Let Me Ask You A Question
Conversations with Jesus
Book by Matthew Croasmun
Interviews with Matt Croasmun
Q & A with Matthew Croasmun
Author of Let Me Ask You a Question: Conversations with Jesus
What motivated you to write a book about the questions Jesus asked?
This book grew out of a sermon series we did at our church, using the questions Jesus asks in the Gospels as jumping-off points for conversations with him. The core was a set of prayer journaling exercises—just a passage, a short reflection, and a facing page with opportunity to dialogue with Jesus. The exercises immediately became a hot item, with church members looking for extra copies to give to their nonchurchgoing friends, folks who would never read a “Christian book” but were intrigued about the possibility of conversation with Jesus. People who would never set foot in a church were encountering Jesus in the questions he asks. The book is an attempt to share what was so energizing in our local church with a broader audience. It’s an invitation to dialogue with Jesus, to discover who he is through direct back-and-forth, to engage even if only as an experiment, to see whether Jesus is in fact real and at work in the world.
Who do you think would be interested in this book, and why?
I think many of us have been given the impression that Jesus is the “answer man,” the guy who has an answer for anything and everything. Certainly, we’ve encountered followers of Jesus who come across as if following Jesus means they have all the answers—maybe we’ve been those sorts of Jesus followers or have felt pressured to be those sorts of followers. But again and again in the Gospels, Jesus is asking people questions—and I don’t think he’s quizzing them. I think he’s genuinely interested in what they have to say. Jesus is looking for conversations—for candid dialogue. And I think that’s possible today. So, really, I think this book is for anyone who’s interested not in a set of Christian answers but rather in encountering Jesus the person. That could be longtime churchgoers, seekers, skeptics, college students, adults, retirees—I’ve used these exercises with each of these groups and seen God show up in all sorts of different environments as people have taken the risk to engage with Jesus as a living presence.
Could you explain a bit about what you mean by conversations with Jesus—in other words, conversational prayer?
At root, I don’t mean anything categorically different than what we would mean by conversation with anyone else. Prayer is about a dialogue, a back-and-forth. Maybe at times it feels like self-talk or shouting into the void, but ideally, prayer genuinely involves a divine encounter, someone genuinely “on the other end of the line” participating in the conversation. Now, that idea may push us beyond our comfort zone—that’s where this may be for many of us an imaginative experiment, but I think it makes all the difference in the world.
As you point out in your book, Jesus spent a lot of time asking people questions, seeking to engage them in conversations. How do you think answering Jesus’ questions as if he were asking them of us helps facilitate conversations with God?
Many of us are used to the idea that we might speak to God or to Jesus. Maybe at times it feels like shouting into the darkness or whatnot, but it’s not hard to do—at least as an imaginative exercise. What’s harder—even imaginatively—is to try to hear Jesus speaking to us. Are we just making things up? Are we just using Jesus as a puppet to say whatever we want to hear? Using the questions that Jesus actually asks in the Gospels is a way of grounding our conversations in the actual words of Jesus.
Let me be clear: what we’re talking about here is not new. The Jesuits, for example, have been inviting people to place themselves imaginatively within the Gospel narratives for centuries—and to great effect. There’s something profoundly powerful about placing ourselves into these scenes and engaging with Jesus through them. It’s a way of starting the conversation and encountering the living presence of Jesus that inhabits the biblical text.
How does Let Me Ask You a Question help people who are not used to conversational prayer?
First, my great hope is that the book is written in a style that makes very few assumptions about where the reader is coming from—whether you’ve been reading the Bible all your life or whether this is your first time, whether you’re full of questions about who Jesus is or if God exists or whether you are a lifelong Christian, I hope you’ll find a way in to the book and into the conversations with Jesus that it opens up. Second, since the basic posture throughout is that Jesus is genuinely interested in our candid responses to his questions, I hope the book puts at ease any concerns about “getting it right.” The thought is instead is simply to dare to be honest and see where the conversation goes. Finally, of course, there’s the format of the exercises themselves that help get you past the “blank page syndrome” of wondering where to start.
What are your earliest memories of prayer? Did you pray with your family or mostly at church? Who were some of your influences on your prayer life?
