacks—personal insults that are unseemly, unsophisticated, and ultimately unpersuasive. But one need only recall the kinds of political discourse our nation witnessed just a century and a half ago. In the 1858 debates, for example, Lincoln called the logic behind a proposed Douglas policy “as thin as the homeopathic soup that was made by boiling the shadow of a pigeon that had starved to death.” Somehow the nation endured such brutal zingers. I do concede, though, it was the policy being attacked, not the person. That distinction seems to have been lost in our day.
Third, gone are the days when the mainstream media were (mostly) honest and evenhanded. Indeed, there was a time when our “straight news” outlets sought to be dispassionate in the delivery of their product. They were content to be our eyes and ears on the events of the day, but now they try to be our brains, too, telling us what to think. No thank you; we can do that ourselves. Moreover, professional pundits have done more to polarize our country than any politician. And now they’re playing censorship games to aid and abet certain candidates, being selective and prejudicial in what they cover and don’t cover. Along with Big Tech’s manipulation of search results and feed content, it’s rank advocacy masquerading as real journalism—a flagrant corruption of a once noble industry. I’d rather chew glass than consume that kind of “news” on a regular basis. Of all the trends in motion right now, this one might be the most dangerous.
How Bad Will It Get Out There?
It remains to be seen if we can long endure the kind of verbal explosions we see online each day. On the other hand, it may be helpful to remember that in the 1960s, bomb-throwers actually threw bombs. To the snowflake generation (a somewhat inflammatory but largely warranted moniker) verbal shrapnel apparently is worse. Students are easily “triggered” these days, sometimes needing professional escorts to help them get to “safe spaces” on campus when they hear something they don’t like. We used to call such an attitude unmistakable evidence that a young person was “spoiled.”
Important debates get shut down now simply by someone claiming his feelings got hurt in the marketplace of ideas. Ironically, such fragile folks have little hesitation in pulling their own verbal triggers against those considered not yet “woke.” In their minds, the uglier the response, the better. “Be cruel or be cast out,” sang Rush in the 1980s. Their musical prophecy has come to fruition in today’s cancel culture. It’s “free speech for me but not for thee.”
Alas, the summer of arson and violence we just endured (labeled “mostly peaceful protests” by the spinmeisters in the media) makes me wonder if we’re heading back to the 1960s. Will we revert to throwing real bombs again? Oh, and rumor has it there’s an election next week. Is it that time again? Already? Lots of folks are on edge about what will happen to our cities if some people don’t get their own way at the ballot box. Hurt feelings can justify all kinds of malevolence these days. But if a civil war is needed to quiet things down again, let’s find a way to make it bloodless. Preserving people’s freedoms may be worth life and limb, but preserving their feelings—not so much.
One aspect of our current lunacy is rooted in the fact that those who are so easily outraged seldom see people on their side of a particular issue as less-than-perfect specimens of moral goodness themselves. Their cause is right, so they must be right. Not so (cf. Luke 13:1-5). It’s a secular form of self-righteousness, and the dogmatic assertions they preach get enscripturated in the doctrines of political correctness. It’s a new form of fundamentalism—without any fun, of course. Butself-assertion without self-reflection becomes self-destruction. In time, society itself collapses under its own weight. Cancel culture winds up canceling itself.
If civilization can be defined as “social order promoting cultural creation,” one might define civility as “verbal order promoting respectful communication.” But it takes character to be civil—and even more character to endure incivility. Apart from an elevation of character, neither can be realized to any extent in contemporary society. For believers, character is a function of our relationship with God. Therefore, we must lead the way in society by modeling a proper stewardship of words. I cannot accuse the secularists of failing to be self-reflective if I myself am not self-reflective when it comes to my own particular speech patterns—both in discourse and in scholarship. That’s what this series has been all about. I need to own up to my own lapses.
Civility in Scholarship
As noted previously, the esteemed clergyman, scholar, and author Eugene Peterson has said, “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.” His call is for believers to cultivate the practice of integrity and winsomeness in speech, which involves a genuine respect for others as well as humility within ourselves. These attitudes are especially important for the Christian scholar. As Nancy Jean Vyhmeister notes, “The research mindset is characterized by objectivity, focus, clearly set-forth presuppositions, and logical organization. In a more biblical frame, it is adorned by humility.”
