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Asking the wrong question


Sometimes I struggle with answering a question. It’s this: ‘How are you?’

It’s what I call a default question: a question that we ask while we’re barely aware what we’re asking. We’re usually not that interested in the response.

The reason I struggle with ‘How are you?’ is that in Australia, it is usually meant as a greeting, not as a question expecting a response, which sometimes catches visitors by surprise. As someone who overthinks everything, I start considering my existential state in the world for the next few minutes, before realising that the asker has long since left the room.

There’s other default questions, like the speaker’s introduction of ‘How’s everyone going?’ to which there will usually be a kind of mumbled assent, since nobody feels like they can properly answer for the emotional state of the entire group. There’s the default questions of the household: coming in the door and asking ‘How was your day?’

I was prompted to think about this by a blog post by a missionary mum who picked up her kids from a party, and promptly asked a default question of the parent-to-child variety: ‘Did you have fun?’

However, she caught herself, realising how default that question was. And then she had one of those moments of slight epiphany: she could change the question. So instead, she asked ‘Did you love well?’

This shifted the angle of the question. The first—‘Did you have fun?’—is self-focused. The second—‘Did you love well?’ or ‘Who did you love?’—is outward- and other-person focused.

It’s one of those seemingly innocent ways our language can reflect our selfishness. Of course, it’s a delightful thing for kids to be having fun, and for parents to delight as they hear about that from their kids. But it does send a small undercurrent in its message, that the parent’s ultimate concern is about the child’s enjoyment instead of their character.

There are other ways we can turn the default question around. I’m reminded of a conversation with a friend about a woman at his church who decided to go about changing the culture at her church, one question at a time. On Sunday, every Sunday, at an appropriate point in the after-church morning tea conversation, she would ask ‘How are you going spiritually?’ And she would ask this regularly, week in and week out, to everybody, from the pastor to the new Christian.

The effect of such a small question gets you thinking. Even if the first week, you answer with a muttered admission that perhaps you haven’t quite found the time for your quiet time. Maybe the next week, it might just occur to you that you’ll have to answer the same question next Sunday. And that might be the small, insistent trigger you need to read your Bible, pray, and begin to devote yourself to your spiritual life.

And it doesn’t just have to occur one-on-one. Another friend told me about how his pastor used to begin their Bible studies with a different kind of default question: ‘Who did you see at church who was new?’ Once again, a question prompts an answer. And if you’re aware that you don’t have an answer at that point, maybe it will occur to you on Sunday, when you see a newcomer, that you might be able to have an answer this week. Sometimes welcoming starts It’s a small step from seeing someone new to talking to someone new, and introducing yourself to them.

Our language has an effect on what we do, and who we are. Colossians 3:16a famously says, ‘Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly as you teach and admonish one another in all wisdom.’ That is, the language of God can come into us, and then go out through us, into the community. Maybe if we turn our attention to letting it infuse our default questions, we might come to ask something different of ourselves, and of others.

And so, let me ask you a non-default question: What default questions are you asking? And how can you change the angle, to ask questions that reflect love and grace?