Motives in Questioning

Having Questions is Part of Having Beliefs

Questioning is part of human nature. Typically, we ask questions to gain understanding about something, someone, or the world around us. This is, of course, one of the many things which sets humans apart from animals and makes us unique. We are able to engage in reflection upon the whys and hows of our life and the universe. It is important to see that, if this is true, having questions is part of having beliefs and as a result everyone does it! Asking questions, in its most basic sense, is a good thing and can provide a path to truth if we pursue it correctly. 

Questions Are Always Guided by Motives

Like many things in life, when we ask questions, these flow from deeper motives within us. Are we asking a question because we really want to know the answer? Or are we asking a question to simply manipulate someone else? Are we asking a question to provide an escape for ourselves from a conclusion we don’t like? All of these are possible motives that could lie at the heart of our questions. 

This struck me when I was reading the gospel of Luke in the New Testament recently. In Luke 20:1-8, we find this exchange between Jesus and the Jewish religious leaders: 

One day as he was teaching the people in the temple and proclaiming the good news, the chief priests and the scribes, with the elders, came and said to him, “Tell us, by what authority are you doing these things? Who is it who gave you this authority?” He answered them, “I will also ask you a question. Tell me, was the baptism of John from heaven or of human origin?”They discussed it among themselves: “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say, ‘Why didn’t you believe him?’ But if we say, ‘Of human origin,’ all the people will stone us, because they are convinced that John was a prophet.” So they answered that they did not know its origin. And Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.”


In this dialogue, the religious leaders are asking Jesus about who gave him the authority to “cleanse” the temple, which is an event from the previous chapter (refer to Luke 19:45-48). But it is clear their repeated questions to him were not about seeking truth. The religious leaders frequently questioned Jesus to test him and to try and trap him in what he said (see Luke 10:25 and Matthew 12:10; 22:15-46) and this question flows from the same motives. And Jesus knows this which is why he responds to them with a question of his own. In so doing, he exposes their motives for what they really are. 

He asks them specifically what they make of the ministry of John the Baptist since this will reveal what they think about Jesus’ own ministry. You see, John the Baptist was the last of the Old Testament style prophets and he prepared the way for Jesus’ ministry (see Luke 3 for more details on this). Since there is a link between John’s preparing the way for Jesus and Jesus’ own ministry, what a person thinks about John the Baptist will reflect what they think about Jesus. Jesus gives his interlocutors two options regarding John. Was his “baptism” (a function of his ministry) a result of God’s work? Or was it a mere human event without God behind it? The religious leaders know that if they acknowledge John’s ministry was from God then they will have to acknowledge that Jesus himself was sent by God and is doing the works of God. They are unwilling to do this, but the only other option is to say John’s ministry was a pure human work. However, they don’t want to upset the crowds because the people consider John to be a prophet. They choose a third option which is to claim ignorance. But in choosing this option they show they are those who desire to walk in willful ignorance so they can avoid conclusions they do not like. Jesus can see this clearly which is why he refuses to answer their question to him. 


Developing an Awareness of Our Motives in Asking Questions

I thought this was very instructive for every person, regardless of beliefs. When we are asking important questions, are we really asking them because we want to know the truth? Jesus’ regular practice was to ask people questions which exposed their assumptions and got to the heart of the issue. Asking questions has a very important place in the Christian life as well as for those who don’t believe, but may be exploring the truth of Christianity. But we must develop an awareness of our motives here. Many people pose questions regarding God and Christianity just like the religious leaders. They ask such things to avoid conclusions they do not like, not because they want to genuinely know the truth. To put it differently, we can ask questions not because we want real answers but because we want to find an escape. Such a pursuit is unwise especially when dealing with such important questions as what is ultimately true about reality.