Good coaches ask open-ended questions.
An open-ended question doesn’t elicit a yes or no response; an open-ended question evokes an open-ended response. This makes a coaching relationship more like a conversation. It’s a great way to cultivate heart-level conversation in coaching, small groups, or even one-on-one discussions. Asking open-ended questions unlocks change in a relational way. Since that time, I’ve seen the value of asking open-ended questions not only of people but also of God. While the reason is different, the power is the same. Since I was trained as a church leadership coach, I’ve often wondered about, experimented with, and found great value in asking God open-ended questions. If it’s a great way to develop conversation and relationship with people, then why isn’t it common between people and God? Perhaps many people would say that they don’t ask God open-ended questions because they haven’t seen anyone else do this. It’s a foreign concept. That is, they haven’t been discipled in it, so it feels somewhat inappropriate. Plus, what do we ask of God? He’s the one who should be asking us the questions, right? Even if we’re supposed to do this, we’re left wondering: Will he answer me? And if he does, how can I know I’m hearing from God? My goal in this article is to give you reasons, examples, and methods for asking God open-ended questions in prayer, so that you can, perhaps, more reliably listen to God in prayer.
Reasons for Asking Open-Ended Questions in Prayer
First, prayer is relational.The number one reason to ask God open-ended questions in prayer is because prayer is supposed to be relational. It’s not supposed to be a one-way conversation where we talk to God instead of with God. Mother Teresa spoke to this point in her interview with Dan Rather, the former CBS anchorman (The Other Journal: Prayer, 2013, ix). She answered his question about her prayer life. The conversation went something like this:
Dan Rather: “When you pray, what do you say to God?” Mother Teresa: “I don’t say anything. I listen.” Rather: “What is it that God says to you when you pray?” Teresa: “He doesn’t talk. He simply listens.”
Listening is vital for relational prayer, because relationships grow with good listening.
Second, asking questions is humble.The second major reason for asking God open-ended questions in prayer is because it expresses humility. Humble people know they don’t know everything, so they ask questions to learn! Proud people don’t want to appear foolish, so they don’t ask questions. Asking questions is also vulnerable, and humble people are secure enough in their identity to risk the vulnerability without worrying too much about themselves.
Third, God may reveal new ideas, insights, and possibilities.One of the great benefits of asking open-ended questions, I’ve experienced, is getting answers from God! I don’t always hear him right or ask in the right way, but when I ask God questions, I generally find that he is willing to talk with me about my inquiries! He loves us, after all. Dallas Willard’s book Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God opened my eyes to this reality for what felt like the first time. Since then, I’ve known it’s possible and that others hear from God in this way, too. In Hearing from God, Willard describes how with practice and experiments we can test what we hear from God to find out if it truly is from God. Over time, we can reliably learn to hear his voice. I highly recommend that book! This is a revolutionary way to grow with God for those who are used to praying but haven’t learned how to make space and time for listening in prayer. Those are three reasons, but of all the reasons, I’d say the most compelling and important reason for asking open-ended questions in prayer as a way to listen to God is that in Scripture, we find the people of God asking him open-ended questions.
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Drawing Near to God by Cultivating a Wholehearted Prayer Life All who read this will be inspired and challenged to cultivate a deeper prayer life and walk with Jesus. — Dr. Darren Whitehead, senior pastor, Church of the City, Franklin, TN Deeply profound yet wonderfully practical. — Dave Clayton, author of Revival Starts HereGet Product
Scriptural Examples of Asking God Open-Ended Questions
Example #1: Moses.Perhaps my favorite example of someone in Scripture asking God an open-ended question is Moses in Exodus 33. Perhaps I like it because it’s so bold and relatable. The situation is that he is trying to lead a rebellious sort of people out of Egypt and into the Promised Land, and he’s having a hard time trusting God’s presence to be with them. He says to God,
If your Presence does not go with us, do not send us up from here. How will anyone know that you are pleased with me and with your people unless you go with us? What else will distinguish me and your people from all the other people on the face of the earth?God answers him:
In this passage, Moses asks God open-ended questions and Moses makes an open-ended request—“show me your glory”—both of which functioned toward the same end: to make room for God’s voice. As a result, God gives him an answer that becomes a refrain for the rest of history (see especially Exod. 34:5–7). But Moses interacted with God directly. We’re tempted to think, so his case was special, right? That’s why I’m thankful for what we see in the Wisdom Literature like in the Psalms and in the book of Job.
“I will do the very thing you have asked, because I am pleased with you and I know you by name.” Moses replied, “Now show me your glory.” — Exodus 33:16–20 (NIV, 1984)
Example #2: The Psalms and Job.The Psalms were the Jewish prayer book; they served as Jesus’ prayer book, too. So, as disciples, we should make the Psalms a close companion in our prayer life, too. In the Psalms, we see open-ended questions scattered throughout the text, but I want to focus on just three:
- Why? in Psalm 2:1: “Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain?”
- How? in Psalm 13:1: “How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?”
- Who? in Psalm 15:1: “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?”
If I have sinned, what have I done to you, O watcher of men? Why have you made me your target? Have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my offenses and forgive my sins?Apparently, he doesn’t get an answer for a long time. In Job 40–42 Job hears from God, but it’s not really an answer he might have expected or wanted; it’s only more questions. So, we can take away from that example this: while we must be ready to listen to God, he will respond however he wishes. We ask, and he answers according to his will. That’s part of the vulnerability piece. Another important example comes from the life of David. This one is fun and more tangible.
