SOME questions are like icebergs. The most substantial part lies hidden beneath the surface. An underlying issue is often more important than the question itself.
Even when the inquirer is eager for the answer, your knowing how you ought to answer may involve discerning how much to say and the angle from which to approach the subject. (John 16:12) In some cases, as Jesus indicated to his apostles, a person may ask for information to which he is not entitled or that would really not benefit him.—Acts 1:6, 7.
The Scriptures counsel us: “Let your utterance be always with graciousness, seasoned with salt, so as to know how you ought to give an answer to each one.” (Col. 4:6) Thus, before we answer, we need to consider not only what we are going to say but how we are going to say it.
Discern the Questioner’s Viewpoint
The Sadducees tried to entrap Jesus with a question about the resurrection of a woman who had been married several times. However, Jesus knew that they actually did not believe in the resurrection. So in his reply, he answered their question in a way that dealt with the mistaken viewpoint that was the underlying basis for that question. Using masterful reasoning and a familiar Scriptural account, Jesus pointed out something that they had never considered previously—clear evidence that God is indeed going to resurrect the dead. His answer so amazed his opposers that they were afraid to question him any further.—Luke 20:27-40.
To know how you ought to answer, you must likewise discern the views and concerns of your questioners. For example, a classmate or a workmate may ask you why you do not celebrate Christmas. Why does he ask? Does he really care about the reason, or is he simply wondering whether you are permitted to have a good time? To find out, you may need to ask what gave rise to the question. Then answer accordingly. You might also use the opportunity to show how following the Bible’s direction protects us from those aspects of the holiday that have become a frustration and a burden to people.
Suppose you are invited to speak about Jehovah’s Witnesses to a group of students. After your presentation, they may ask questions. If the questions seem to be sincere and straightforward, answers that are simple and direct may be best. If the questions reflect community prejudices, you might do more good by preceding your answers with brief comments about what can shape popular views on such issues and why Jehovah’s Witnesses choose to let the Bible set the standard for them. Frequently, it is beneficial to view such questions as subjects of concern, not as challenges—even though they may have been presented in that way. Your reply, then, affords you opportunity to broaden the viewpoint of your audience, provide them with accurate information, and explain the Scriptural basis for our beliefs.
How will you respond to an employer who does not want to give you time away from work to attend a convention? First, consider things from his viewpoint. Might your offering to do overtime at another time help? If you explain to him that the instruction given at our conventions helps us to be honest, trustworthy workers, might that make a difference? If you show that you are taking his interests into account, perhaps he will also give favorable consideration to what he realizes is important in your life. But what if he wants you to do something dishonest? A clearly stated rejection coupled with a thought from the Scriptures would state your position. But might more good be accomplished if you first reason with him that a person who is willing to lie or steal for him might also lie to him or steal from him?
On the other hand, perhaps you are a student who does not want to participate in certain unscriptural activities at school. Remember, the teacher probably does not share your views, and it is his responsibility to maintain discipline in the class. The challenges that face you are (1) to show regard for what concerns him, (2) to explain your position respectfully, and (3) to be firm for what you know will please Jehovah. For best results, more may be needed than a simple, direct statement of what you believe. (Prov. 15:28) If you are young, no doubt your father or mother will help you prepare something to say.
At times, you may be required to refute charges brought against you by someone in authority. A police officer, a government official, or a judge might demand that you answer questions about obedience to a certain law, your position of Christian neutrality, or your attitude toward participation in patriotic ceremonies. How should you reply? “With a mild temper and deep respect,” the Bible counsels. (1 Pet. 3:15) Also, ask yourself why these issues are of concern, and respectfully acknowledge that concern. Then what? The apostle Paul referred to the guarantees of Roman law, so you might point out legal guarantees that apply in your case. (Acts 22:25-29) Perhaps facts about the position taken by early Christians and by Jehovah’s Witnesses worldwide would broaden the official’s viewpoint. Or you might point out how recognition of the authority of God actually motivates people to be more consistently obedient to proper laws of men. (Rom. 13:1-14) Against such a background, a statement of Scriptural reasons for your position might be favorably received.
