One difficult lesson I have learned in apologetics and evangelism is to identify the question beneath the question. To be honest, I have spent considerable time answering questions I thought people were asking, but because I was operating under false assumptions, I missed the heart of their query. Have you ever made this same mistake?

Here are three examples from my own life and ministry, and the brief lesson I learned from each of them:

1. The Question Beneath the Problem of Evil

A number of years ago, a 20-something asked me about why God allows evil. Mistakenly thinking that the heart of her question was intellectual, I proceeded to give her the classical free will defense. She raised questions, and I continually offered what I thought were reasonable responses…until she started to cry. In my insensitivity and callousness to her personal hurt, I ended up doing more harm than good.

Grappling with the philosophical question of evil and suffering is critical, but in this case, I missed the deeper emotional issues at the heart of her question. This is why whenever someone asks about evil and suffering, it is wise to first ask back: “Of all the questions you can ask about God, why that one?” This helps clarify the question beneath the question and to reveal whether the real issue is emotional or intellectual. And then when you know the heart of the issue, you can respond appropriately.

2. The Question Beneath Sexual Identity

As a speaker and teacher, I have had many conversations with young people about sexual identity. Not too long ago a young man approached me after a lecture on my book Same-Sex Marriage. While his questions were about Leviticus 18 and whether all sins are equal, I sensed there were deeper issues at play in his personal life.

And so I simply spent time listening to him and affirming him as a human being whom God deeply loves. After awhile, he opened up about his struggles with same-sex attraction. He had never shared with another adult before because he was afraid of how he might be treated. Although we spent time wrestling with the important theological issues he raised, there were deeper relational questions he was asking under the surface: Is my sin worse than others? Does God really love me? Will people reject me if they discover who I really am? Do I belong?

This is why in conversations about sexual identity we must remember that beneath the question is a person with a story. He or she may be wrestling with questions of identity and belonging and needs to know first that you care about him or her.

3. The Question Beneath the Problem of Hell

Recently at a conference, I got into a lengthy conversation with a young man about Hell. He had tons of questions about the nature of Hell and how a loving God could send someone there. He didn’t believe in God, and so I did my best to help him make sense of how the biblical view of Hell could be both loving and just.

And then later in the conversation he asked a question that got to the heart of the issue: “How can people enjoy Heaven when they have loved ones in Hell?” I sensed there was a question beneath the question, and so I asked him if this was merely an academic issue or whether it was personal. And he shared that his father had recently died as an agnostic. Knowing this changes everything about his questions.

While he was interested in making theological sense of Hell, his deeper issues were personal: How could he enjoy Heaven without his own father? Was he betraying his father by believing in God? How did his own father, who he clearly loved, deserve a fate as horrific as Hell?

The point of this post is not to answer these questions. And it’s not to encourage people to always assume that there’s a deeper question beneath the question. Sometimes there’s not. Sometimes people are just curious. But in my experience, many times there is a deeper emotional, relational, or personal question at the heart of the matter. And unless (and until) we identify the real issue, our words will have little effect.

This is why in spiritual conversations I try to do two things to grasp the underlying issue. First, pray that God would give me wisdom. And second, ask a lot of questions.

Life is too short to be spent answering the wrong questions.

Sean McDowell, Ph.D. is a professor of Christian Apologetics at Biola University, best-selling author, popular speaker, part-time high school teacher, and the Resident Scholar for Summit Ministries, California. Follow him on Twitter: @sean_mcdowell and his blog: seanmcdowell.org, where you can find the original version of this article.