Merely Rhetorical?

01 Sep

I’m pretty bad at asking questions.

I often struggle when trying to figure out how to keep a conversation going, especially in trying to take it somewhere deep.

And I think I’ve finally hit upon one of the reasons I feel so unskilled at question-asking.

I’m a pretty concrete guy, and with rare exception, when I ask a question, it’s because I’m looking for a piece of information, an answer that will provide me with a fact that I didn’t have before and was needing to know.

I’ve come to finally realize how narrow this realm of question-asking really is.

I began by drawing a clear contrast between myself and God. God doesn’t have any need for information–He knows everything about everything. And yet, He still asks questions. So why does He do it? Why does He ask something when He already knows the answer? If it’s not for information, then why do it?

To Adam He says: “Where are you?” “Who told you that you were naked?” “Have you eaten from the tree of which I commanded you not to eat?”

To Eve He says: “What is this you have done?”

To Cain He says: “Why are you angry?” “Where is Abel your brother?” “What have you done?”

To Abraham He says: “Why did Sarah laugh?”

One might designate a rather broad label for these kinds of questions: rhetorical, meaning “asked merely for effect with no answer expected” (see

Is that it? If He’s not looking for information, He’s asking “merely for effect”? I don’t buy it. Surely God’s going beyond just being dramatic. It strikes me that we label questions which aren’t expected to provide information as “mere.” It sounds like questions are primarily for information-gathering, and any other purpose is somehow secondary. And yet, God and the serpent (the primary question-askers in the first chapters of the Bible) employ questions without any apparent need for information. Perhaps we’ve got it backwards: fact acquisition is one use of questions, but not the original one.

Sometimes we ask questions in hopes that others will ask the same question of us; we’ve got something we want to talk about, but we don’t want to jump right in and seem self-centered, so we try to bait the other person (and rely on their polite nature) to ask us the same question in return and thus open the door for us to share. That’s certainly one type of “rhetorical” question. Maybe that’s what God’s aiming at. Maybe He wants Adam to turn around and say, “God, where are You?” But I don’t think that’s quite it.

Another reason to ask a question without expecting an answer is to highlight the importance of the issue, to prompt our listener to reflect and consider. Parents often do this very thing in parenting: “Was that a good choice?” “Was that a nice thing to say?” Parents aren’t expecting an answer (though a child will usually give one); they’re really hoping that their child will ask themselves these questions, and give thought to the importance of these issues.

So, perhaps God’s aim is not to get Adam to open the door for a divine pronouncement, to have Adam turn and ask Him the same question back (“God, where are You?”), but rather to get Adam to ask himself, “Where am I?” God wants to get Adam contemplating, reflecting; the question of where he is at the moment is apparently an important one.

It seems that most of the questions God asks of us are along these lines of serving as promptings for reflection. And we can use these same types of questions with one another. This is no secondary, lesser form of interrogative. In fact, these questions are surely more profound than any simple request for information.

I am a bad question-asker because I rarely ask questions like God. I rarely try to help people reflect on life through my use of questions. I’ve been confining myself to simply eliciting information, and then discovering that if I don’t have an internal need for a particular bit of data, I don’t have any questions to ask. As a result, I’ve been missing out on the most powerful use of questions.

There’s nothing “mere” about these “rhetorical” types of question. We’ve got plenty of sources of information available to us. Let’s use our questions to even greater purpose, to spur one another on to consider the realities of life, the significant issues of who we are.

And so I ask: Reader, is there anything significant about the content of this post?


Posted by on September 1, 2011 in Life, Theology



2 responses to “Merely Rhetorical?

  1. TJ MacLeslie

    September 8, 2011 at 9:51 am

    I find myself wondering, “What helped you to realize this about yourself?”


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