In the past couple of years I have encountered several intelligent, approximately college-age people who want to talk about religion or the Bible. They have good questions, and they really appreciate and enjoy getting answers from someone who has thought their questions through. The conversations are vivacious and stimulating both to the inquirer and to the mentor, whether that is myself or someone I know. But I have learned that not all inquirers seek answers for the same purpose, and eventually that shapes where the conversations and even the relationship go.
There are at least three different kinds of religious inquirers in this stage of life.
One kind of person (I hope that this person exists) inquires because she really wants to know the truth. She is dissatisfied with what she has been told to date, and she is willing to pay a price to get the real stuff. Her stated interest in getting answers is also her actual interest.
A second kind of person already believes that she knows what is true. In fairness, she may be genuinely interested in learning more and getting confusing matters cleared up, but underlying those interests are certain core principles that she holds sincerely and is not seriously considering giving up. But she has a problem: if she expresses her settled beliefs boldly and lives accordingly, she will face criticism, tension, and even rejection from people that she loves. This might come from two sides at once from people who disagree with each other, one side taking issue with this belief and the other with that. Though she is asking questions as if to seek truth, what she is really seeking is an intellectual silver bullet that, when fired, will convince everyone in her life to affirm all her core beliefs and everything that she wants to do—and also, at least as important, to get along with each other.
A third kind of person also already believes that she knows what is true, but she is presently pretending to herself that she does not. She anxiously trying to flee what she believes to be true, because it causes her pain and/or because she is not living according to it. When she asks questions, she is only interested in answers that might quiet her own conscience, justify her departure from what she is afraid is true, or refute what she fears might be true of herself and her place in existence.
These types may not be exclusive; it is probable that a person may fit more than one description, perhaps going one way in one area and another way in another.
When these three kinds of inquirers approach me, at first they all look the same. I am an eager guy, so I naturally assume that they are all of the first kind. But if the person has the stuff of the second or third kind in them, that eventually becomes clear. We exhaust the extent of their interest in the truth for the truth's sake, and we hit a limit. Telltale signs include the same question over and over even though I've already answered it, endless debate that goes nowhere and serves no purpose, an incessant drift toward relationship problems and advice, and general staleness.
I am learning that I need to pick up on the signs earlier so that I may address the thing that the person actually wants from me even if he or she has not put it into words. This is for the inquirer's own good as well as preserving my time. I believe that for many seekers, the thing that they need first is not theological truth but to be honest with themselves about their true intentions and motives. A good deal less self-deception would go a long way. They might discover then that they are not really all that interested in what I have to say. But if they are truly interested, then what I have to reveal about God and his ways might actually do them some good.
Jesus had a knack for this. He did it with an outcast woman at a well, which went one way, and with a wealthy young community leader, which went another. Not surprisingly, he knew what he was doing.