Preaching Articles

I’m a student of preaching and a sort of morbid fan of politics. One of the frustrating observations I have across both of those mediums is the allergic reaction people have to the words “I don’t know.”

There is something explicitly or implicitly understood that public personalities need to have an authoritative position on everything. I don’t understand this. Since I’m always learning and growing, I’m pretty sure I’m the smartest today I’ve ever been (which is not saying much). But part of the process of learning and growing is becoming painfully aware of how much you don’t know. For my part, I am increasingly comfortable with saying “I don’t know” when I don’t know the answer to a thing.

I do not mean this in some sort of postmodern hazy way, as nobody can really know what to think about anything because there is no authority beyond my own account of my own story. There are plenty of things I feel that I know, plenty of things I think I can state with authority. But I don’t think you should trust anybody who speaks authoritatively about everything.

Some variation of the question of why God heals some and doesn’t heal others/why God answers this prayer this way and doesn’t answer others comes up all the time. I believe that anything good God does to interrupt the course of history with His good future is a marker of what’s to come when creation is restored. But why this comes for some and not for others? I DON’T KNOW.

I know that the full revelation of God is in the person of Jesus Christ, that what I see and hear of Him is the defining answer to the question of what God is like. But when I get to a strange text in the Old Testament that doesn’t correspond easily with my assumptions, I do not attempt to blunt the sharp edges of a narrative to fit my framework. I can say, “That text is weird to me. I’m not sure exactly what that means.”

Evangelical leaders get into interviews where they are treated like experts, and they are pitched a question (ahem, not naming any names) about whether or not this candidate or that candidate is a proper Christian. What an easy, obvious opportunity to say “I don’t know”—as if there is anything we can know with authority. It’s that we are not God and thus not in charge of who’s in and who’s out. But believing their own press, believing themselves to be “authorities,” they proceed to answer questions that cannot and should not be answered.

Tragedy strikes. Disaster befalls us. A child or a mother or a father dies unexpectedly. A bleak diagnosis is given. It seems it is time to speak of the unspeakable. In one of the most wrenching scenes in Scripture, Jesus’ friend Lazarus has died, and Jesus shows up four days later. All eyes are on the prophet-sage-master teacher, the wisest of the wise, awaiting a word that will heal, a word that will explain, a word that will comfort. If there is anything one could rightly expect from the man who delivered the Sermon on the Mount, it would be the gift of words.

And yet, with the weight of expectation towering over him, those closest to Lazarus are given the gift of the wordlessness of God. The answer they were given is the contorted face of God, the hot tears of Jesus. There was nothing to be said. It was a time for grief, not for answers.

Yet, why is it that as leaders we never seem to recognize the moment when there are no words to be said, no comfort to be offered, no solutions to be given? Sometimes the sacred thing, the wise thing, the compassionate thing, the best thing, the anointed thing—is to shut up. And if there is an answer that is needed, let it be in your tears or in your presence; let it be in the witness of a man or woman who has the courage and the wisdom to say “I don’t know.” Some questions are not opportunities; they are temptations—temptations to play God, temptations to play the expert, temptations to play doctor, temptations to build the platform or the reputation. And if there is anything that would scare me, it would be to utter words in a scenario where God Himself would not dare offer them.

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Mitchell Leonard

commented on Nov 5, 2014

Thank you pastor, Very well said.

Tim Johnson

commented on Nov 5, 2014

Excellent article. We charge an issue when we are called simply to stand. We believe we have to fix things with our great oratory skills when the Great Physician would comfort with just a touch. Perhaps it is not that "God Himself would not dare offer" words, but that He has the wisdom to know what people really need in that situation. I am good at the second most important part of this. I am a good student of human nature. I need to improve at the most important part: Being a good student of what the Holy Spirit is saying.

William Milam

commented on Nov 5, 2014

It is incredibly to the able to answer a question with, "I don't know." In fact, when think we DO KNOW we just might discover that were wrong. My experience has taught me to readily admit that "I don't know." and when we do know we don't have to admit that we do. If someone were to ask me if, " and so is a Christian" my answer would be, "I don't know. I DO know that Jesus died for my sins and for the sins of world and that whoever calls upon the name of Lord shall be saved." Great article.

William Milam

commented on Nov 5, 2014

It is incredibly HUMBLING to to answer a question with, "I don't know." In fact, when think we DO KNOW we just might discover that were wrong. My experience has taught me to readily admit that "I don't know." and when we do know we don't have to admit that we do. If someone were to ask me if, " and so is a Christian" my answer would be, "I don't know. I DO know that Jesus died for my sins and for the sins of world and that whoever calls upon the name of Lord shall be saved." Great article.

Richard Scotland

commented on Nov 5, 2014

Is this a good article - I do know - it is! Great food for thought, thanks.

