When “I Don’t Know” Is the Best Answer You Can Give
“Aw, isn’t that cute?” I said to Leslie as I hung up the telephone. “This is gonna be fun.”
At the time, I was a fairly new Christian serving on a team of volunteers who contacted visitors after they submitted inquiries on cards at our weekend services. One Sunday, a pleasant and precocious twelve-year-old girl submitted a question, simple and sincere: “I want to know more about Jesus.” When I telephoned her, she invited Leslie and me to her apartment to talk with her and her father about Christ.
Wow, this is a great opportunity! I thought. What could be better than this?
Leslie and I were full of anticipation as we drove to their home the following Friday evening. As her father opened the door and we walked in, I glanced at the coffee table in the living room and saw stacks of heavyweight books. It turns out her dad was a scientist who had spent years studying scholarly articles and weighty tomes attacking the foundations of Christianity.
We sat down at the dining room table for pizza and soft drinks. Soon he was peppering me with tough objections to the reliability of the New Testament, the divinity of Jesus, and the credibility of the Old Testament. He challenged the resurrection and the Trinity. He leveled a lot of arguments against the faith that he had learned in studying the writings of atheists and other critics.
While I was able to answer some of his questions, he kept raising issues that I had never even considered. Before long my head was starting to spin. I felt what I call “spiritual vertigo,” that queasy sense of dizziness and disorientation when someone challenges the core of your faith in a way that you cannot answer. My own faith was starting to quiver.
Have you ever felt spiritual vertigo? If you haven’t, you probably will — and soon, because challenges to the biblical understanding of Jesus are mounting in best-selling books, popular magazines, college classrooms, television documentaries, and on the Internet. If you’re serious about embarking on the unexpected adventure by seizing opportunities to get into spiritual conversations with friends and neighbors, then before long someone is going to level a challenge that you have no idea how to answer.
I kept munching my pizza and sipping my drink, hoping and praying for profound insights to spring into my mind. But I was blank. I wasn’t going to be able to bluff my way through this. That’s when I put down my glass, looked him in the eye, and said the words that instantly had a liberating effect on me.
“Frankly,” I admitted, “I don’t know the answers to those questions.”
Rather than feeling defeated, I suddenly experienced a sense of calm. In that moment, I realized it was okay not to have the answer to every conceivable question at the tip of my tongue. Few people in the world could have extemporaneously responded to the wide-ranging challenges he was raising.
I began to look on the positive side: Here was someone with legitimate objections who was willing to engage in a dialogue about the most important issues of life. And equally important, here was his impressionable daughter sitting by his side, wondering whether Jesus was worth believing in. This was an opportunity!
In circumstances like these, “I don’t know” might very well be the best response we can give. One of my friends, Cliffe Knechtle, author of Give Me an Answer, is an expert in dealing with tough questions about the faith. Part of his ministry involves traveling from university to university, where he spontaneously engages skeptical students and professors who have objections to Christianity. More than once, I’ve seen him step back from a particularly nettlesome attack and give the only appropriate reply: “I… do… not… know,” he says, emphasizing each word.
There are times when the Bible is silent on an issue, and it’s best not to hazard a reply that might not have a scriptural basis. In other instances we have a gap in our knowledge and have no idea how to respond. We don’t want anyone to think we’re stupid or ill-informed, and yet the honest truth is that it’s better to confess ignorance than try to manufacture an explanation out of thin air.
Go ahead, say it out loud: “I… do… not… know.” Now look around. The sky isn’t falling!
But it’s important to note that I didn’t stop there with the scientist and his daughter. “You’ve raised a lot of good issues,” I said at the conclusion of the evening. “But I suspect that after two thousand years, you haven’t come up with the objection that’s finally going to topple Christianity. So let me investigate as honestly as I can and get back to you.”
And sure enough, as I checked into each and every one of his challenges, I found answers that satisfied my heart and mind — without exception. When I looked at the other side of these issues, I found facts, logic, and evidence that once again reinforced my own faith and gave me material to pass along to the scientist.
I’ve lost track of the girl and her father through the years, so I don’t know whether either of them ever put their trust in Christ. But thanks to our conversation late into that difficult Friday evening, I became equipped to address similar objections to Christianity. The next time, instead of being seized by spiritual vertigo, I was ready.
Still, there are those times when I have to confess: “I… do… not… know.” And that’s okay. I’ve learned not to be afraid of those words. I’ve found they can actually lead to even more exciting spiritual interaction as long as we follow them with: “But let me help you find out.”
Today’s reading is drawn from “The Unexpected Adventure,” which you can pick up at the Bible Gateway Store.