In this information age, almost anything you want to know can be gleaned from the internet or some other source. The recent "Wiki Leak" of tens of thousands of war diary entries from Afghanistan is only the most recent in the flood of data made available to us. The problem with data, though, is that it is up to the user to analyze it and draw conclusions. While our knowledge has grown exponentially in one generation, it would be hard to say that wisdom has gained much ground. I’m afraid the raw data from 91,000 pages of journal entries can and will be used to support many, sometimes conflicting, conclusions. The 31,103 verses we find in the Bible are sometimes used the same way. The answers you get depends on the questions you ask.
Nobel prize winner Isador I. Rabi once gave his mother credit for making him a scientist. He recalled that when he came home from school, his mother did not ask, "What did you learn in school today?" Instead she would inquire, "Did you ask a good question today?" The right question made all the difference.
Pablo Picasso once complained, "Computers are useless; they can only give you answers." While I would not go as far as that, he exposes the profound reality that the search for meaningful truth begins with determining the right question. Take for example the wonderful story of the young lawyer confronting Jesus with the question, "What must I do to inherit eternal life?" (Luke 10:29-37). Certainly a legitimate question, but the answer could have been given by any young bar mitzvah, and indeed the lawyer answered it himself: "You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself."
Jesus agreed, and left it at that. But the young man, "wishing to justify himself," pressed the issue further: "And who is my neighbor?" This question prompted the parable of the Good Samaritan. Three men see a crime victim on the side of the road, but only one stops to help. It ends with Jesus posing a new question to the man: "Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?"
A different question leads us into a completely different direction. By rephrasing the question, Jesus was able to cut through the legality of Jewish law to uphold the spirit of righteousness demanded by the law. The story does not tell us why the first two men failed to stop, but we can imagine they asked themselves, "What might happen to me on this dangerous road if I stop and help?" The Samaritan posed a different question to himself: "What might happen to this man if I don’t stop and help?" It is the difference between having a neighbor and being a neighbor. It is the difference between using the law to limit our obligations and using the law to guide us into right actions.
Before we search the scriptures for the right answers, we would do well to prayerfully search our hearts for the right questions. Questions born of the wrong motive may lead us into a position of selfishness, complacency, or callousness. At best they help us to justify our current position, and do not challenge us to grow. Questions that seek to honor God and promote his sovereignty will not always comfort us, but neither will they mislead us. God stands ready to guide us into his truth, if only we ask the right questions.
The Rev. Brian Dale is the pastor of Allen Memorial Methodist Church in Oxford.