The fear of being asked the unanswerable question has killed thousands of gospel-conversations before they have even got going! Worrying that we might be asked the killer-question we dread, we have shut down conversations with spiritual potential as if they were moments of threat rather than opportunity. Many of us want to speak about purpose, hope, meaning, truth and Jesus, but fearing getting embroiled in science, suffering and sexuality we have chosen to say nothing, in case we say anything ineptly.
PROCESSING MY FEARS AND FAILURES
Thinking through times when I have not grasped opportunities to speak out for Jesus and his gospel, I am struck by two things: The first is gratitude that God’s love is not contingent upon my performance, but flows to me through Christ from His gracious character. So when I look back on some shocker of a conversation; analysing my failures is then an opportunity to grow, not to sit miserably under a cloud of condemnation. The second thing is thinking through why I have failed to speak up. In many instances, especially when in the company of people far smarter than me, my witness has been stifled by fear of being asked the ‘killer question’.
The questions I have dreaded being asked have varied with time and company; but have included things such as Old Testament violence, the Bible’s sexual ethics, science and faith, and the reliability of the Bible itself. Being asked a question about science by a scientist – when you are not one – is intimidating; as it is in any situation where the questioner brings more knowledge to the conversation than you. It is perhaps even more-scary when their impressive mind is coupled to deep emotional or identity commitments which are in conflict with scripture. If like me, you instinctively avoid even the mildest disagreements about trivial matters with friends and neighbours and are more wired for ‘flight’ than ‘fight’, then the thought of the killer-question is enough to make the pulse quicken and coherent-thought made impossible as the cheeks redden and unhelpful quantities of adrenaline flood the blood-stream.
SAVOURING OUR LIMITATIONS
In The Knowledge Gap Part 1. David Nixon encouraged us to identify the questions we wrestle with and provided us with a host of resources to help us start to construct helpful answers to killer questions. He’s right – we need to be thinking, and learning and grappling with issues so that we can speak well for The Lord in the current moment.
But we are never going to have exhaustive knowledge of every good apologetic argument across every field. We can never go into the world with impregnable intellectual defences. If you spent years learning all the arguments relating to science and faith, you could still be floored by a question about language or philosophy you’d never considered. Or you could invest all your time in developing an apologetic for biblical ethics, and be pressed to answer a question about the origins of the universe!
RESPONDING TO KILLER QUESTIONS
So does this mean that we all have to shut-up and leave evangelism to Christians like “Dr Dr Dr” Alister McGrath with his multiple PhD’s across three disciplines? The answer I have found is ‘no’ – I can still have a part to play in proclaiming the gospel – even to people smarter than me; without being terrified of the ‘killer-question’. I have found four things liberating here.
THE POWER OF “I DON’T KNOW”
The last time I had seen Richard was when he and I were students, several decades ago. He had gone on to a successful career in law, then had become a pastor and was now active in sharing the gospel. When I met him again he told me, “When I was a lawyer, one of my main jobs was in preparing a witness for giving evidence in court – which is for most people a difficult and terrifying experience.” Richard went on to explain that he sometimes got witnesses to practice saying, “I don’t know” under high-pressure questioning. The reason was simple, Richard explained: “Our tendency under pressure is to appear smart, or to guess the right answer (because we want to please the questioner or the judge) or to embellish and add details that were not required or in the worst case – not actually true. If we do that, and are caught doing so, the judge is allowed to throw out all of our evidence and disregard everything we say because we are not reliable witnesses”.
Admitting what you don’t know – protects the reliability of your witness about things that you do! I find that thought totally liberating in my gospel conversations. I suppose I had thought that in sharing the gospel I was like a barrister, preparing and presenting the case, assembling all the arguments and evidence and pressing for conviction. That is simply too hard for me to manage and I am intimidated by the thought. In Richard’s example I am not the lead prosecutor however, I am a witnesses charged simply with passing on what I do know, what I have seen, and what I have learned and experienced. The Holy Spirit is leading the case, and calling all kinds of people to the stand!
