The 3 Words Christians Aren’t Allowed To Say

tape over mouth

(H/T Rebecca Barray, Flickr)

I’m a huge baseball fan.

Have been for as long as I can remember.

I’m the guy that spends $130 a year to stream his favorite team’s games online – and watches every single one of them. I’m the guy that drives 6 hours each way on a weeknight for a do-or-die playoff game – and then gets up the next morning and goes to work. I’m the guy that’s been overly emotionally invested in sports since I was a kid. So much so that I remember missing school the day after the Braves were robbed lost the 1991 World Series because I was so distraught.

But one thing I don’t love so much about baseball are the so-called unwritten rules.

They’re annoying. And all over the place. And usually make absolutely no sense whatsoever.

I get the unwritten rule that says you shouldn’t bunt late in the game just to try and break up a no-hitter. That’s pretty cheap. At least during the regular season.

But don’t steal third base with two outs? And don’t step on the pitcher’s mound? And don’t admire your own home run?

That stuff is just dumb.

Of course, baseball isn’t the only institution with unwritten rules.

We’ve got plenty of unwritten rules in the church too.

Like, if someone sits in the same place every Sunday morning, then that’s their reserved seat. Don’t sit there. Ever.

The correct order of worship music goes like this: super upbeat song, upbeat song, slightly less upbeat song, and then a slow song to set the mood, I mean “usher in the Spirit.”

And if the pastor says something you don’t like during their sermon, you’re obligated as a good Christian soldier to send them a passive aggressive email correcting their error first thing Monday morning.

But my least favorite unwritten church rule of all time?

Never say, “I don’t know.”

This rule applies everywhere from the pulpit to the internet and anywhere in between.

I mean, think about it for a second: When’s the last time you heard a pastor or Christian celebrity or religious talking head simply say, “I don’t know.”?

It almost never happens.

We expect our pastors to use their sermons as a 30 minute answer session for our weekly questions about the Bible, life, and those infamous, but terribly named “hot topics.” Formal organizations exist to provide answers in Genesis to every theological answer under the sun – while often denouncing anyone with the “wrong” answers. And leave it to social media to provide definitive answers to every question and controversy in the world whether you asked for those answers of not.

In the midst of this tornado of truth, any acknowledgement of “I don’t know” is treated as weakness, ignorance, or laziness. It’s often assumed that if someone doesn’t know the answer to a difficult question, it’s simply because they didn’t do the necessary research or take the requisite time to think about the situation at hand.

Often, however, the opposite is true.

To be fair, our insatiable need for answers really shouldn’t come as much of a surprise. After all, with our smartphones, we carry the totality of human knowledge around in our pockets and so we have become conditioned to provide or at least have access to answers for every question imaginable.

But there are echoes of Eden in our need for answers to everything.

Like Adam and Eve, we snatch at the tree of knowledge because ultimately we want to be like God.

We want to be in total control and lack for nothing.

That’s what our quixotic quest for answers is really all about. For some of us, answers simply serve as a warm blank we mistakingly think will shield us from the cold and often confusing complexity of real life. But for many more of us, answers are the things that give us power and with that power comes the ability to control and manipulate the world around us and, more importantly, the people within it.

And so we gleefully delude ourselves into thinking we’ve got it all figured out, providing reasons for everything and Bible verses to back it up.

But in doing so we expose our own misunderstanding, not only of faith, but what the Bible is and how it functions. We believe and often need it to be an answer book. But it’s not. It does, of course, offer some answers for how to respond in some situations, but taken as a whole the Bible seems to raise far more questions than it does provide answers.

Am I my brother’s keeper?

Who do you say that I am?

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

The Bible is absolutely there to guide us and we should unquestionably make an effort to know and understand what we can, but we need to remember that the same Paul who said we need to be ready in season and out, also acknowledged that we see but through a mirror dimly.

In other words, we don’t and can’t have it all figured out.

Which is why “I don’t know” is such an important component of faith.

It doesn’t necessarily mean we’re not “ready in season and out” or that we haven’t given any thought to the matter at hand. The opposite should be true. It’s ok to say “I don’t know” when we haven’t actually given it much thought or don’t have the proper training, but the best “I don’t know” comes about through wrestling long, hard, and honestly over difficult matters.

Now, don’t hear me wrong. There is certainly space and even a need for some answers, but when we feel obligated to always offer answers to everything in life, the inevitable result is unnecessary pain.

When life gets messy and hearts break, one of the worst things we can offer are answers or reasons why God wanted or allowed a tragedy to happen.

What we need to do instead is learn to make space for sacred silence, the kind of silence that acknowledges the gravity of the situation, honors the pain of those who suffer, and recognizes that some questions simply don’t have answers, or at least not easy ones that can be proof-texted with cherry picked Bible verses.

Making space for sacred silence requires a level of humility that’s largely missing in the church today, but it’s humility we can and must rediscover if we’re to remain relevant in the world and not be dismissed as arrogant know-it-alls who only preach, never listen.

Only correct, never embrace.

Only control, never serve.

Only denounce, never love.