In her doctoral dissertation, Laurie Mellinger likewise highlights the need for humility by advocating a posture of hospitality among readers, writers, and teachers of theology. “Engaged theological readers respond in ways that bring their Christian faith to bear on what they read,” she writes. “For instance, they endeavor to respond with love and compassion. Whether they read secular literature or biblical narrative, they attempt at first to withhold judgment, offering a thorough and fair hearing to authors, characters, and ideas before responding.” The idea is provocative, as the word “hospitality” in the New Testament (φιλοξενία) means to love people of a different country or culture. Practicing hospitality, then, means to demonstrate a high regard for individuals who are different than we are—even in their thoughts, words, and ideologies.
By extension, hospitable scholarship would involve treating the author we’re engaging as valuable and worthy of respect even if we vigorously disagree with their conclusions. Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount, “If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?” (Matt 5:46-47). In other words, being kind to others who are just like us is no big deal; anybody can do that. Unbelievers can do that, says Jesus. But φιλοξενία costs something; it’s a virtue that may not come naturally to us. Indeed, it may even require something of us, but it adorns the gospel.
In the end, common grace allows people outside our faith to be right about many things, even if their view of Christ and Christianity is askew. That means I can always come to an author outside my faith tradition and say, “I can learn from this person. I may not always agree with her, but I can always ‘chew up the meat and spit out the bones.’ Christ is not exalted when others are diminished, so I will not seek to skewer this writer. Instead, I will be fair, dispassionate, and even-keeled in my interaction, reserving my harshest critiques only for the most heinous of ideas.” Celebrate before you cerebrate, Tim.
Modeled by a Mentor
No one modeled this approach for me better than Professor David A. Dorsey, the late Distinguished Professor of Old Testament Studies at Evangelical Seminary who mentored me through my first doctoral program. Dr. Dorsey was a master at responding to the ridiculous things we would say in class. Looking back, I marvel at the grace he displayed. One of us would say something goofy about a passage, or something way off-base theologically, and he would say, “Well, you might be right about that, but here’s what I think is going on in that text.” And he would proceed to school us on the proper handling of the passage, but always with gentleness and respect. We were corrected, but not insulted; re-directed, but not ridiculed.
Dorsey’s approach is still with me today. In a recent article I wrote on the Sabbath for the Evangelical Journal, I politely disagreed with one scholar whose form-critical assumptions caused him to miss the exquisite nature of various passages in Exodus. His harsh assessment of the biblical text was unnecessary, and I said so. However, I also praised other aspects of this scholar’s work, noting how “magisterial” his work was in the field of Sabbath studies. He contributed much to the topic, and that contribution is rightly honored. In other words, I treated him as I myself would want to be treated if my own work were being reviewed by him. Dorsey, along with other professors at Evangelical Seminary, showed their students how to do this during my M.Div. days. My goal now is to do the same for my own students.
Civility in scholarship does not mean that we treat all ideas as equally valid, or that we all need to restrain ourselves from offering honest critiques when we think they’re warranted. After all, when it comes to the field of biblical studies and Christian theology, much is at stake for the parishioner in the pew. For example, can believers really have confidence in Scripture as God’s Word, or must we always take the critical position that the Bible is untrustworthy? To hear some scholars, one would think there is nothing unique about the Christian canon, or that Jesus Christ was no more important to his nation than George Washington was to ours. As Vyhmeister notes, “Researchers start their work from the premise that knowledge is attainable and that finding truth is possible.”
My goal, then, is to argue respectfully and persuasively when it comes to engaging those whose arguments would undermine a high view of Scripture. Indeed, Richard J. Mouw’s concept of “convicted civility” is my target. Mouw is on a mission to clean up society’s speech in our generation. In his book Uncommon Decency: Christian Civility in an Uncivil World, he writes, “As Martin Marty has observed, one of the real problems in modern life is that people who are good at being civil often lack strong convictions and people who have strong convictions lack civility. I like that way of stating the issue. We need to find a way of combining a civil outlook with a ‘passionate intensity’ about our convictions. The real challenge is to come up with a convicted civility.”
Mouw continues, “Civility has its own value, quite apart from any evangelistic or political results it might produce. To become a gentler and more reverent person is itself a way of being more like what God intended us to be.” To which I say, “Amen.”
“May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be pleasing in your sight, O Lord, my Rock and my Redeemer.” Psalm 19:14
Words have the power to captivate and communicate, sometimes even better than images do. That’s one of the reasons movie adaptations of our favorite books can fall flat. They deviate from what our own imaginations did with the words we read. Take, for example, this silly sentence from an unknown source: “The bulbous woman ballooned toward me.” No picture is needed for such a sight; the mental image conjured by the words is amusing enough.
