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 apparently 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, like 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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Dean Johnson

commented on Jun 1, 2012

I think this is a good article, but I don't know.

Nancy M Hitt

commented on Jun 1, 2012

Not only do pastors need to be able to honestly say, "I don't know", so do all Christians. Leading one's congregation to be able to admit to uncertainty and open ended questions instead of grasping madly for a doctrine to assuage their fear is a gift few pastors know how to give their churches. We'd all do well to practice the open honesty of "I don't know" and wait for the Lord to speak instead of filling the silence with ouwor own words instead of His.

Keith B

commented on Jun 1, 2012

I agree that it's ok to say "I need to look at the context of that" or "let me check on that..." but I think people want a leader that is willing to say what truth is and is not. Joel lateen recently was interviewed and responded that he didn't know if MIT Romney was a Christian. That's a shame when the guy with the biggest church in America thinks a Mormon is a Christian. Sometimes people use "I don't know" as a way out.

Michael Morton

commented on Jun 1, 2012

I don't want to make this a political or religious discussion about Romney. However before we decide who is a proper Christian we should realize that men of each religion decided what was to be part of their cannon (of course each religion believes that God is leading them to put in and leave out the correct teachings). I believe in the Protestant version and live by it; I think I'll let God decide whether or not anyone is a proper Christian. It could be that God has a different standard than I do.

Rev. Wayne Claxton

commented on Jun 1, 2012

Just say it without any hesitation or reservation. It'll work out for the good when all things are considered.

Sterling Franklin

commented on Jun 1, 2012

Bad scenario 1: Not knowing, and jumping to a wrong conclusion that stands against God's Word (dishonesty and bad discernment); Bad scenario 2: Knowing, but being puffed up and haughty before God (pride); Bad scenario 3: Knowing in part yet not leaving room for appropriate liberty where it is a matter of conscience and not directly against God's Word (overstating); Sometimes-good scenario 1: Not knowing, admitting that you don't know, especially in situations that are very complex and have room for flexibility (honesty, even in 'gray areas' or matters of conscience, though this can be a result of laziness, which isn't good); Sometimes-good scenario 2: Not knowing where you can know, admitting it, and quickly going to find out from God's Word (honesty with discipline and an open ear); Best scenario: To know where you are able to know, to respond with clarity, grace, and confidence, being prepared by knowing the Word of God AND in situations in which there is uncertainty, to admit that and be able to state why with the Word of God (a workman approved).

Robert Sickler

commented on Jun 1, 2012

Very good article. But, I would add two things. 1) If you have an opinion then be sure folks understand you do not know but have an opinion. 2) if it something you might find an answer for then say: I do not know but will try to get you an answer. Sometimes people will take an "I don't know" as being your way of brushing them off, or not considering them worth the time to give an answer to.

Chris Surber

commented on Jun 1, 2012

Good article. I would only piggy back on Robert Sickler's comments by saying that church leaders in particular need to have an answer. It may not be authoritative in areas that you cannot possibly know the final answer, such as in his example of how an individual we don't know lives or does not live for Christ, but we need to not cop out to I don't now.

Ephrem Hagos

commented on Jun 2, 2012

Excellent article even if "I don't know" can be used as an excuse for one's own neglect of being truly born again in the image of God, a.k.a., life-giving Spirit, and growing increasingly into his grace and knowledge.

Derrick Tuper

commented on Jun 2, 2012

Good article. I struggle with this sometimes as a Minister thinking I have to have an answer for every spiritual question. I agree with some of the comments already made. We shouldn't use it as a cop-out, we should not use it as a brush off, if we're not sure but have an opinion we should speak it. If we don't know we should try to find out. We should be leary to be quick with what we think we know unless we're very sure we know the answer. Humility is the key. I try to be very good with this subject. If I'm solid I answer accordingly. If I'm not sure I will say, "I think" or "I believe" and if I don't know I will say, "I don't know; let me get back to you". People are looking highly upon our advice and answers, we shouldn't give them just anything because we're too afraid or prideful to say, "I don't know". It's misleading and dangerous to pass opinionated answers off as truth.

John E Miller

commented on Jun 5, 2012

"Not till the loom is silent and the shuttles cease to fly, Will God unrole the canvass and explain the reason why, The dark threads are as needful inthe weaver's skilful hand, As the threads of gold and silver in the pattern HE has planned.

Bryan Thompson

commented on Jun 7, 2012

While I appreciate that "I don't know" is an appropriate answer when in all honesty it is the truth, I don't think that should hinder us from seeking the answers, nor do I think it should be used as a gutless, politically correct dodge when we know the answer, but we also know the truth will be unpopular. However, it is often the case that we give bad answers to honest questions because in our pride we don't want to utter those three words.

George Warner

commented on Aug 8, 2020

Some relevant old old maxims. Silence seldom does harm. Knowledge is most dangerous when it is superficial. Knowledge is useless except good sense directs it. Never explain, your friends will understand and your enemies will not believe you anyhow. Speak fitly or be silent wisely. Better say nothing than not to the purpose. Confucius said, When you know a thing to know that you Know it, and when you're not sure of a thing to know that you don't really know it. That's Knowledge.

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