There is a difference between truth and truth that matters. How-did-they-feel questions are one of the best way to make the truth truth that matters.
I saw a great example of the difference between truth and truth that matters recently. My wife’s cousin recently quit smoking. She is a middle-aged adult who has been smoking since she was a teenager and suddenly, she quit.
Why do you think this happened? The truth suddenly became truth that matters. Do you think she finally discovered the warning label on the side of the cigarette box? Do you think she read an article about how smoking can kill you? No. Her brother died of smoking-related problems. She watched her brother die and the cause was smoking and she knew it and the truth became truth that matters.
The people you teach would probably agree that the stories of Samson and Deborah and David and Paul and all the rest are true. But, quite honestly, they don’t matter much to them. It is not truth that matters. Your job is to make the truth truth that matters. One of the best ways to do that is through How-did-they-feel questions.
How-did-they-feel questions makes the truth come alive. It connects us emotionally with the characters in the story. It bridges the two or three thousand year gap between us and the story and makes us feel the truth, not just know the truth. The emotional connection is the human connection. How-did-they-feel questions makes the truth real. It makes the truth truth that matters.
Modernize the story
In order to make the question work, sometimes it is useful to modernize the story. This is not to change the essential message of the story, but to tell it as it might happen today. If it is a parable of Jesus, we tell it as he might tell it today.
If I am teaching on the story of the prodigal son, I might paraphrase it along these lines:
Imagine a son, say he is nineteen years old and he knows that his dad will leave him something in his will, but he doesn’t want to wait that long. So, he asks for his check now. (It never occurs to him that the dad might need the money because that is the way teenagers think.) Unbelievably, the dad writes him a check. Let’s imagine the dad has some money and he writes the son a check for half a million dollars. Wow! He never had a Christmas like this before.
He takes the money and runs. He buys a fast sports car and heads out to Las Vegas, Nevada. He starts spending. He spends the money on wine, women, song, gambling, seafood buffets and Celine Dion tickets. After a while he runs out of money. About the same time that he runs out of money, there is an economic down turn. Unemployment skyrockets to double digits. He can’t find a job anywhere.
Finally, he gets a job washing dishes at one of the casinos. He can barely make ends meet. He doesn’t have any skill to get a better paying job and expenses are high in Las Vegas. One day, he is so hungry that he finds himself instinctively grabbing some of the uneaten food that he is about to drop down the garbage disposal—scraps that someone left on their plate.
Then it hits him. “My dad treats his employees better than this. I could swallow my pride and go home and my dad would take me in and he would give me a job and I could do better than this. At least I would have decent food and a decent place to stay.”
He does it. He starts heading home. I have never been to Israel, but people who have tell me it looks a lot like New Mexico, where I live. There is not a lot of rain where I live and, consequently, not many trees to block the view. You can see a long, long way—fifty miles or more on a clear day. People who have been to Israel tell me that Israel is a lot that way. There is a place in the story where it says, “While he was still a long way off, his father saw him.” Now, it doesn’t say this, but it stands to reason that if the father could see the son when the son was a long way off, the son could also see the father when he was a long way off. In fact, because the father did not know when the son was coming, but the son did know where his house was, it stands to reason that the son could see the father’s house long before the father could see the boy.
I live in the valley of the Rio Grande River. When you enter the city from the West, there is a particular place where you cross a ridge and the whole valley opens up before you. The Organ Mountains are in the distance and you can see the whole city all at once. At night, it looks like a string of Christmas lights laying in a pile. Imagine the son coming on a scene like that. He can see the area of town that is his neighborhood, though he cannot yet make out the house. How is he feeling in that moment? What is going through his head? What is he thinking about?
I have asked this question to many groups and the answers are as different as they are accurate. The son was feeling all kinds of things:
It is a classic picture of mixed emotions. I think he was feeling a lot of negative emotions. I think he was worried and ashamed. But, I don’t think worry and shame would have driven him there. I think he was also feeling some positive emotions—hope and anticipation. Life had gotten pretty bad for him and he was hopeful that it was about to get better.
Now, let’s think about this story from the other side. Let’s think about it from the Dad’s perspective. Do you remember what the text says the dad did when the dad saw the boy?
He ran. We know from studying history that middle-aged men did not do a lot of running back in the day. They were dignified. They were sophisticated. They were in charge. They delegated. They pointed. They didn’t run.
I’d encourage you to do some reading in this history and in the commentaries, but then, just think about real life. If you are a middle aged man (or woman) think about this: when was the last time you ran? Not just hustled a bit—ran. When is the last time you got into an all-out run? When is the last time you ran as fast as you can run?
For most of us, it has been a while. Most of us, when we get into the middle aged years of life don’t do a lot of running. Little kids do a lot of running, but we don’t run much once we reach middle age. There are exceptions, of course, but generally, middle aged men don’t run. They didn’t run then and they don’t run now. The text says the dad ran.