Likewise, this famous line from Carl Sandburg needs no help from a video: “The fog comes on little cat feet. It sits looking over harbor and city on silent haunches and then moves on.” Such a scene can’t be filmed; it can only be conveyed by a creative and strategic use of words. Similarly, Truman Capote painted a feast of images with this memorable line: “Venice is like eating an entire box of chocolate liqueurs in one go.” I can almost taste the town just by reading the sentence.
My all-time favorite line in English comes from Alexander Pope’s description of Jesus turning the water into wine. The verse he crafted portrays the miracle performed in Cana in a rich and unforgettable way: “The conscious water saw its master and blushed.”
Here the poet personifies the water, giving it a consciousness, the capacity to see, and the ability to feel embarrassed. The profound theological message conveyed in this one verse speaks volumes about the relationship of the creation to its creator (one of subordinate humility), as well as the exalted identity of the one who performed the miracle (the creator himself, incarnated and living humbly as a craftsman in Galilee). Can a picture do all that? Probably not.
I happen to love words, and I enjoy learning new ones. I also love reading the works of others who use them better than I do, sharpening my own craft in the process. I was an English major in college, so I had the opportunity to read broadly across the literature spectrum. Anchored now in the truths of a biblical worldview, I’m untroubled by reading works outside my own tradition. It expands my perspective and allows me to peer into how other people think and use words.
I also enjoy the weekly challenge of crafting a “big idea” for my sermons, encapsulating the entire message in a single sentence. Vivid, pithy language with turns of phrases and symmetrical touches can serve the homiletical task well. There’s no shortage of good examples on how to do this.
“Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” (President John F. Kennedy)
“Do I love you because you’re beautiful? Or are you beautiful because I love you?” (Oscar Hammerstein)
“In the blue grass region, a paradox was born: the corn was full of kernels, and the colonels full of corn.” (John Marshall)
“I’d rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” Steve Allen (though variously attributed)
Factor in the gospel, and there are all kinds of possibilities when it comes to words that evoke vivid images and big ideas. Who can forget the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Memorial? Over time his big idea became the title of his message. As Winston Churchill once said, “If you have an important point to make, don’t try to be subtle or clever. Use a pile driver. Hit the point once. Then come back and hit it again. Then hit it a third time—a tremendous whack.” Dr. King did exactly that.
Good communicators get this. Andy Stanley writes, “Every time I stand to communicate, I want to take one simple truth and lodge it in the heart of the listener. I want them to know that one thing and know what to do with it.” Finally, as if to model the very technique he advocated for so many years, Haddon Robinson said, “A sermon should be a bullet, not buckshot.” Here are some big idea bullets I’ve fired recently on Sunday mornings:
Hope never dies because the God of the impossible lives.
To outlive your life, yield it completely to the Author of life.
Many babies have become kings, but only one king has ever become a baby.
When God stretches your faith, he will also strengthen your heart.
Love God not to get him to love you but because he already does.
The activation of God’s promise is joined to the asking of God’s people.
If you’re wandering around in a spiritual desert, you need to have a moral compass.
A fake gospel cannot deliver a real salvation.
The grace of God will remove sin, but it will not redefine sin.
Finite human beings are like crossword puzzle addicts with a limited vocabulary.
The big idea of the biblical text must always be located within the Big Story of the biblical plot, lest the forest be missed for the trees. (Big ideas and big stories need each other.) For this reason, I read both exegetical and hermeneutical materials. I do this out of enjoyment but also out of a sense of calling to “tell the people the full message of this new life” (Acts 5:20), as described in a previous post. For me it’s a labor of love.
But sometimes my words are not vehicles of love—toward God or toward others. Too often they’re self-centered or dispiriting. Too often they’re unhelpful or unkind. That’s why this is yet another area where I need to keep making progress. Specifically, I need wisdom, power, and grace from God to eradicate my complaining and eliminate my criticism—even when such impulses remain unarticulated. They’re still under the surface.
How can I properly handle God’s words in Scripture if I continually mishandle my own words in life? The incongruity is a red flag. As Marilyn McEntyre writes, “What is our task as a logocentric people if not to cherish the word? God, who became, as Eliot so beautifully put it, the ‘word within a word, unable to speak a word,’ has put a measure of God’s own power into our hands and on our tongues. May we use it to good purpose.”
On those occasions when I become a “negaholic” or a “complainiac,” I’m not using the power God gave me to a good purpose. More on these two verbal vices next time.
God the Father inscribed the Ten Commandments on tablets of stone. God the Son wrote in the dirt while preparing to respond to a thorny question about law and grace. God the Holy Spirit inspired the apostles, prophets, and evangelists to write sacred Scripture. Indeed, each member of the Holy Trinity revealed divine truth to human beings using human language, the currency of which is words. Moreover, heaven’s ultimate revelation, Jesus Christ, is called ὁ λόγος, “the Word” (John 1:1).
