Better to Say You Don’t Know than Give a Bad Answer
Even when I’m old and grey do not forsake me oh Lord until I have declared your word to the next generation, your might to all that are to come (Psalm 71:16-18).
I remember writing in my 50s: “Old age lent the Spirit’s intelligence knows when to open its mouth!” Now, many years later, you would think I could give my mouth a rest and let the next generation do the talking. That is until you come across such verses as these; I took these verses for myself for life beyond the 50s and into the next leg of the journey.
Wisdom is spiritual street smarts – a spiritual intelligence given by the indwelling Spirit of God. This ‘knowing,’ as the book of Ecclesiastes says, helps us to know the time for talking and the time to stop and keep our mouths shut. My mom used to say: “Least said; soonest mended.” God promises us His wisdom to know what and when to speak truth with grace into people’s lives and situations.
I’m a talker. That is what I do. That is what I’m asked to do. I like talking! But the problem is when you run around the world talking, people think you have an answer for everything. You must have, they reason, or people wouldn’t ask you to speak all over the place! The temptation is to try to fulfill their expectations whether we know the answer or not! After all, we reason, Christians should always have an answer for peoples’ questions about life and faith – a misreading of 1 Pet. 3: 15!
On 9/11, I was flying home from Russia and was diverted to Newfoundland. I spent seven days in a Salvation Army church there. There was nothing for those of us from United flight 929 to do but talk as we waited to go home.
A young doctor who was sitting next to me on the plane set up a time with me in the Army hall after breakfast to continue a debate that had begun in the sky. We talked about the big issues of terrorism, good and evil, science and religion, the afterlife, etc. He gave me a run for my money. He was young, bright, a cheerful agnostic, and a thinker who didn’t buy my view of Scripture. I was old (all the little pockets in my brain that hold accumulated knowledge seemed to be full and unable to keep up with recent facts and figures).
I had told my new friend I was a convinced Christian, and I believed the Bible was true. This young man wanted to have serious conversations and was looking for some serious answers.
Each day I prayed hard, remembering that Christ who lived within me was my wisdom. I set about doing my best with the answers he was obviously expecting me to have, having heard me articulate my faith in Christ. I struggled to convince the young man of the truth about God and the gospel. Of course, he wanted to question my understanding of an all-knowing, all-powerful, all-good God.
“If God were so good and so knowing and powerful why didn’t He stop the planes hitting thetwin towers?” he asked. Nothing new here. The age-old questions I hear all over this littleswinging planet were asked again. “Why didn’t God intervene?” Maybe there was such an allknowing,all-powerful being, but maybe He was impersonal. Too busy creating multiple moreuniverses to care about the chaos on our little swinging planet. Somewhere in the recesses ofmy memory bank, I remembered a debate on Christianity and the Bible from my days atCambridge University hundreds of years ago!
At that time, I was newly converted to Christ. I was treading a new road with new friends, anew world view, and the dynamic of the living Christ beginning to enable me to live it out withnew purpose: to talk about Jesus to everyone who came into the orbit of my life.
We young converts at university had a formidable calling. Post-WWII students were stunnedand grateful to find we were survivors of one of the most heinous and atrocious evilmovements in history. We didn’t waste time in idle chatter. In every recess, every debate, everypaper written, and every dorm discussion, we were asking, WHAT WAS THAT? What justhappened in our world? How could pure evil have triumphed in so many countries? Where wasGod? What was God? Why was God silent as the Jews His very own people- or so they said –were exterminated in the hellish Nazi camps? Was He there? Did He care?
As many of us new converts hit the debate in those days and found ourselves wrestling withanswers first for ourselves and then for our friends, we were so often no match for ourcontemporaries. One day our Inter Varsity Bible group leader told a few of us who were askingfor pat answers that it’s better to say “I don’t know. I’ll find out for you,” than to give a badanswer!
Years later, sitting with a planeload of shocked people from 18 different countries with nothingto do but absorb the news and recover from the shock and the new normal of our post-9/11world, I remembered that advice. God, by His Spirit, reminded me.
I turned to my new friend, the doctor, and said, “I don’t know the answer to many of yourquestions, and I suspect there is no answer to satisfy you, but let me think about this, and we’lltalk tomorrow.”
“You’re a Christian” he teased me. “You’re supposed to know everything about your belief.”
“I am a Christian,” I replied, “But I’m not God! And aren’t you glad about that!” Then I dared toadd: “I’ll ask God to help me remember some things I learned about suffering and evil long ago!It’s better to tell you that than give you a bad answer.”
He appreciated that. In fact, he asked me if God had answered my prayers as soon as we satdown with our coffee the next day. I told him that He had helped me remember a verse ofscripture: Deuteronomy 29:29. It helped me leave the unexplained things in the hands of a Holyand Good God and trust Him with the secret things, while getting help from the things He has revealed.
I found the place and handed it to him (something else my leader had told me to do years ago). It says: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law.”
We talked long and intensely about the grand narrative in the Bible covering Creation, Fall, Redemption and Glory, and I was greatly helped by the Spirit’s promptings within as we talked of the things the Scriptures tell us about the mysteries of suffering. I was also reminded that the Spirit cannot bring to our remembrance things we have not bothered to learn. Our job as disciples of Jesus is to never stop reading, marking, learning and inwardly digesting the truth, then sharing what we know with a postmodern 9/11 world.
Peter Drucker said, “An educated man is someone who has learned how to learn and never stops learning.” Never stop learning folks! We are never too young and never too old. In fact, we are never too anything-- there’s a world facing a lost eternity waiting for answers. But remember, it’s okay to say: “I don’t know, but I’ll find out.”
Jill Briscoe is real, her words are penetrating, and her message challenging. Born and educated in England, Jill has a Bible teaching ministry that spans the globe. Heard on radio and online through Telling the Truth, she is the author of more than 40 books and speaks extensively around the world. For more than 20 years, Jill served on the boards of World Relief and Christianity Today, Inc. Both Jill and her husband, Stuart Briscoe, are ministers-at-large at Elmbrook Church in Milwaukee, Wis. They have three children and 13 grandchildren.