I have probably watched one too many Hollywood movies, but I picture this scene in slow motion. The dad running toward the boy. A look of confusion on the boy’s face. Why is he running? Is he mad? Is he going to yell at me and tell me to get off his property? No. He is smiling. The dad is smiling the biggest, most welcoming smile he has ever seen. The son starts to run too. The camera pans back and forth from father to son as they get closer together.
Then they embrace. Oh, do they embrace. The father hugs the son and the spin around and spin around and spin around. Then, I see the father stopping, putting one hand on each of the sons shoulders, taking a good look at him and saying, “Somebody hire a band. Someone call a caterer. Shut down the store. We are going to have the biggest party this town has ever seen.”
How do you think the son was feeling then?
However you describe that feeling—loved, accepted, excited, forgiven, whole—that is how God wants you to live your life. He wants you to walk each day in the Father’s embrace. He wants to baptize you in the Father’s acceptance. He wants to surround you with his love.
Has the truth that God loves you become a little more truth that matters to you?
How did they feel questions do that for us. They make the truth come alive. They make it human. They make it personal. They make it today. They make it real. They make it matter.
How to make How-did-they-feel questions work
How-did-they-feel questions work best (as in the case above) when there is more than one right answer. The son was both excitedly anticipating being home and at the same time dreadful, fearful and guilt-ridden.
I was working recently on a lesson on the trial of Jesus. Matthew 26:3: “Then the high priest stood up and said to Jesus, “Are you not going to answer? What is this testimony that these men are bringing against you?” Matthew 26:62–63 records, “But Jesus remained silent. The high priest said to him, ‘I charge you under oath by the living God: Tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.’ ” (NIV) Here is the question. How is the high priest feeling about this time? Some right answers include angry, frustrated, smug, shocked, exasperated, worried. I wonder if the chief priests knew their evidence was thin and they were secretly worried that they might not pull this thing off? Here is follow up question: How would the chief priests felt at the end of the day if the trial had gone the other way? Imagine that Jesus had been vindicated by Rome and the charges were dropped and he got off with little more than a hand slap. How would the high priests have felt then?
Here is another example from a recent lesson. The story is that of David and his rebellious son Absalom who is trying to take over his father’s kingdom by force. Consider this text:
Then David said to all his officials who were with him in Jerusalem, “Come! We must flee, or none of us will escape from Absalom. We must leave immediately, or he will move quickly to overtake us and bring ruin upon us and put the city to the sword.” 2 Samuel 15:14 (NIV)
How is David feeling in this moment? Or, how are David’s feelings different from that of his men at this moment? They are both feeling fear, and perhaps anger. But David is feeling some other things. This is his son. He is mad at him, but he still loves him. He is feeling love in the middle of it all. Perhaps he is feeling guilt for not raising him better, or self-doubt. No doubt he is feeling a profound sadness. It is this mixture of emotions that makes the How-did-they-feel question work.
Consider this poignant passage a bit later:
David mustered the men who were with him and appointed over them commanders of thousands and commanders of hundreds. 18:2 David sent the troops out—a third under the command of Joab, a third under Joab’s brother Abishai son of Zeruiah, and a third under Ittai the Gittite. The king told the troops, “I myself will surely march out with you.” 18:3 But the men said, “You must not go out; if we are forced to flee, they won’t care about us. Even if half of us die, they won’t care; but you are worth ten thousand of us. It would be better now for you to give us support from the city.” 18:4 The king answered, “I will do whatever seems best to you.” So the king stood beside the gate while all the men marched out in units of hundreds and of thousands. 18:5 The king commanded Joab, Abishai and Ittai, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake.” And all the troops heard the king giving orders concerning Absalom to each of the commanders. 2 Samuel 18:1–5 (NIV)
Note verse 4. How is David feeling as he stood beside the gate? How is he feeling when he said, “Be gentle with the young man Absalom for my sake”?
Sometimes, the What-are-they-feeling questions have great importance. Consider the case of Judas in Matthew 27:
When Judas, who had betrayed him, saw that Jesus was condemned, he was seized with remorse and returned the thirty silver coins to the chief priests and the elders. “I have sinned,” he said, “for I have betrayed innocent blood.” “What is that to us?” they replied. “That’s your responsibility.” So Judas threw the money into the temple and left. Then he went away and hanged himself. Matthew 27:3–5 (NIV)
Here is my question: What is Judas feeling here? Is this true repentance? Was he saved? Will we see Judas in heaven? He clearly takes full responsibility for his actions. He does not blame or make excuses. Does it take more than this kind of confession to receive forgiveness?
How-did-they-feel questions are one of the best ways to make the truth truth that matters. They make the story come alive. They build a bridge back through time to that two and three thousand year old story and make the truth human. We feel connected. It is the emotional connection that makes the text real.
Josh Hunt, How to Use Questions to Stimulate Life-Changing Discussions, Good Questions Have Small Groups Talking (Las Cruces, NM: Josh Hunt, 2010), 51–58.