Answering a question with a question has some significant advantages over the use of direct answers. It brings to then surface the questioner’s assumptions.
It also takes the pressure off you, the one being asked and puts the pressure on the one doing the asking. This is important because as long as we are on the defensive, the questioners are not really wrestling with issues. They are just watching us squirm.
For example, the chief priests and the teachers of the law challenged Jesus with this inquiry: “Tell us by what authority you are doing these things. Who gave you this authority?” His response was a question: “Tell me, John’s baptism –was it from heaven, or from men?” After a short retreat for time to maneuver, they told him they didn’t know the answer. Jesus showed them that their insincere question deserved a non-answer by declaring, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (Luke 20:1-8).
In reality, the teachers’ question was simply an attack posing as a question. Answering these attacks with questions not only takes the heat off us and deflects it to the other person, it also tones down hostility. People usually don’t like such temperature changes and will adjust the thermostat accordingly.
Answering a question with a question also paves the way for an answer that may not otherwise be received. Jesus’ conversation with the woman at the well fits this pattern (John 4:1-26). The woman’s notions of righteousness, sin, and worship needed to be challenged before she would accept Jesus’ way of seeing those topics. Without his questions, it is doubtful if she ever would have gotten to the point of saving faith.
To be sure, there are times when a direct answer is preferable, particularly when the questioner is sincere and would benefit from a clear, concise statement of what the Bible says. There were times when Jesus didn’t beat around the bush. His direct answer to the teacher of the law who wanted to know which was the most important commandment is an example (Mark 12:28-31).
Yet often we need to hold our answer and initiate genuine dialogue with a question. When your coworker asks you – with an accusatory tone - why you still believe in God in light of all the people dying of AIDS, ask him how he explains such a horrible tragedy.
When your neighbor asks you why you think Jesus is anything more than just a good moral teacher, ask him why he thinks Jesus was a good teacher. Has he read a lot of Jesus’ teachings? What would he say was the main message Jesus taught? Our message is too important for it to continue to fall upon deaf ears. Our answers really are what people need to hear if we could just get them to listen. The apostle Peter was surely right in imploring us to always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you” (1 Peter 3:15). But we can follow Jesus’ method of doing so by answering a question with a question.