Prayers, questions, and the XY problem

“A prudent question is one-half of wisdom.”

—Francis Bacon

I love beautiful questions. While the saying may be true that “there’s no such thing as a stupid question,” it certainly does not follow that every question is beautiful.

In the recent Sunday Gospels, Our Lord has answered several questions posed to Him by those who are not His followers. After meditating on these passages for a bit, and on many of the other questions that Christ is asked in the Gospel, I realized that no small number questioning Our Lord are asking entirely the wrong questions.

More troubling, I realized I was asking Him the wrong questions too.

Being a computer programmer by profession, I am daily faced with the task of trying to ask good questions. Asking a good question means the difference between accomplishing the task for that day or not. There is truly an art to this that one tends to learn only upon repeated attempts and corrections from others. Programmers tend to love a good, puzzling question, and disdain badly asked questions. They tend to answer so many questions—through email, on websites, in person—that programmers have categorized problematic question so they can easily be pointed out to the questioner.

Sounds like an XY problem.

One particularly common issue with questions is known as the “XY problem.”

Put simply, the idea is that someone wants to accomplish Y, but instead asks a question about X, because they want to use X to do Y. That is, the questioner doesn’t know how to accomplish Y—their ultimate goal—but they believe that if they could only accomplish X, then they could then use that as the solution to Y.

Of course, this is exactly the wrong way to approach the question.

The right question isn’t, “How do I do X?” but rather “how do I do Y?” It is certainly possible that the answer might be X, but how foolhardy to assume that X must be the best way to accomplish Y. After all, if you are about to traverse a desert without a map, maybe the best question isn’t, “where is the next oasis?” but rather, “what’s the best way for me to get to the city on the other side of this desert?” In a word, we must ask questions about our problem not about our perceived solution to that problem.

We all make this mistake. Our Lord’s interlocutors frequently do. The Gospel from the 27th Sunday notes:

The Pharisees approached Jesus and asked, "Is it lawful for a husband to divorce his wife?" They were testing him.”

Behold a classic example of a Pharisaical XY problem. What is at the heart of this question? That is, why would a man wish to divorce his wife? Presumably because he is unhappy in his marriage. What is the Pharisees solution to this problem? Divorce. A neat solution indeed, but precisely the wrong one. What is the right question to ask Our Lord? “How can we have happy, holy marriages?” Our Lord, ever merciful, answers both their original question and the question they ought to have asked, by reminding them what marriage truly is: the union of two persons, whereby they become one, inseparable by nothing save death itself.

The Gospel from this past Sunday sees another question posed to Our Blessed Lord.

As Jesus was setting out on a journey, a man ran up, knelt down before him, and asked him, "Good teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life?"

Jesus first tells the young man, “You know the commandments: You shall not kill;
you shall not commit adultery;…

We are told that Jesus looked at Him with love, and tells him, “You are lacking in one thing. Go, sell what you have, and give to the poor and you will have treasure in heaven; then come, follow me.”

The young man, we are told, goes away sad. We don’t know the young man’s name, but had he asked the right question, we would likely count him among the apostles as a great saint. What question ought he have asked? Not “what must I do” but “how can I do it?” The young man almost certainly knew what was required of him—poverty— but he didn’t know how he could live a life of poverty. The young man lets this question go unasked—though the Answer stands before him—looking at him with love.

Again and again in the Gospels we see the wrong questions asked, or asked in bad faith. In John 6, ‘The Jews quarreled among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us His flesh to eat?”’ After all the miracles He wrought in their presence, rather their question ought to have been, “Lord, I believe. Will you help me in my unbelief?”

He is asked, “Is it lawful to pay taxes to Caesar?” by those who wish to trick Him.

By Pilate, “What is truth?” though he has no desire to know Him. And “Are you the king of the Jews?” though he has no desire to serve Him.

“Who hit you?” by those who have no wish to comfort Him.

“Are you then the Son of God?” by those who have no desire to worship Him.

And finally, on the cross, “Are you not the Messiah?” by one who wished not to be anointed by the mercy of the Anointed One.

The problem, not your solution

If we examine our prayers, we may find that we too ask God for things using the XY pattern.

“Lord, why have you given me this cross?” instead of “ Lord, what must I do to bear this cross well?”

“Lord, can you stop my children from fighting each other?” instead of, “Lord, can you show me why the children are not at peace with each other, and help me to change my behavior, if it is the cause?”

“Lord, can you take this person out of my life, who always causes me to be uncharitable?” instead of, “Lord, what virtues do you wish me to learn through this person? How can I better imitate you?”

It turns out that my prayers often take this form. I have already figured out the solution, and I am helpfully alerting God what that solution is. Then, if I don’t get what I want, in the way I want it, I may become disappointed and sullen. I may forget that I am like the rich young man and that God looks at me with love. If my prayers do not come about in the way I wish, it is not because God wanted me to have less, it’s that He wanted me to have more.

I might be satisfied for a less than perfect solution to my prayers; God is not.

The beautiful questions in prayer are always—always—answered by God in the same words with which he answered the leper He made clean: “I do will it.”

“What father among you would hand his son a snake when he asks for a fish?” Sometimes, maybe often, unwittingly, we don’t ask for a fish. We ask for a snake. But God loves each of us too much to give us anything less than the perfect—even if we ask Him.

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