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Category: Proverbs

Three words only the smartest people can say

Current events can be hard on one’s mental health. Reports of terrorism, racism, and other insanities flash across our TV and computer screens faster than we can follow. We’re only a decade and a half into the twenty-first century, yet already so much has changed that we hardly know how to make sense of it.

But it doesn’t matter; we don’t have to think for ourselves because there are others to do that for us. For every headline in traditional and online media, there is an endless parade of experts proclaiming an endless parade of sure-fire solutions.

Some of these people are really smart.

But the more I read, watch, and listen to them, the more I believe this: if their confident solutions were given the free rein they desire, the crises would not be solved but in fact could be made worse.

Cynical? Perhaps.

Still, it got me thinking: why do so many of us listen to them?

I think our hunger for such content goes deeper than simply seeking support for positions we hold dear. I think it’s because, dating all the way back to the Enlightenment (~1600s–1700s), our western society has put more and more trust in human reason and effort until we’ve come to believe we can fix virtually every problem. Over time, this belief has led to increased research and knowledge and, in turn, more and more people claiming with certainty that they have the answers to every ill: Solution A will end this problem; Solution B will end that one.

Yet hardly anyone among them—or among us, their listeners—ever says, “I don’t know.”

Would that be the worst thing anyone could say? Why are we so afraid to say it?

I think it’s because doing so is admitting we have limited knowledge and power—an admission which flies in the face of our “can-do” American humanism. Even our Christian culture claims that we can do all things “through him who gives us strength” (Phil. 4:13), as if that verse were about our own achievement and not about Jesus. We desperately fight appearing ignorant or helpless by offering an opinion on every subject, even if we truly don’t know anything about it.

Our national motto seems to be: Better to say something stupid with certainty than to say nothing at all.

Yet this attitude runs counter to God’s ancient wisdom, which states, “Even fools are thought wise if they keep silent, and discerning if they hold their tongues” (Proverbs 17:28). This proverb contains a truth so deep and enduring that it’s been reworded many times since; one paraphrase is, “Better to shut your mouth and be thought a fool, than to open it and remove all doubt.”*

Indeed, it takes great courage and wisdom to say, “I don’t know” and really mean it. For public personalities, doing so surely would be the end of their interview invitations from the media – but such a refreshing change to the rest of us.

The more I thought about this rhetorical device of admitting we don’t know, the more I began see its merits.

It’s disarming. In the marketplace of media attention, a quick, strident “rush to judgment” tends to get more reactions – and ratings – than a slower response which has been thoughtfully considered and verified. This reality encourages media personalities and their guests to react to each situation more quickly and stridently than to the last one, even before any facts are known. Such reactions can spill over into the general populace and stir up conflicts among neighbors, coworkers, close relatives, and members of the body of Christ, often based on speculation rather than truth.

However, saying “I don’t know” tends to defuse tension, nip quibble-matches in the bud, and open up more honest and meaningful discussions about the issue at hand.

It’s authentic. We invest much time and energy in trying to present our best faces to the world. We put on masks (in social media, these masks are called “profiles”) and try to sound intelligent, insightful, and confident. We don’t actually have to be these things; appearance is good enough.

But saying “I don’t know” rips off the mask. It indicates that our own views probably have no more merit than anyone else’s, and invites others to express their views in return. It takes the focus off of the self and affirms the old saying that the more we learn, the more we see how much we still don’t know.

It’s vulnerable. Human reason and scientific inquiry are just as fallible as anything else: although they can and do greatly increase knowledge, they still can’t unlock every last secret of the universe. Try as we might, as long as we are on this earth we will never fully understand the mind of God (Isaiah 55:7-8), nor will we ever solve all of the heart-breaking problems in the world. The root source of these problems is sin, and the only solution is the one who has conquered sin.

So saying “I don’t know” is a reminder of our smallness, our need for God—individually, culturally, and globally. It takes vulnerability to admit that we still can’t fix everything; we still don’t know it all.

So what should Christians do? Should we say “I don’t know” in the sense that we abdicate from the public forum altogether?

Well, not necessarily. Especially if we feel a specific leading to do so, I think it’s good to be informed about, and involved in, what is happening around us—seeking God’s wisdom as diligently as possible, and sharing his grace in any way we can.

But even more, it’s critical to remember that Jesus said: “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36, NIV). We are citizens not of earth but of heaven, and eventually any wisdom we espouse will fade in the light of his truth.

Therefore, I suggest admitting, to God and to each other: “I don’t know.” Because we really don’t. We may know how to do some good, but we don’t know how to permanently end racism, terrorism, or poverty. We don’t know how to stop all violence and evil. We don’t know how to heal a broken world.

Only God does.

I’m not saying we should give up on trying to solve problems, nor am I saying every attempt to take action is always wrong.

I’m only saying that before we do anything else, our very first step should be to fall on our knees and pray, “I don’t know” – a step we should repeat frequently, even if (and especially if) we try to take any specific actions to help.

This three-word prayer is by far the wisest, most effective first response to every problem—because it opens us up to God’s wisdom instead of our own.

That’s why it’s three words only the smartest people can say.


* This sentiment is often attributed to Abraham Lincoln or Mark Twain. However, according to, the first documented variation of it appeared in 1907, “Mrs. Goose, Her Book” by Maurice Switzer, page 29, Moffat, Yard & Company, New York (“It is better to remain silent at the risk of being thought a fool, than to talk and remove all doubt of it”), while other attributions of similar sayings – including those naming Lincoln or Twain as the original source – lack substantive documentation

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Heart check on bitterness

Blog BitternessFor months now, the news has been filled with stories of the destructive power of bitterness.

