The Stupid Half-Answer Trap: How To See It Coming, How To Avoid It

By Tom Gilson Published on August 6, 2023

You’re chatting with co-workers in the break room, or family members over dinner. Someone brings up the hot question, “So, what do you think of this whole transgender phenomenon?” You open your mouth to speak — and you are just seconds away from getting caught in “The Stupid Half-Answer Trap.”

I’m not saying it’s wrong to answer, and I’m certainly not saying your answer would be stupid. I’m all for speaking the truth courageously and in love.

There’s a snare here anyway, though. It’s not what you say, it’s what they hear. Whatever answer you speak, no matter what wisdom you deliver, if time keeps you from giving a full answer, some people are going to hear your partial answer as a stupid half-answer.

It happens. Is it our fault? No, but what difference does that make? They still hear it wrong. The real question is, For what are we responsible? That ties directly to: What (if anything) can we do about it?

Human Bias: The Invisible Translator Device

Before we get there, though, let’s be clear: This is not imaginary. It happens all the time, sometimes to the extreme. The reason for it is human bias, but I get a better picture of it if I imagine it as an Invisible Translator Device wired to invisible earbuds in their ears. You say what you say, but the Invisible Translator processes it so your listeners get the translated version instead.

That’s only a mental picture, obviously — but the bias it illustrates is real. So if you tell people your answer comes from Scripture, they might easily hear you saying, “I’m stuck in the past and I like it here. I’ll keep on following my 2,000 year-old ‘holy book’ as if God were talking through it and didn’t know how to keep up with the times.”

It happens. The Invisible Translator Device isn’t real, but the effect sure is.

If you say, “Yes, I care about the people, but I have a commitment to truth, too,” their Invisible Translator Device might take that and twist it to, “I know I’m supposed to sound caring, so I won’t admit the real truth, which is that my own private opinion matters more to me than any hurt or pain they’re going through.”

It happens. The Invisible Translator Device isn’t real, but the effect sure is.

What Are We Responsible For, and What Can We Do About it?

As Christians we’re responsible to witness to the truth and love of Christ. But that does not mean we’re responsible to answer every question. Jesus didn’t:

  • In Luke 20:1-8 the religious leaders asked Him by what authority He taught and worked. He answered with a question they wouldn’t answer, then said “Neither will I tell you.”
  • More than once in John 4, the woman at the well asks Him one question and He answers a different one instead.
  • In Mark 4:10-20, and again in Mark 4:33-34, we see Him answering questions more freely with His disciples than with others. Still, though, even in His very last moments on earth, Acts 1:6-8, they ask Him a question and He declines to answer.

Where He does that, it’s usually because they aren’t ready to hear. Readiness, for Jesus, meant more than being able to follow the explanation. It meant being willing to follow Him. He wasn’t there to satisfy anyone’s intellectual curiosity, but to satisfy their need for a saving relationship with God.

So … we’re responsible to give a true and loving witness, but not necessarily by answering every question they ask. That still leaves a question for us, though: When the trap has been set for a Stupid Half-Answer, how do we steer clear of it? And how do we keep our witness?

You Can Let It Pass

You could let the question pass by. Change the subject, maybe, instead of answering. You’d be surprised how often Jesus did that, including the examples above from John 4 and Luke 20.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m not talking about staying so silent you fail to acknowledge Christ. I’m especially not suggesting you stay quiet for fear of what others might do to you (Matthew 10:26-33). I’m just saying that if your answer is bound to be misunderstood, it might be wiser not to say it.

Or You Can Ask Them a Better Question

Or you can answer … but do it the way Jesus so often did. Answer their question with a question. Because most of the time the question that really matters isn’t, “What do Christians think about this?” but, “If I answer, are you ready to listen?”

Here’s one way you can do this:

  • Start with, “If I said such-and-such, would that raise other questions in your mind?”
  • Then, “Would you be open to talking about this in the depth it really calls for, when there’s time to cover the whole thing?”

I’ll illustrate with the question I opened with here: “What do you think about the transgender phenomenon?”

First answer: “That’s a great question. Suppose I answered by saying, ‘I believe God created us male and female for a reason.’ Would you have questions about that?”

They would, I guarantee it: “How can you possibly believe in a ‘God’? Who is this ‘God’? How could you possibly think you know what this ‘God’ wants? Why should your view of ‘God’ be any more true than anyone else’s?”

So you answer with your next question: “Those are good questions, too, but not the kind of questions I can answer in five minutes. Why don’t we get coffee sometime and talk about these things?”

Either that, or else, “Those are fine questions, but from the way you’re asking, I’m not getting the sense you care to hear an answer. I’ll gladly talk with you about it when you’re open to having the conversation. Let me know when that is, okay?”

A Good Question Will Do You a Lot of Good

Notice what happens when you do that:

  • You’re showing your interest in the people, demonstrating your openness to listen.
  • You’re uncovering some of their most basic questions.
  • You find out whether they’re open to a real conversation.

If they are, you can go forward with it at the right time, in the right way, and with time to pray it through and bone up on your answers.

They’ll still have that invisible translator stuck in their ears, but that’s okay, so do you. We all do, in our own ways. If you’re both open to listening, you might both be able to re-translate your messages so they can actually get through. If they’re not open to talking about it, that’s on them, not on you.

Following Jesus’ Example

Beyond all that, you’re also following Jesus’ example. In Matthew 12:20 the leaders of the synagogue asked, “Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath?” He answered with a question that showed they cared more about a sheep than about a man.

In Matthew 15:1 the religious leaders asked Jesus why He broke the tradition of the elders. He turned around and asked why they “made void the word of God” — and punctuated the point with, “You hypocrites!” Nicodemus asks Him a series of questions, and Jesus’ final response is, “Are you the teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?”

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These people had questions for Jesus about religion. He answered with questions about them. “Do you realize how hypocritical you are? Do you see you’re not as brilliant as you thought you were?”

That was Jesus. I wouldn’t push anyone that hard myself, not without a lot of time leading up to it, and a lot of experience with the given people. Otherwise I mostly want to find out whether they’re open to listening.

These are just a couple ways to stay out of the Stupid Half-Answer Trap. I’m sure there are many others. Maybe the most important thing to remember is that it’s okay not to answer right there and then. But if you do, take a moment first and think about those invisible Translator Device earbuds in their ears. Think about how it might distort what you say. Then answer wisely.


Tom Gilson (@TomGilsonAuthor) is a senior editor with The Stream and the author or editor of six books, including the highly acclaimed Too Good To Be False: How Jesus’ Incomparable Character Reveals His Reality.

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