In his book Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books, Tony Reinke notes how Christianity is a Word-centered faith, which stands in sharp contrast to ancient Near Eastern religions—faith systems that typically focused on visual representations of the deities through idols. Contrary to these image-based religions, he argues, Christians are a people of books, texts, and words, a reality that has deep implications for not only what we learn about God and his world but also how we learn it:
“Words are a more precise way of communicating the meaning behind the images of our world. . . . What is real extends far deeper than what we can see. Our holy God is real. . . . Our Savior is real. Heaven is real. Angels are real. But for now these realities are invisible.” The author of Hebrews might agree with Reinke, at least to a point (cf. 11:1-2).
On the other hand, Dr. Leonard Sweet, with whom I teach on a weekly basis, would bristle at the claim. Sweet thinks it’s high time for the church to emphasize images, metaphors, and stories again. Word-centeredness, he contends, is a product of the enlightenment and modernism. The postmodernism era needs a more image-based approach if believers are to be effective in communicating the gospel in our day. He may be on to something.
In our visually saturated culture today, the church (and the world) might be well served by God’s people recapturing some of the artistic passion we lost in the Reformation period. Ironically, though, Sweet makes his case for this approach whileusing words, a point even he is happy to concede. In class he once showed a few story-based commercials lacking anything verbal—until the very end when the company tag line appeared on the screen. “The story always ends with words,” he admitted.
Doctoral programs end with words, too—a lot of them—all carefully poured into a document we call the dissertation. They also feature spirited online interactions and residency conversations by students with vastly different backgrounds and viewpoints. We do well, then, to remember Proverbs 18:21a, which says, “The tongue has the power of life and death.” The word “tongue” here is a metonymy for “words.” The proverb teaches that words have the power of life and death.
With our words we can unleash quarrels and traumatize people’s hearts. We can hurt people’s feelings and multiply their insecurities. We can consternate people and plunge them into despair. We can mislead people into danger and thrust them into war. Words have the power to kill.
On the other hand, with our words we can motivate people toward deeper thinking and loftier accomplishments. We can help heal the damage done to their wounded souls and restore their faith in God. We can share the good news of Jesus Christ and lead them to find peace in a chaotic world. We can talk them up from the emotional pits they’re in and talk them down from the suicidal ledges they’re on. Words have the power to give life.
While divine words can bring life into existence out of nothing, human words can bring life into existence out of people’s brokenness. It’s a privilege entrusted to every person of faith. How are we doing in this regard?
If an inventory of your words leaves you feeling down, just find someone to whom you can speak life this day. The journey of a thousand conversations begins with the first word. Make it a good one!
Image Credits: catholic.com; iStock.com.
 Tony Reinke, Lit! A Christian Guide to Reading Books (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2011), 40-42.
I’ve often said to my friends at church, “The reason I preach long sermons is that I get paid by the word.” After the chuckling dies down, I’m usually haunted for a few moments by Solomon’s proverb, “When words are many, sin is not absent” (Prov 10:19a). As Eugene Peterson has famously said, “We cannot be too careful about the words we use; we start out using them and they end up using us.” His call is for believers to cultivate the practice of integrity and winsomeness in our daily speech.
That call is echoed by Marilyn McEntyre, who writes, “Like any other life-sustaining resource, language can be depleted, polluted, contaminated, eroded, and filled with artificial stimulants.” Her mission is to motivate people “to be good stewards of language,” retrieving words from “the kinds of misuse, abuse, and distortion to which they’ve been subjected of late, and to reinvigorate them for use as bearers of truth and instruments of love.” In today’s polarized environment, that sounds like a good and necessary vision.
In the next few posts, I’ll try to tease out a mini-theology of words. I may even disclose some of those areas where I believe my own verbalizations still need improvement. By the grace of God, gone are the days when I was an immature high school swimmer “cussin’ with the best of ’em” on the pool deck and in the locker room. But, oh, there’s still a long way for me to go when it comes to my mouth! Even so, words start much deeper down, said Jesus, long before they ever vibrate across our vocal chords and flow past our lips (cf. Matt 12:34b). That’s why Warren Wiersbe used to say, “The tongue is a tattletale on the heart.”
So, it’s really our hearts that need extra doses of grace, not just our tongues. Can you relate?
 Eugene H. Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places: A Conversation in Spiritual Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999), 54.
 Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 1.