Questioner’s View of the Scriptures
When deciding how to answer, you may also need to consider your questioner’s view of the Holy Scriptures. Jesus did this when answering the Sadducees’ question about the resurrection. Knowing that they accepted only Moses’ writings, Jesus reasoned on an account contained in the Pentateuch, prefacing his remarks by saying: “But that the dead are raised up even Moses disclosed.” (Luke 20:37) You may likewise find it advantageous to quote from portions of the Bible that your listener accepts and with which he is familiar.
What if your listener does not view the Bible as authoritative? Note what the apostle Paul did in his speech on the Areopagus, as recorded at Acts 17:22-31. He shared Scriptural truths without directly quoting from the Bible. Where necessary, you can do the same. In some places you may have to have several discussions with a person before making direct reference to the Bible. When you do introduce the Bible, you may be wise at first simply to offer some reasons why it is worthy of consideration rather than state firmly that it is God’s Word. Your aim, however, should be to give a clear witness about God’s purpose and, in time, to let your listener see for himself what the Bible says. The Bible is far more persuasive than anything that we personally might say.—Heb. 4:12.
“Always With Graciousness”
How appropriate that servants of Jehovah, who himself is gracious, are told to let their speech be “always with graciousness, seasoned with salt”! (Col. 4:6; Ex. 34:6) This means that we ought to speak with kindness, even when it may not seem deserved. Our speech should be in good taste, not rough or tactless.
Many people are under tremendous pressure, and daily they are subjected to verbal abuse. When we call on such people, they may speak harshly. How should we respond? The Bible says: “An answer, when mild, turns away rage.” Such an answer can also soften one who has an opposing viewpoint. (Prov. 15:1; 25:15) To people who experience roughness every day, a manner and a voice that express kindness can be so appealing that they may listen to the good news we bring.
We have no interest in arguing with those who show no respect for truth. Rather, our desire is to reason from the Scriptures with people who will allow us to do so. Regardless of the situation we encounter, we keep in mind that we ought to answer with kindness and with conviction that the precious promises of God are reliable.—1 Thess. 1:5.
Personal Decisions and Matters of Conscience
When a Bible student or a fellow believer asks what he should do in a given situation, how should you answer? You may know what you would personally do. But each person must bear responsibility for his own decisions in life. (Gal. 6:5) The apostle Paul explained that he encouraged “obedience by faith” among the people to whom he preached. (Rom. 16:26) That is a fine example for us to follow. A person who makes decisions mainly to please his Bible teacher or another human is serving men, not living by faith. (Gal. 1:10) So a simple, direct answer may not be in the best interests of the one who is making the inquiry.
How, then, could you reply in a manner that is consistent with the Bible’s guidelines? You might draw attention to appropriate Bible principles and examples included in the Bible record. In some cases, you might show him how to do research so as to find those principles and examples himself. You could even discuss the principles and the value of the examples but without applying them to the situation at hand. Ask the person if he sees in them something that might help him to make a wise decision. Encourage him to consider in the light of these principles and examples what course would be pleasing to Jehovah. You are thus helping him to ‘train his own perceptive powers to distinguish both right and wrong.’—Heb. 5:14.
Commenting at Congregation Meetings
Meetings of the Christian congregation often provide opportunities for us to make public declaration of our faith. One way in which we do that is by commenting in response to questions. How should we comment? With a desire to bless, or speak well of, Jehovah. That is what the psalmist David did when “among the congregated throngs.” (Ps. 26:12) We should also comment in a manner that encourages fellow believers, inciting them “to love and fine works,” as the apostle Paul urged. (Heb. 10:23-25) Studying the lessons in advance can help us to accomplish this.
When called on to comment, keep your remarks simple, clear, and brief. Do not cover the entire paragraph; address just one point. If you give only part of the answer, that will allow others the opportunity to give additional comments. It is especially beneficial to highlight the scriptures cited in the material. When doing so, endeavor to draw attention to the portion of the text that bears on the point under consideration. Learn to comment in your own words rather than reading directly from the paragraph. Do not become disturbed if a comment you make does not come out exactly right. That happens occasionally to everyone who comments.
It is obvious that knowing how we ought to answer involves more than knowing the answer itself. It requires discernment. But how satisfying it is when you give an answer that comes from your heart and that touches the hearts of others!—Prov. 15:23.