Confusing the “what” and the “why”

Tim Keller offers some comments regarding how Christians tend to respond to challenges to their Faith. His key point is, “I’ve heard plenty of Christians try to answer the why question by going back to the what.” In Arguing with Friends I describe various mistakes that Christians make. Tim Keller’s comments are remarkably close to one of the mistakes I list. As he describes it, the Christian tries to answer the question of “why should I believe Christianity” by telling the person the Gospel message. This, however, is the answer to the question, “what is Christianity?” Answering in this manner certainly does miss the point and we should be careful to actually answer the question they are asking instead of a question they are not asking.

The mistake I point out is that Christians will often respond to the “why” challenge with their testimony. They will share about all the wonderful things Jesus has done in their life and the impact their Faith has had on them. In one sense this is actually closer to what the skeptic was asking, but it still misses the point. At the same time that Christians may tell of what Jesus has done for them they recognize that Jesus may operate differently in somebody else’s life. Perhaps Jesus cured me of alcoholism, but if the person I’m talking to doesn’t even like alcohol then it seems safe to say that Jesus will not have the same impact in their life. This is just a simple, superficial, example but it is meant to illustrate a point; what Jesus does in my life may be completely different from what he does in somebody else’s life. My reasons for believing in Jesus may not resemble, even remotely, your reasons for believing in Jesus if our respective reasons are primarily connected to his work in our lives.

The root question the skeptic is asking is basically, “why should anybody believe in Jesus?” To answer this with either a declaration of the Gospel (as Keller points out) or some insights into my own personal history with Jesus (as I point out) is to miss the point. The person is looking for objective evidence for a claim, not the claim itself, nor the subjective experience of the claim.

As I describe in Arguing with Friends, there are two fundamental questions every worldview must answer, and these are the “what” and the “why” questions. We have seen that there are multiple ways of incorrectly answering the “why” question, so hopefully we can be more intentional to listen carefully to what people are asking and actually answer their question. Politicians are notorious for their “non-answers” I hope we can avoid that error.

And if you do not know how to answer their question; learn. Here’s a hint, the website with the Tim Keller quote is an excellent place to start!


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