Michael Dissmore

commented on Nov 5, 2014

Very well stated. I'm amazed at how often people ask me for advice on things ranging from auto repair to home decorating. Many times I'll answer with I don't know. It's amazing the looks of shock and disappointment I sometimes receive because I didn't have an answer and admitted it. I don't think people are accustomed to pastors that don't pretend to have all the answers. I also agree that there are scriptures that none of us can fully grasp. Who can know the mind of God? It's the right thing to do to admit we don't know. On the other hand, if the answer is available, it is our duty to find the answer and go back and give that answer to the questioner. In that case, answering I don't know when the answer is knowable is just being lazy.

Lawrence Webb

commented on Nov 5, 2014

"If I tell you any more about this, I will be telling you more than I know." When appropriate, this is my variation, if someone asks me to go beyond my first answer on a thorny issue. In a Bible class years ago, a student asked a question, and the professor said those three magic words, "I don't know." The student continued, "But don't you think [so and so]?" The professor said, "I didn't say YOU didn't know. I said, I don't know." Of course, neither of this examples is appropriate when someone is hurting, spiritually or emotionally.

Gary Gustman

commented on Nov 5, 2014

I don't know, is a tightrope we have to walk when preaching funerals. I simply won't usher anyone into, or exclude them from heaven anymore, because "I don't know" . A wise old man once said "It took me 80 years to learn to say three simple words, "I don't know."

Dawn Hooper

commented on Nov 5, 2014

Something good for us all to hear and learn.

Jeff Glenn

commented on Nov 5, 2014

I use those words quite often!

Dr. David Hallum

commented on Nov 5, 2014

How about those other three words that need to be said loud and often? "I love you!"

Gerald Graham

commented on Nov 5, 2014

Good article. I once said those three words to a friend discussing biology and evolution. Years later I came across an article on the question I didn't know and was able to share it with my friend. It was fun to learn and share what I learned with a much more willing listener. Had I been a know it all or tried to bluff my way through it He wouldn't have listened for much longer...

Steve Dunning

commented on Nov 5, 2014

Great article Pastor Martin, I learned this lesson a few years back and it's good to see you and the other pastor's are familiar with it. I don't feel quite as dumb... kidding. Any way thanks for sharing! God Bless!

Gene Cobb

commented on Nov 5, 2014

Good words Pastor Martin. Sermon Central please use the writings of this Pastor more often. He is a breathe of fresh air! I tell my congregation all the time you can ask me any question you want, as long as I can say "I don't know."

Mark Hicks

commented on Nov 5, 2014

FINALLY! The Truth! When asked something i don't know. I answer, to the shock of the congregation, "I Don't Know" ..."But, I know the One that does." Thank You So Much For Puncturing the Preachers Pride we see all too often, especially on TV. I love and pray for these brothers to have the wisdom of God to say "I don't know", when they don't. No more "snow-jobs" the youth of this generation hate it, that is why they seek out "Real" believers, wherever they may be. Blessings!

Tony Bland

commented on Nov 5, 2014

Wow... I don't believe i have ever say I don't know, and i doubt i ever will. I may say i have not study that yet, let me get back to you, let me look into it, but I don't know way. rather than say i don't know why not learn

John Aiyenowo

commented on Oct 31, 2021

"...I have not study that yet" is an admission of ignorance of the subject at the point the question came up. It's not weakness or laziness to admit your limited knowledge of the subject at the time of interrogation of the topic. Rather, it's humbling and powerful. No one knows it all and no one should be ashamed to say "I don't know". Going back to learn and provide answers later does not erase the fact that you don't know ab initio. Do I smell a tinge of pride the "...I don't I have ever say I don't know, and I doubt I ever will" response? May be. We don't seek power but solutions to questions and when we don't have the solution (which only God has anyway) let's be humble enough to say so.

Tony Bland

commented on Nov 5, 2014

also... i don't know is weak not powerful

Arthur Lerma

commented on Nov 6, 2014

Awesome, truth is always the answer, "I don't know" is what comes out from my heart when someone asks a question that is so very important to them, and I do not have the answer, how could or why should I pretend to be a Mr Know it all.

Marco Malilo Kaluma

commented on Nov 7, 2014

Be blessed Pastor for reminding us, we need to be spiritually sensitive to want we are supposed to say at a particular circumstance ...Jamie Brown once Said we should know "When to speak up (and when to shut Up)".

John Matthew Callanta

commented on Nov 18, 2014

Thank you pastor! I think this is applicable as well with family matters. Sometimes we need to be silent if our spouse, children doesnt look for any answer as "fathers" or sometimes mother tends to be authoritative in all aspects... They just need our presence,hug and kiss...

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