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.
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 http://quoteinvestigator.com/2010/05/17/remain-silent/, 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