Richard concluded: “Saying I do not know the answer, may provide a weakness in that particular part of the case but all is not lost, in fact quite the opposite – it can mean that the witness is seen as reliable and authentic in other areas.“ I had thought that “I don’t know” was perhaps a permissible admission of failure. Richard showed me that it can also be a powerful commitment to honesty.
The complete case for the Christian faith is not owned by any one individual but by the whole church, and so we can follow up our “I don’t know” answer with– “but I can find out more and get back to you if you are interested”. One of the purposes of Solas is to provide somewhere you can go to find answers to share with people. That’s why we have material on science, sexuality, purpose, meaning, language, maths, beauty and so forth. Please do get in touch if you’d like a steer around a particular question. If we don’t know the answer, we will know people who do!
HEARTS AND MINDS
The second thing I have to remember is that we are not just in the business of winning arguments, but in seeing people’s hearts changed. Very often the arguments people are willing to listen to are selected by their hearts, and prior commitments, not by some process of detached rationality. Asking people to believe that God is good (in the face of suffering and evil) or that his word promotes our flourishing (if it confronts our idols) is a matter of “taste and see that the Lord is good[i]” as much as it is “come let us reason together”[ii].
That is not to downplay the mind, or to suggest that bringing the very best thinking to bear on a topic is not critical – it is! However, it is not in itself enough. I recently interviewed Dr Peter J. Williams, the noted biblical scholar, for a Solas article. He said to me, “remember that knowledge is morally structured” – because two people can see the same evidence and reach opposite conclusions. He pointed to the cross of Christ as the prime example because at the same moment that God most clearly reveals his love and glory – another person sees that same cross as a curse or a failure. God is both hidden and revealed in the same scene.
This means that the person asking the “killer question” needs more from me than a smart answer. They also need to know that I have listened to them, understood the logical force of their objection, and felt its emotional pull and sensed that they matter to me because they matter to God. I have discovered that running away from hard questions does more damage to people’s hearts than to their minds. Prayerful, thoughtful engagement with the person asking the question is a vital (and achievable) addition to the power of “I don’t know”.
THE UNIQUENESS OF TESTIMONY
In comparison to what we don’t know – there are things that every Christian does know. That obviously applies to our thinking, there are areas where have thought deeply about the answers to questions and can share those. I spoke recently to a Christian GP who told me he’s thought long and hard about the suffering question and loves discussing it.
Sharing what we do know also applies to our knowledge of scripture. In an early edition of the Solas PEPtalk Podcast, the guest Sarah Yardley said that because she is soaked in scripture, when she chats to friends and neighbours she can naturally refer to what she has read, in connection with what they are talking about.
Another hugely significant thing we all know is our own story – our testimony. We know how we came to faith and why we believe. As witnesses we are not required to know every answer to every mystery; but we are able to know and own our own story and tell people what we have understood and experienced. Many people think that a ‘good testimony’ is a dramatic one (or at very least involve repentance from some form of criminality) and that most of our less surprising testimonies are by default less helpful. Yet the importance of our testimony is in its truthfulness not its shock-factor. Our story is important to our friends because it is what happened to us. It is our witness statement which we can faithfully report which will resonate profoundly with people most like us.
4. SEEK AND YOU WILL FIND
Jesus promised us that when we seek we will find, that is that ultimately that we will find Him. Apologetics and grappling with questions and objections is only ever pre-evangelism; clearing away the rubble to help people in their seeking. We can pass that promise on to people who ask us difficult and troubling questions, to which we don’t know the answers. Seek answers, seek truth, seek Jesus – and you will find Him. We don’t have perfect or exhaustive knowledge, but we do know Jesus, and can help people to find Him. The Christian faith contains the most compelling arguments for the origins, purpose, meaning, value and future of us all – but yet the central feature of our faith is not being right about stuff – but being “in Christ”[iii].
We can confidently, prayerfully and joyfully share with the world what we have seen, and experienced; even as we are still learning. Fear of the unanswerable question should not be allowed to control us. We don’t know it all; but we do know the one who knows it all – and he gives evermore reasons to trust him throughout our lives.
[i] Psalm 34:8
[ii] Isaiah 1:18
[iii] Galatians 3:26-8