The Best Way to Ask the Right Question

[Updated from the archives.]


There’s an old story about the time a pathologist was cross-examined in court:

“Doctor, how many of your autopsies have you performed on dead people?”

“All of my autopsies are performed on dead people.”

Cross examination is an art.

Asking Questions, Getting Answers

Some people who testify in my courtroom don’t want to be there. Others are very nervous about sitting in the witness chair, but know they need to do their best to answer the questions. And then there are the witnesses who are eager – so very eager – to tell us everything they know whether they’ve been asked for the information or not.

The attorneys, on the other hand, ask questions in order to get the information out in a certain way. That’s important for a couple of reasons. One is that the witness may be trying to say something that would be improper for the jury to hear. Another is that – under our adversarial system of conducting trials – the attorneys are entitled to put on their case in the light most favorable to their client, and a witness who blurts out information without being asked for it gets in the way of that.

Here’s some insight on the process:

… in the courts, the character of the evidence depends on the shape of the examination, and a good cross-examiner can do wonders. He will not elicit falsehoods from an honest witness. But, in relation to the total truth in the witness’s mind, the structure of the examination is like a stencil. It determines how much of the total truth will appear and what pattern it will suggest. (C.S. Lewis, The Discarded Image.)

Not quite fair, you might think? What happens if something important is left out? That’s the other lawyer’s job, to fill in the gaps with more questions and answers.

The process works.

Questioning God

The Bible is full of questions and answers, often questions of God himself. There’s that scene in Genesis 18 where Abraham repeatedly asks God if he’s really going to wipe out Sodom and Gomorrah even if there are a number of righteous people living there. How about 50? 45? 40? 30? 20? 10? God allows himself to be interrogated and repeatedly answers that he will not destroy the cities if that many righteous people can be found in them.

Jesus had a lot of questions thrown at him as well. “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” “Who’s my neighbor?” “Are you the one?” He never rebuked anyone for asking an honest question.

Our God is not afraid to be questioned. How could he be? He’s God.

Yet in one story the questions seem to border on impertinence.

Oh, that I had someone to hear me! I sign now my defense—let the Almighty answer me; let my accuser put his indictment in writing. (Job 31:35.)

Job calls God his accuser? We know that our accuser is not God, but Satan. How will God answer this outrageous charge?

By assuring Job that he is God and there is no other. (Job 38-41.) And then God does something utterly remarkable. He praises Job and blesses him.

Unbelievable. Job tries to take God to task – aiming to sit God down in the witness chair and make him answer up for his actions – and God treats Job with dignity, showering him with favor and praise and blessings.

I think Job knew what God was like all along, because in the midst of his anguish and questioning he could yet praise him. I am glad to join him in saying:

I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, apart from my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes—I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!(Job 19:25-17.)


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12 Responses to The Best Way to Ask the Right Question

  1. Then again, Mary and her cousin-in-law Zechariah both asked very similar questions when the angel Gabriel visited them, but with very different results. Mary got an explanation but Zechariah was gagged for nine months. I’m all for asking God questions, but it does give me pause…

    • Tim says:

      Great contrast, Darach. I think too of how both Sarah and Abraham laughed when they heard God say they’d have a child, but with different results. Heart attitude seems to count for a lot.

    • Hi Darach, the difference is in the Greek and in context. Zechariah knew he was talking to an angel. Gabriel appeared to him in the Holy Place of the temple, lol. We are not told where Mary was when she met Gabriel. Some have envisioned her in her room at home, but I am more inclined to think she was outdoors, doing the routine chores of her life like fetching water or gathering firewood. We are also not told whether Mary realized she was talking to an angel at first or not; he could have appeared to her as an ordinary man.

      That is what the Greek seems to imply to me. First, we are told that Mary is “disturbed” or “troubled” by his greeting, which to be honest was pretty flattering. Nazareth was a tiny town, with no more than about 400 people in that time period. Mary would have known everyone, yet this guy was a stranger. Men did not speak to women in public if they did not know them unless they thought the woman was sexually promiscuous. That would explain why Mary would have been “disturbed” or “troubled” at Gabriel’s greeting rather than overwhelmed, awed, or afraid. She was probably thinking, “why is this strange man talking to me? Does he think I might sleep with him?”

      Then Gabriel starts talking about her being pregnant, but that it’s OK because the child she will bear will be the Messiah. Lots of people were expecting the Messiah any time then, but that kind of takes the cake! Mary might well have thought, “is this guy really trying to talk me into sex by assuring me I will bear the Messiah? How stupid does he think I am?”

      The reason I say that is because of her reply to Gabriel. In spite of the similarity to Zechariah’s question in English, in Greek she says, basically, “How is that going to happen since I do not have sex with men?” (She doesn’t use the word “virgin,” but the verb form that says “I do not have sex with men.”) The Greek is very forceful here. Mary is letting it be known that no matter what this strange guy might think, she is NOT “that kind of girl,” thank you very much.

      It is only then that Gabriel explains that the pregnancy will happen through the Holy Spirit (and not him), then tells her about Elizabeth. Mary, being a relative, would have already known about Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, but a random dude in Galilee would not have known something about a relative in far off Jerusalem. I think it is at this point in the conversation that Mary realizes she is talking to a messenger from God and not just a strange guy. Maybe Gabriel even started glowing at this point, who knows?

      In any case, faced with the fact that Gabriel knows stuff no ordinary strange guy would know, and that the baby she will bear will be from God and not a man, she shows her heart and consents to bear the Messiah.

      Zechariah spoke his question from doubt, in spite of the fact that Gabriel appeared to him in the Holy Place; Mary spoke her question from standing firm in righteousness. That is why there is a difference in how the questions are treated by God.

  2. Laura Droege says:

    I enjoy getting to hear your perspective on courtroom issues and how it relates to our questions for God. (I have a lot of those.)

    Now, here’s a question. What if the attorney cross-examining the witness is deliberately trying to shape his/her words to give a false view of the events? I’m thinking specifically of a rape case I read a critique of, where the defense attorney used the witness (victim)’s own words in questioning her. But he changed the verb tenses. This tiny change implied negative things about her character–that she was a slut who took money from men she slept with–and changed the jury’s view of the events leading up to and after the rape. He sought to discredit her as a truthful witness even when she was clearly trying to be truthful. He shaped the evidence of her testimony until she seemed to be contradicting herself.

    In one sense, he was just doing his job. In another, he was distorting the testimony, making it difficult for the jury to see what happened. He confused the perspective of the events that the case was supposed to clarify. (It didn’t work; the jury believed her and found the defendant guilty.) So is this really “fair” and “just”?

    Sorry, a little off topic. The Lewis quote reminded me of this, that’s all.

    • Tim says:

      As you said, the jury figured out what to believe so I think that’s an indication that the system works. If the other attorney saw what was happening a simple objection could draw the judge’s attention to it: “Objection, misstates the evidence.” If the evidence has been misstated the judge can take immediate corrective action.

      Also, an attorney who misrepresents evidence can face discipline – it can happen right in the trial or later with the state bar. Some end up losing their law licenses.

      • Forgive me, Tim, but when an estimated 99% of sexual crimes don’t result in a conviction (based on UK figures, but I’d hazard a guess that the US figures are not far off), I have my doubts as to whether the system works. It works sometimes, if you’re lucky. No offence to you. I highly admire your calling and your integrity.

  3. Pastor Bob says:

    Nicely done!

  4. Tara Galles says:

    Tim, have you read “Answer to Job” by Carl Jung?

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