In Praise of “Stupid Questions”

In Praise of “Stupid Questions” July 29, 2013

“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

– Matthew 18: 3-4

“There is no such thing as a stupid question.” My professor looked at me as he said this. Smiling and reassuring, he invited me to proceed with my question. I had heard this before – the famous “stupid question” line. We all had. And here we were, in our first year of medical school, hearing it once again. And so, a little anxious and sheepish, I asked, he answered and the class moved on. Yet I didn’t necessarily feel better. Instead, I wondered for the next ten minutes if I sounded like a complete idiot asking about something that presumably everyone else clearly knew. This was not the first (nor the last) “stupid question” I would ever ask.

“Stupid questions” create a great deal of angst in our world. Classrooms, locker rooms, lunchrooms, and boardrooms are filled with people who fear that “one moment” in which they ask a question which is publicly (or privately) deemed “stupid” by a mass of peers (and, perhaps, an authority figure) resulting in utter embarrassment. “Stupid questions” provide material for sitcoms and movies (both comedies and dramas) with hilarious or tragic outcomes. Why is this experience so pervasive? Because we all understand what it is like to be a bit insecure about what we know and do not know. Even more, we fear acute humiliation if this deficit in knowledge is unfortunately paraded for all to see. As such, embarrassment can be a potent deterrent preventing us from finding the answers we so desperately are seeking. Even a giant such as Abraham Lincoln couldn’t escape the fear of the “stupid question” by eloquently quipping,

“Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak out and remove all doubt.”

It has been seventeen years since I sat in that medical school classroom. Yes, there are things that I know and things I don’t know, and there still remains the fear of the “stupid question”. Yet, I now look at this question in a very different way. While I am in no way eager to ask the “stupid question”, I am now very thankful for it. First, the “stupid question” often represents a pressing concern about a fundamental issue that is not understood. Often, notwithstanding a sting of sheepishness, the answer to the “stupid question” enlightens, clarifies, and sticks. Whatever short-term pain is endured, the longer term value exponentially overshadows it. Second, over the years I have heard a significant number of “stupid questions” asked which helped me better understand a concept and reassured me that I wasn’t the only one struggling with it. Finally, the fear of the “stupid question” has motivated me to be a little more prepared and simultaneously to take myself a little less seriously.

While I have come to a degree of comfort with the “stupid questions” in my life, I realize how indebted I am to the disciples for the “stupid questions” they asked of Christ. Time and time again, this motley crew of fishermen and tax collectors barraged Jesus with questions that must have tried His patience. And yet He answered them with the infinite patience and wisdom that only God can offer to His hungry children. We cannot truly appreciate the eternal benefit gained from a discipline asking the “stupid question” for us because it prompted Christ to teach on an issue poorly understood and of pressing concern to His children. With no disrespect to Lincoln, thank God the disciples did not follow his advice.

Just consider the questions the disciples asked:

Would you teach us to pray?

What must I do to earn eternal life?

How many times must I forgive my brother?

Why were we unable to cast out this demon?

Who will be greatest (among us) in the Kingdom of Heaven?

Is it better to feverishly work or to listen to Your Word?

Shouldn’t this oil used to honor you be sold to serve the poor?

What did that parable mean?

How are we going to feed all these people?

These “stupid questions”, as I have been trying to explain, are truly anything BUT stupid. They ask questions about fundamentals and first principles that are not well-understood. They sought simple explanations of truth from Truth Himself. They were unabashed and earnest in their attempts to understand Christ. And Christ loved them for it. In effect, these are the greatest questions that could have been asked. And they resulted in explanations by Christ that taught the Lord’s prayer, the need for utter love and devotion to God and neighbor, the importance of infinite forgiveness, the value of prayer and fasting, the need to serve and adore Christ, the simple and complex meanings of Christ’s teachings, and the role we have in serving others in tandem with God. The disciples asked and Christ answered vital questions essential to living holy Christian lives. Were there times when the disciples were sheepish for their questions or actions? Absolutely. Consider when James and John asked to sit on Christ’s right and left hand, or when Peter asked if he should build tents for the apparitions of Moses and Elijah at the Transfiguration. But it is man’s fallibility that Christ, better than anyone, understood. It was for this reason that He came to teach. It was for this reason that He came to die for us. It was for this reason that He allowed His disciples (and continues to allow us) to ask Him “stupid questions”.

The Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, once noted,

“If you want to improve, be content to be thought foolish and stupid.” 

As previously noted, Christ taught,

“Amen, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.”

“There is no such thing as a stupid question.” Amen.

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