Asking Questions as a Spiritual Practice

A couple of weeks ago, we led a retreat on the theme of Sacred Questions. When I told a friend about the theme later on, they replied with, “Ooohhh, that sounds very mysterious!” Well, that was sort of the idea. 🙂 

We were inspired by a book of the same name that recently came out by Kellye Fabian (which I highly recommend!), though to be honest, this theme really began with one simple sacred question that has wrecked Bryan and I for years: How is it with my soul?

I wrote about this question in the context of my journey with spiritual direction in a previous blog post (find it here), and it’s one of those questions that has just stayed with me through the years. It carries a kind of weightiness, a gravitas, a sacredness.  When I’m coming to the Lord in prayer, and I sense myself avoiding something or struggling through inarticulate unsettledness, this is the question I bring before the Lord: how is it with my soul? 

Now, some of you may be a bit concerned with such a question, since the obvious answer you’re looking for might be: “GREAT! My soul is saved by Jesus!” But this question isn’t about the state of my salvation; it’s about my inner life. It’s about making space for questions that don’t have one simple answer, questions that lead to an exploration of who God is, who I am, and what the Spirit is doing in my life. 

While we can certainly find answers to some of our deepest questions in scripture, we can also find the freedom to sit with our questions before the Father. Jesus Himself posed seemingly simple yet profoundly provocative questions, like “Who do you say that I am?” (Matthew 16:15), and “What do you want me to do for you?”  (Mark 10:36 and 51) or “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6). Even the questions asked of Jesus hold a weightiness, such as the question of theodicy that the disciples pose to Jesus when they encounter a man who was blind since birth: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” (John 9:2). Spend any amount of time in just one of the Gospels, and you’ll find any number of such questions! 

So, how can asking sacred questions become a spiritual practice, and what can they do in your spiritual life, you might ask?

Good questions push us towards discernment, not formulas.

In the early days of our faith in Jesus, we need questions with specific answers, like: Who is Jesus? or Can I trust in the Bible? or What is the Church? We also need a community to help us answer those questions and disciple us as we learn the foundations of faith.  

Then, at some point, we make a shift from more directive questions and answers to the process of discernment, in which we are invited to discern how we live into this faith that we proclaim (see Mindy Caliguire’s book STIR: Spiritual Transformation in Relationships. She explains this process beautifully!). We learn that the pursuit of head knowledge and answers to foundational questions don’t necessarily satisfy our deepest longing to actually know our God, and they don’t always provide answers when we are in the torrents of doubt, loss, or suffering. Sometimes, all we’re able to do is sit with one question until it leads to another. 

Questions invite us into a journey with God and a journey into ourselves.

Jesus taught us that the greatest commandment begins with loving God with all of our heart, mind, soul, and strength (Matthew 22:37). To start by loving God with my whole heart requires that I actually know my heart—a part of myself that is a cacophony of paradoxes. My heart can be a source of life (Proverbs 4:23) and simultaneously deceitful beyond comprehension (Jeremiah 17:9).  

Adam McHugh writes in his book The Listening Life, “We are not fully alive until we love God with all our mind, heart, soul, and strength, and we cannot love God with all of ourselves unless with are well acquainted with our minds, hearts, souls, and bodies…[A]s John Calvin instructs us in his Institutes, ‘without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God’” (p. 176). Sacred questions aid us in that inward journey,  

They expand and explore rather than confine.

These kinds of questions, while potentially uncomfortable, are those that have no objective answers; they are questions of the heart. Carolyn Gratton writes that sacred questions are “ ‘not simply problem oriented questions that ask for advice on what one should do. They are mystery-oriented questions that flow from a heart that seeks a future for its love’ ” (quoted in Jean Stairs, Listening for the Soul, p. 32).

Sacred questions invite us to journey inward, to close the gap between what we believe and what we live, to be transformed by the Spirit. 

They invite us to listen and to be attentive.

If I could sum up the goal of any spiritual practice, it is simply this: to become attentive to God’s presence and learn to listen to His voice. Jesus assures us that if we are in His fold, then we know His voice—and in a world and culture with thousands of voices trying to get my attention in a given day, I desperately need this assurance. I need to know that if I am looking for God, He’ll make Himself known to me, if only I’ll take the time to notice Him.

Simone Weil said once that our attention is "the only faculty of the soul that gives us access to God” (Listening for the Soul, p. 15). The best questions provide an access point for not only developing my attention toward God, but for prayerfully examining what it is that my attention is fixed upon. 

They invite us into community.

Sacred questions can be equally as valuable in the context of relationship and community. Feeling heard and known as we answer questions like “How is it with my soul?” across from a trusted friend or spiritual director can lead to a deeper awareness of the Spirit’s presence in our lives. And learning to ask a spouse, child, or friend a question of the heart and actually listen to their answer is one of the greatest gifts we can offer.

An old roommate of mine created a painting with the words, “To be loved is to be known, and to be known is to be loved.” Sacred questions provide an opportunity to be loved and to be known as much as we love and know one another. 

Questions to Bring to God in Prayer

As you’re reading this, you may already have put words to a particular question you want to bring before the Lord. If so, I’d invite you to get to it! Set aside a few minutes and ask the Holy Spirit to accompany you. Write out your thoughts. Jot down any other questions that come up. 

If you need some inspiration, below are a few questions that we’ve collected and may be helpful to you. Feel free to rephrase them or use them as a jumping-off point. 

  • How am I encountering God? What is prayer like for me right now?

  • What is nurturing my relationship with God and keeping me going? What is weighing me down or intruding upon my relationship with God?

  • What is different about my current season of life? What season am I anticipating?

  • How am I being shaped by the triumphs and trials of my life?

  • What is my view of God right now? 

  • What do I need or desire from God? What do I imagine God desires for me?

  • What commands and receives my best time and energy?

  • Who or what is getting the most air time in my thought life right now? 

  • How are my relationships honored and given quality time? 

We’d love to know — what are some questions that have become meaningful to you in your own prayer life and journey with God? 

If you’re looking for a few book recommendations to aid you in this journey, we recommend:

  • Kellye Fabian’s Sacred Questions: A Transformative Journey Through the Bible

  • Adam McHugh’s The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction