Let's be honest, when it comes to Christianity, people aren't in the asking mood these days. We're not being inundated by eager enquiries concerning the faith. Nonetheless when I'm asked to do evangelism training, Christians are always asking me to equip them for the questions they are afraid of facing. So how should we handle questions?
Firstly, let's be clear that lack of information is not anyone's real problem before God. By nature we are all glad truth-suppressors when it comes to God. Sinners don't need clearer thinking, we need conversion. Therefore a person's inability to see beyond a certain question is not the real sticking point between them and eternal life. So often it's questions that allow a non-Christian to mask their refusal of Christ or to justify unbelief. Answering a question perfectly gets no-one to heaven and failing to answer a question consigns no-one to hell.
We get to know Jesus the way we get to know a potential spouse. Not with a clipboard and a pen and 17 questions each more tricky than the last. We get to know someone by entering into their world and inviting them into our world. Questions and answers happen in that context but they are not the be-all and end-all.
At some stage we trust the other person enough to commit to them. But we don't, at that stage, know everything about the other person. In fact, having committed to the other person, our questions don't decrease, they increase. Suddenly it's very important to know why they do such-and-such and we might ask questions with even greater fervency from inside the relationship.
This is how Christians feel about questions of faith. Our questions have not disappeared. Actually we have even bigger questions for God now that we're on the inside of the faith. It's just that now, at the end of the day, we've seen enough of Jesus that we can trust Him with the stuff we don't know.
I often say to non-Christians, "I'm happy to answer your question about such-and-such but realise that knowing a lot of answers doesn't make you a Christian. Trusting Jesus makes you a Christian and I'd love to tell you why I trust Jesus even with the stuff I don't know..."
Having said all that... sometimes questions do come our way. How should we handle them?
First of all, recognise how Jesus handled them: not always with a straight answer. In fact He rarely deals with questions on the same terms as the questioner poses them. Instead He will turn the question around, or step back and teach something from a different angle, or tell a story, or any number of strategies which we rarely think of. Jesus commonly questions the questioner's motives and rarely assumes that the issue at stake is a simple one of information or clarification. Jesus deals with the questioner far more than He deals with the question. There's much for us to learn here!
With that in mind, here are 4 Rs which are worth considering when a question comes your way:
REFRAME the question according to biblical definitions of the terms.
REFLECT the question back, because they must answer some version of the same issue.
RELATE how you personally struggle with the issue.
REVEAL the gospel through the question focused on Christ and Him crucified.
Let's travel through these four options and as we go let's apply them to the question of how a good God fits with suffering...
Outside of Christ the frames of reference are different. The unbeliever is not asking a question from neutral ground - there's no such thing. The terms of the question will almost certainly be defined in ways we would want to take issue with. Therefore we need to be asking for clarification... "What do you mean byX?" And we need to be saying "According to Jesus, X is a case of Y not Z"
In the case of the suffering question, the key term to reframe is "God." Which God is incompatible with suffering? Not Jesus that's for sure.
For every question that's asked there is a version which the questioner must also face. We should never think that only the Christian has questions to answer. Again and again Jesus would reflect questions back to the asker. They do not stand on neutral ground and we should not always feel on the defensive. If we must answer the tough questions, so must they.
With the suffering question, we reflect it back by asking "How do you handle suffering? Where do you think it's from? Do you think it is truly an evil or is it just one of those things? Do you think there's any hope at the end of it all?"
This is a key step. Evangelists are always telling Christians the answers to tricky questions. More often than not, those answers are new to the Christian! Essentially we're equipping the saints with "reasons for the hope they have" which are not actually the reasons they hope! It would be far better for Christians to be real with non-Christians about how they, in fact, handle tricky issues. Even if the answer is "I don't know, I really wrestle with that, but I'm persuaded that if Jesus loved me to hell and back He can be trusted with it."
On suffering, relating your own experience of dark times will be incredibly powerful. Speaking of Christ's comfort in your own suffering is probably the best answer possible.
When Jesus began preaching He didn't begin with issues of sex, money, power and then lead them step-by-step to the kingdom. Instead He announced the kingdom, told people to repent and believe (Matthew 4) and then unpacked what it meant for sex, money, power, etc, etc (Matthew 5-7). The gospel was the lens through which He proclaimed those answers. The answers weren't the stepping-stones towards the gospel. Therefore, it's best to say "Let me take a step back and tell you the bible's story in 3 minutes (using 321 obviously!)... Now do you see how your question fits in?" We underestimate how little the non-Christian usually knows about the gospel. We should take every opportunity to fix that - otherwise the answers we give will be far from Christian answers.
With suffering it should be obvious how the gospel reveals the answer. From a good God to a humanity that turns from the light, to a Saviour who enters the darkness, to a victory that's offered to the world - the gospel speaks to suffering at every point.
These four Rs are not discrete stages in a conversation. They are simply four options to bear in mind as we speak. Once again the issue is not so much getting the answer right - the point is to lift up Christ and to love the questioner.