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Answering Tough Questions with "Why?"

"Why?"

Any parent has certainly heard this question over and over from their child. It's a good question, to be sure. Repeated over and over again, however, it can get on our nerves.

What about with Sunday School? When you're teaching, do your learners ask "why?" Sometimes you have a good answer, other times you have no idea how to respond. If you don't have an answer, usually you tell your learners to ask the pastor (It's okay---I'm a pastor. We like getting asked tough questions).

But what about you? As a Sunday School teacher you're used to having to answer questions. It probably feels unnatural to respond to a little learner's question with the question "why?" In many cases, though, this is probably the best response you could give. Here's why.

Law and Gospel

All Scripture is rightly divided into Law or Gospel. It's part of our Lutheran understanding of things. We hear these two words being thrown around in church, but what do they mean? Well, the Law is God's will for our lives. In summary, the Law

  • Tells us what we are to do
  • Convicts us of our sins
  • Is preached to unrepentant sinners
  • Serves as a guide for penitent believers

The other side of the Scripture divide is the Gospel. The Gospel is the good news that Jesus forgives us our sin. In summary, the Gospel

  • Tells us what God has done
  • Saves us from our sin
  • Is preached to troubled sinners
  • Creates a living faith

An old memory aid for remembering the basics of Law and Gospel is S.O.S. The Law Shows Our Sins, the Gospel Shows Our Savior.

Questions and the Human Heart

You see, most of the time when learners ask tough questions, there's something deeper going on. Sure, you could answer a tough question with a stock Bible answer. For example, if a child stops you after class and asks the question "If somebody commits murder, do they go hell?" you could respond with a lengthy explanation of repentance and the like. There's nothing wrong with this at its core. But I'm guessing, however, that the child who asks this question has a deeper issue than simply wanting to know the "right" answer.

If there is a deeper issue, it has to do with our human heart. On one hand, the child could secretly be trying to know how much sin they could commit before God punishes them. If murder is the worst, then what I do at home isn't so bad, right? At least I'm not as bad as a murderer, so I'm good, right? On the other hand, the child who asks this question could be worried about their own salvation. Am I good enough for God? How do I know if I've thought bad things that God still loves me? Can I do something so bad that God would send me straight to hell?

Either one of these options is troubling. If there is a question-behind-the-question, either the child is trying to justify him- or herself or he or she is worried about God's wrath against him or her. Both of these positions take the child's focus off the center of our faith: Christ. But there is a better way.

Applying "Why?" To Tough Questions

If you do detect some deeper heart issue behind a tough question, perhaps the best answer you can give as a teacher is "Why do you ask?" The purpose of this is not to simply buy more time (though that's usually a good thing anyway). Instead, asking why your learner asks the question will help you, the teacher, quickly diagnose what would be the most useful answer. Do you answer by pointing out the Law in their life (their need for repentance and forgiveness) or do you point them to the Gospel of Christ (Christ's free and full gift of forgiveness)?

Does your learner need to hear Law? For example, in response to the question about murder you may discover that your learner really was comparing him- or herself to the murderer in terms of the amount of sin. If that's the case, then you could point the child to the fact that we all sin, are guilty of that sin before God, and need to repent. Or you may discover that your learner was worried about his or her hateful thoughts and actions towards someone else. In that case, you could point out the joy that Jesus forgives us our sins and we don't have to worry if we're good enough for God. In other words, you point them to Christ and the cross!

It's easy to say, but is it easy to do? Well, C. F. W. Walther, the first president of the LCMS, wrote:
To rightly distinguish Law and Gospel is the most difficult and highest Christian art---and for theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in combination with experience (Law & Gospel: How to Read and Apply the Bible, CPH, 2010, p. 2).

In fact, knowing what to say, Law or Gospel, is the most difficult part of speaking the faith. You learn how to do this through prayer and practice over a lifetime. Know, though, that it's also the most important part of speaking the faith. When God's Word speaks Law, it shows sinful hearts our need for forgiveness. When God's Word speaks Gospel, it passes on God's forgiveness to sinful hearts. In other words, when you apply Law and Gospel to those tough questions, God is using you to do His transforming work in the world. You point your learners to Christ.

And that, dear friends, is "why" we teach.

Written by

Pete Jurchen

Rev. Pete Jurchen is Editor of Curriculum Resources at CPH. In addition to his MDiv, he has a MS Ed. in Curriculum Leadership and enjoys the pursuit of lifelong learning. He is honored to serve the congregations of the LCMS by equipping and partnering with its households in engaging their God-given vocations. He lives in Imperial, MO, with his wife, Deb, and his four children.

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