In local communities, neo-bullies force political correctness on any who disagree, sometimes with verbal or emotional violence. Across the U.S., cities erupt in frustration and rage, and many may never recover. In the Middle East, Christians are slaughtered for their faith, and my country’s perceived response is indifference. And we, the body of Christ, respond not by crying out to the Prince of Peace for help, but by launching grenades of hate and shame at each other because we can’t agree on the causes of and solutions to these tragedies.

In no way do I want to judge or diminish all of this suffering and chaos, but in each case—including the infighting among Christ-followers–I see offenses of bitterness beneath it all (Hebrews 12:15) And the terrible fallout is not only individual but also collective—with familial, societal, and even global implications.

The pain of it has filled me with confusion and anger—along with a wish to climb to the heavens and shout: “Stop!” I’ve longed to find some verse I could post to convince everyone to put away bitterness and give life instead of death.

Funny thing is, Scripture doesn’t always give me what I’m looking for. Sometimes it gives me something completely different.

Just before I started this blog, as I was reading through Proverbs, suddenly one verse punched me in the liver:

“Each heart knows its own bitterness, and no one else can share its joy.” (Proverbs 14:10)

I tried to move on, but those words kept drilling into my ears. The irony was obvious: I wanted to find a verse to convict others of their bitterness, but God gave me a verse to convict me of mine. I wanted to use God’s word to go all prophetic on everyone else, but instead God’s word went all prophetic on me. I wanted to call out the hearts all around me, but this verse called out my own.

I hate it God when does that.

I think the reason this verse hit me so hard is that it is both an observation and a warning.

Let me explain.

Bitterness says, “I don’t deserve the bad that has happened to me.” Much of my life has felt that way—like one undeserved land mine after another. Forgive me if you’ve heard my backstory: broken by my parents’ divorce and battered by nonstop bullying, I dropped out of and flunked sixth grade, struggled through my teens and twenties and then, in adulthood, lost my dream job, my postgraduate degree, and my future all at once – the rotten cherry on top.

Yeah, I could be bitter. Surely, I told myself, I had a right to hold on to some of that rancor.

But God says no (Hebrews 12:15, Ephesians 4:31, James 3:14). Apparently, he can see something I can’t about the great dangers of bitterness—even the tiniest little bit of it. And as I’ve watched the world erupt into chaos, I’ve started to see those dangers too.

So instead of what I wanted—a verse to launch like a hand grenade at what others are doing—I found this verse, which forced me to look within and strongly convicted me of what I myself must do:

Stop denying and start acknowledging the existence and the degree of my bitterness. From Proverbs 14:10 I take two main points: 1) Only the heart can see the bitterness within; and 2) Only the heart knows the full depth of that bitterness. No one can see into another’s heart and detect its bitterness, or measure how much is there. Face it, we are all pretty good at throwing up a façade of “Who, me? I’m not bitter” to fool others and even ourselves, excusing and denying our bitterness while it festers for years or even decades, consuming us from within. We say we’re not bitter; we’re just a little miffed, upset, teed off. We even give our bitterness watered-down names like “resentment” or “grudges.” But after years of coddling those grudges like pets – when in truth they are wild beasts which will devour me – I believe I am finally starting to admit and deal with my bitterness. Which leads to the next point…

Understand that my bitterness will destroy me. Many scriptures teach that bitterness ends in destruction and death. Proverbs 14:10 is part of a longer passage, Proverbs 14:8-15, which is a type of chiasm (sometimes called a chiasma or chiasmus) – a mirrored parallel structure which introduces words or concepts and then reverses them (for example, “All for one and one for all”). In this type of chiasm, the most important point is placed in the center for emphasis. So verses 8 and 15 contrast wisdom vs. foolishness; verses 9 and 14 contrast sinfulness vs. uprightness; verses 10 and 13 contrast bitterness vs. joy; and verses 11 and 12 contrast the way of life vs. the way of death:

 The house of the wicked will be destroyed, but the tent of the upright will flourish.

There is a way that appears to be right, but in the end it leads to death.

These two verses are the center – the most important point – of the chiasm. The writer wanted to emphasize that the righteous behaviors in the surrounding verses, like wisdom and thoughtfulness, will surely lead to life, while sinful choices like foolishness and bitterness will certainly lead to death. So there is only one remedy…

Allow God to clean out my bitter heart and give me a grateful one.            IMG_0020Bitterness never goes away on its own; it is defeated only when God barges into our hearts, entering rooms we wish he wouldn’t. Fortunately, he is fully able to break open all the darkest cabinets and deepest closets, dig into the muck and mire, and clean everything out. It may be true that I haven’t “deserved” the bad things I’ve received in life—all of the rejections, losses, and failures; this is the voice of bitterness. However, the opposite is also true: I certainly haven’t “deserved” even one of the good things I’ve received either—not a single awesome sunset or a single amazing moonrise—and yet I keep receiving them, day after day; this is the voice of gratitude. Bitterness, if fed, destroys gratitude, bringing death to the soul. Yet gratitude, if fed, overcomes bitterness—bringing life and healing.

As I write this, the news is revealing yet another new situation involving deep-seated bitterness, threatening to destroy lives. There is no panacea to alleviate all the pain and turmoil, and there is nothing I can do to resolve it either. Bitterness can be uprooted only as each person opens his or her heart to a gracious God, and I can’t make anyone do that.

I can, however, begin by opening my own heart, giving Jesus the keys to every dark, decaying room, and allowing the King of Kings to start cleaning out the bitterness within.

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