Growing up, prayer for me was largely a matter of table grace, prayer at church (including the Lord’s Prayer), and praying for urgent matters (whether a sick relative, wisdom for a difficult decision, or what have you). As I grew up, personal prayer journaling was an early important prayer practice in my own spiritual life, though the line between prayer (addressing God) and simply journaling (just trying to capture and sort out my own thoughts) was pretty blurry. Prayer really started to come into focus for me in college when I started attending a Vineyard church (a sort of charismatic evangelical church). It was there that the prayer that had always had the form of a conversation, really had the potential to become a dialogue in substance. In the Vineyard, we listened for God’s voice and expected to hear something, discern that in community, and walk in courageous obedience to what we heard. It was at that time that prayer journaling began to take on this more dialogical character for me.
What are some things people can do to prepare their hearts for conversational prayer?
As we begin to try to hear God’s voice—try to imagine what it is that Jesus is saying in response to us—many of our unstated assumptions about who God is and what God is like can suddenly come out. So, for example, if we imagine God as judgmental and condemning, we’re likely to project those ideas onto Jesus’ responses to us. So, one of the things I talk a lot about in the book is the difference between conviction and condemnation. God convicts of sin—speaks the truth about our actions and attitudes that align us against God’s best for others, ourselves, and the world—but always as a way of calling us forward. Condemnation, on the other hand, is a dead end. Condemnation says we are sinful and that’s the end of the story; conviction says we sin and calls us forward into new life. In general, it’s probably worth taking stock of who we assume Jesus is so that we can be mindful of our biases as we begin to listen for his voice. (Jesus himself checks in with the disciples this way in the Gospels, asking them who others have told them he is before asking them who they think he is. It’s important to take stock of that baseline.) Another key is to be sure we have trustworthy people with whom to discern what we think we hear. As much as I think we need to step out and take a risk in this imaginative experiment of learning to hear Jesus’ voice, the fact is, we can (and do) get it wrong. A solid community of discernment is indispensable to spiritual life generally—and to discerning Jesus’ voice in prayer in particular.
What are the main takeaways you want people to get from reading your book?
I want people to walk away with the sense that a dynamic, living relationship with Jesus is available to them. I want people to have opportunity to be surprised by Jesus—not by my ideas about Jesus, but by Jesus himself. I want people to finish the book intrigued by this character that perhaps we think we know. I want people to walk away ready for the adventure of life following Jesus—and adventure whose next steps are truly open to the leadership of the living Christ.
Is there anything else you think would interest readers about you or your book?
One thing that surprised me as I wrote the book was how much my students came up. In addition to helping pastor the church I planted a decade ago, my main gig these days is at Yale, directing a program called “Life Worth Living,” in which I get to teach classes that invite students to wrestle with the big questions—What is a good life? What is truly worth wanting out of life? In a way, these big-picture questions became a second thread throughout the book, unifying the various questions that Jesus is asking such that, by the end, it’s clear that the persistent question Jesus is asking everywhere and at every time is: What are you seeking? What is the direction of your life? What do you think makes life most worth living? Jesus cares profoundly about our answers to that question, and he wants a chance to shape our answers. Ultimately, this is what theology, reflection about God, is for: discerning the shape of our lives in light of the shape of the true life we find in Jesus.
How does this idea of a Jesus who wants to be in conversation with us shape our spiritual lives as a whole?
Jesus’ central call is to come and follow him. More often than he tells people to believe, more than he tells people to repent, this is Jesus’ call: Come, follow me. To follow means to go where someone is going, to do what they’re doing. If Jesus isn’t going anywhere or doing anything, following him is impossible. And yet, all too often, I think we imagine Jesus as a statue or a monument: going nowhere and no longer doing anything. There’s a profound danger there. Because if we’re following a dead man, we’re free to pose him however we like and call whatever we wanted to do anyway “following Jesus.” But if the Jesus we follow is a living, active presence in the world, then we’re genuinely accountable to some Other who is actually calling us to come and follow him. Now, we need to be careful as we pursue that sort of dynamic encounter with Jesus. We need to discern together with others, we need to consider the counsel and wisdom of the people of God around the world and across the centuries. But if we discover that Jesus is in fact alive and at work in our world, then the fundamental character of our spiritual lives is this dynamic interaction: following Jesus.