Example #3: King David.David is fighting the Philistines, and he consults the Lord about a battle. At first, he asks a question of God expecting a yes or no response. And God gives him a yes answer (2 Sam. 5:17–19):
When the Philistines heard that David had been anointed king over Israel, they went up in full force to search for him, but David heard about it and went down to the stronghold. Now the Philistines had come and spread out in the Valley of Rephaim; so David inquired of the LORD, “Shall I go and attack the Philistines? Will you hand them over to me?” The LORD answered him, “Go, for I will surely hand the Philistines over to you.”Then, we see David ask a similar sort of question but in a different way. We don’t know exactly what he prayed because this is all we have:
“Once more the Philistines came up and spread out in the Valley of Rephaim; so David inquired of the Lord…” (2 Sam. 5:22–23).We don’t get David’s exact question here, but we know that whatever David asked, he made space after his question to hear from the Lord more than just yes or no. We know this because God gives a nuanced response to him: a detailed battle plan (2 Sam. 5:23–24).
Do not go straight up, but circle around behind them and attack them in front of the balsam trees. As soon as you hear the sound of marching in the tops of the balsam trees, move quickly, because that will mean the LORD has gone out in front of you to strike the Philistine army.This is a hugely important passage, one that should reveal to us what sort of relationship we can have with God. If David had this close and relational connection with God in prayer, how much more can we who have the Holy Spirit living inside of us experience God like that? God told David exactly what to do, not just “go fight,” but go in a certain way. This intricate plan came because David inquired of the Lord and made space to hear him—which is the whole method and goal of asking open-ended questions in prayer. As an aside: Read an example of when Saul did the opposite of this and how that worked out for him (see 1 Chron. 10:14, where Saul does not inquire of the Lord and it doesn’t go well for him). So, we’ve now covered reasons for and some scriptural examples of praying open-ended questions, but how can we do this today practically speaking?
How to Ask God Open-Ended Questions
1. Pray situationally with open-ended questions.The simplest way to start this practice, if it’s new to you, is to do similar to what David did. Take a challenging situation in your life and ask God what to do. Simply tell God something like this:
I’ve got this situation x, and I don’t know what to do. What do you think I should do?Then, just listen. Write down what you think God might be telling you as you listen. It’s important not to judge or filter too much at this point (if at all). Writing something down doesn’t mean it’s from God, but perhaps it is from God. This helps you track your prayers as you learn this habit. As you listen, let your thoughts flow because God may choose to speak to you. Perhaps he will not, but at least you’re making space for his voice in your prayer life. An extra piece of advice: like the Psalmist does in Psalm 15:2, speak back to God what you think he is telling you. You can even ask God directly:
“I think you’re saying this…. Am I hearing you right?”Then, listen. Make plenty of time for listening, especially when you’re first starting out because we all need time to learn how to hear his voice. Then, assuming it doesn’t hurt anyone or cause any damage to someone or take any unnecessary risks, I suggest simply doing what it is you think God is asking you to do. If it’s riskier or somewhat weighty of an action, check with a trusted pastor, friend, or mentor, if they think you heard from God. Their input and your experience, over time, will teach you what God’s voice sounds like, assuming you remain humble and willing to be wrong, without taking yourself too seriously!
2. Pray the Lord’s prayer using open-ended questions.Another practical way to incorporate open-ended questions into your prayer life is to use the Lord’s Prayer from Matthew 6 (or Luke 11) as a wireframe for asking questions of God. This is where prayer gets really sweet. I don’t think Jesus intended us to simply say the words of the Lord’s Prayer (or as I like to call it “Our Prayer”) like a robot. It’s a launching pad, a starting point, a framework for how we’re supposed to pray every prayer. It helps us place all kinds of requests and inquiries to the Lord—sort of like a filter for what’s good to pray. So, use each line of the Lord’s Prayer to launch into specific, open-ended questions of the Lord. For example, say:
“God, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven. What does that look like in my life today? What do you want of me?”Or say:
“God, I need to ask forgiveness for x, y, and z, but before we go there, whom do I need to forgive?”Ask questions like these, and then simply listen for God’s voice.
3. Pray the Psalms slowly so you can ask their open-ended questions—and your own.Since the Psalms are God’s Great Prayer Book to use, we must pray the Psalms using their words like Jesus prayed them. As we pray them, ask questions of God when you come to the Psalmists questions. Feel free to add your own questions in the mix, as you digest what you’re praying using their words. Say:
- God, I’m struggling to believe this today. How is it true?
- God, how can you be good, if so much is bad in the world?
- God, what are you saying to me in this Psalm that I need to hear today?
A Simple Place to StartPerhaps the best open-ended question, one God’s heart is eager to answer, is simply this: “How can I love people today?” And even more, “How can I love you today?” These are beautiful questions because we know God wants to answer them in general, and also because they are obedience-based questions, which is God’s love language. So, if you’re not sure where to start in this venture of conversing with God in prayer, start by asking God about how you can love others. We know what Jesus said in Matthew 7:7–8 is true and reliable. He said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.” I think he’s often waiting to open doors for us until we ask of him. Maybe more open doors can come to us when we ask open-ended questions. I’ve thought recently, in a similar train of thought: the older son in the Prodigal Son story of Luke 15 could have had that party he wanted with his friends, where they killed a “young goat” to celebrate. If only he had asked for it.
Asking questions is powerful.
Asking God questions with an open heart, an open mind, and open hands is immensely powerful, exciting, and pregnant with possibilities. And when we ask God open-ended questions, we can expect God to sometimes ask questions of us, too. But this is a good thing. It’s like he wants a relationship with us! Because he does, and most of the time, at least I’ve found, he’s ready to speak. Are you ready and willing to inquire of him? Are you ready to listen? Then, fire away!
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