Unlock the Magic of "I Don't Know"
Growing up, I remember hearing that the three hardest words to say are “I love you.” Looking back, I’m pretty sure that’s just a plot device used by 1990s romantic comedy screenwriters to create dramatic tension where there wasn’t any. Recently, I was listening to a Freakonomics podcast making a pretty convincing case that the actual three hardest words to say are “I don’t know.” “I don’t know” are magic words like “thank you” and “please.” Learn to utter this three-word incantation, and you might save yourself a world of trouble and heartache! But “I don’t know” is also a hard phrase for us! Because “I don’t know” confronts us with the limits of our knowledge, which isn’t always an easy thing for us to admit.
Still, I’m thinking we could use a lot more “I don’t know” these days. See if you can relate to this:
I was perusing Facebook the other day and noticed a friend posted an interesting but lengthy article. The first response below the link began, “I didn’t read this article, but…” and the commenter proceeded to write three full paragraphs about…I guess what they thought the article was going to say based on the headline?
Or, imagine this scenario, described to me by a ministry mentor: A controversial new book was introduced at a church Bible study. Nervous chatter began to get back to the Bible study leader about what’s in this book. “Well, did you read it?” asks the Bible study leader. “I don’t need to read it to know I disagree with it!” comes the response.
A college professor opens up class discussion over that week’s assigned reading. A student raises her hand in the front row. When called upon, she begins by saying, “I didn’t actually finish all the reading, but…” and she proceeds to share her opinion about the reading…that she didn’t do.
The Milky Way Galaxy is about 100,000 light years across. That means it takes light – which moves a lot faster than you and me – 100,000 years to travel all the way across the galaxy. Our solar system is estimated to be about 1.87 light years across. That means, even in our own galaxy, there’s whole lot more “I don’t know” out there than there is “I know."
In the face of all of that mystery, why do we often feel the need to have an opinion about everything?
Worse, where does that impulse come from that says, “I haven’t read the article, but…”? You mean you haven’t done the bare minimum to educate yourself on a subject, but you still feel the need to wade into the conversation?
For those of us in ministry, this dilemma is compounded by the fact that we are presumed to be experts in matters related to faith, religion, biblical studies, theology, pastoral care, church history, Ancient Near Eastern cultures, human nature, Graeco-Roman social customs, sociology, conflict resolution, gerontology, and a whole slurry of other subjects. Subjects that – hopefully – most of us know at least enough (and sometimes, just enough) about to know that we’re not experts. I mean, we may have informed opinions about a number of things! But we’re not really experts on all…or most…or any of them.
But, to be confessional for a moment, it feels really good to be consulted as an expert on these things. I love it when people ask me for my opinion! And I love to share it! It’s flattering and it feels good! As a bonus, it stokes my ego-driven self-perception that I am a very smart individual whose opinion about things is very, very important.
However, it doesn’t take very long to reach the edge of my actual knowledge and the depth of my thinking about most subjects until I find that I’m doing a lot of speculating. Speculating isn’t necessarily bad sometimes! It can be a valuable part of the process of learning together in community. But, a lot of times, “I don’t know” is probably better.
Here are three reasons “I don’t know” might just become your best friend if you’re in ministry.
1. “I don’t know” helps us get used to practicing reliance upon God. Let’s face it, ministry is a little uncomfortable. As Jesus trains his disciples, he’s always putting them in situations that put them a little out of their depth. As far as I can tell, he still does! How else would we grow? Learning to say “I don’t know” can help us approach our ministry from a posture of faith, in which we’re always looking to God for help. It can also get us used to not feeling the pressure to be the “answer person” for all questions of faith and life, but rather a guide who helps point others toward the Source of all wisdom and knowledge.
2. “I don’t know” helps us remain life-long learners. I’ll turn things over to our friend Steve Levitt from the same Freakonomics podcast episode mentioned above. He’s talking about the observed behavior in many children and adults that, rather than saying “I don’t know,” they will “fake it” as if they know the answer.
The thing about always faking is that if you fake like you know the answer, you don’t have the freedom to explore other possibilities. But if you actually care about the outcome and the truth, saying ‘I don’t know’ is critical. One thing we’ve learned is that the only way to learn is through feedback. That whether you’re a human being, an animal or an organization, the way that you learn is by trying different things and seeing the outcome when you try different approaches, and comparing those outcomes. 
3. “I don’t know” keeps us focused on the pursuit of God’s truth, and not our attachment to our own opinions. As Steve Levitt references in the quote above, those who are interested in the pursuit of the truth are going to have to get comfortable saying, “I don’t know.” If you’re like me, this is a critical spiritual habit in ministry. Because you know what? I really like my opinions. I think they’re great (and right!) and I’m quite attached to them. I need all the reminders I can that God’s truth is much, much bigger than any one person’s opinion – especially my own. “I don’t know” is the gateway into my confession that I am constantly in need of God to expand, challenge, and confront my opinions about God in favor of God’s truth.
Three magic words that could save us a lot of heartache! And you know what goes great with “I don’t know”? This four-word invitation: “I don’t know. Let’s explore that together.”