Saying “I don’t know” isn’t about laziness or weakness or stupidity or not being prepared.

It’s about taking posture of humility when the moment calls for such.

And those moments come about far more often than most of us are willing to admit.

 

12 Comments
  • Stacey (the kids' Aunt Tasty)
    September 24, 2014

    Amen, Zack. Thank you for this. “I don’t know” is such an important sentence. It’s liberating, too.

  • Rebecca Erwin
    September 24, 2014

    Funny thing, we’ve stayed at churches BECAUSE the pastor says, “I don’t know.” It doesn’t happen often and when it does, we know it is a place we can grow.

    • ZackHunt
      September 24, 2014

      We need more pastors like that.

  • Hannah Out Loud
    September 24, 2014

    Hi Zack and regulars here,

    Well tonight we will be celebrating the creation by God, Adam and Eve, the story of avi and yakkov and new beginnings. So ….Just a quick note to wish you all a shana tova, as we are just about to usher in another year. The candles are prepped, the wine for kiddush is ready to be poured and the bread is ready to be eaten, as are my Seder foods of dates,apples, leeks, pomegranates, honey, nuts, beans, beets, pumpkins and a cooked Ram’s head. The starters are ready, the tagine is cooking and the desert is done. So my three words are a happy New year.

    See u all in 5775 (:

    • ZackHunt
      September 24, 2014

      Happy 5775!! 🙂

      • Hannah Out Loud
        October 1, 2014

        Hi Zack,

        Thanks! (I thought I’d just point out, I don’t claim that the word is really 5,775 years old, but it’s less tounge tied than pronouncing the actual billions).

  • Carolyn
    September 24, 2014

    I love that my pastor is comfortable saying “I don’t know.” It leads to great conversations as we explore a topic together. Isn’t it boring to be around know-it-alls?

  • Abby Normal
    September 24, 2014

    I found myself nodding in agreement to so much of this.

    As I found out, doctors are another group that has a problem saying “I don’t know”. It’s something that gets beaten into you during medical school–God help you if you’re the guy that says “I don’t know” when a really malignant attending is quizzing you during rounds. I would suspect that a fair amount of doctors perfect the art of the bullshit answer during that period–just say something that sounds sort of right in order to hide your ignorance.

    What I had not realized until now is how good I had become at the “bullshit religious answer”. I didn’t go to THE most uptight church as a kid, but I still somehow absorbed the notion that I wasn’t a “real” Christian unless everything made sense. I couldn’t admit that I don’t know if prayer actually works or if God even hears me. I couldn’t admit that about 80% of the Bible didn’t make a lick of sense, or that so much of it was contradictory and I had no idea which parts I was supposed to follow. I couldn’t admit that I had no grasp of the Christianese concepts that were being thrown at me, like “knowing God’s plan” or “being saved” and all that. And the stakes for saying “I don’t know” are even higher than in med school–saying “I don’t know” might mean I’m not a “real” Christian. It might mean that I’m going to Hell. It might mean I’m a “bad witness” that might cause others to stumble. It might mean that I don’t have a good relationship with God. It might mean that I’m in danger of failing to teach my children about God properly and thereby condemning them to Hell with me.

    One might think it sounds like I came out of one of those crazy fundie churches, but I actually didn’t. It was a pretty regular mainline church and I had mildly conservative parents. But somehow, either through my environment or my own doing, I absorbed this notion–that Christianity means having pat answers for all of life’s uncertainty, and you’d best not have any doubt–or else.

    While I’m not giving up on Christianity itself, I have decided to give up on what I call “intellectual dishonesty”–basically, if something doesn’t make sense to me, if it’s vague or unclear, or if it can’t be verified by either hard evidence or my own experiences, I’m saying “I don’t know” and I’m leaving it at that. No more bullshit answers. No more poring over lists of “God’s answers about…” so I can figure out what to repeat to people when asked. I’m done with faking like I know what I’m doing. Cuz I don’t.

  • Cindy
    September 24, 2014

    “ready in season and out” triggers a lot of memories from youth group days where 15 year old me was expected to know the totality of Christianity and how to defend it. Bless her heart.

  • Taylor
    September 25, 2014

    I find it humbling when someone admits that they are wrong, no one ever likes or respects a know it all. With that being said, I’m a new blogger and I could really use some support! It’s called Live By Faith at http://www.taylormoriah.com I’m really excited about it and I’d love for a couple reads!!

  • Jesus
    September 28, 2014

    “I’m not the American Jesus, you idiot.

    That honor goes to Barry Manilow.

    Get you facts straight, goober”

    —-Jesus H. Christ

  • Just Thinking
    October 25, 2014

    Fantastic thoughts Z!
    But this could blunt the provocative edge of your blog.
    Does this mean that you will be blogging about your new journey as you sincerely study both the stunningly unscientific religion of evolution and the incredibly Biblical idea of a 6 day creation?
    This means you will need to go to the sources of each perspective and not to the naysayers (of either side)…I’d almost pay for a front row seat for a sincere journey on that one.

    Also, another journey I would be fascinated to read would be a 90 day journey of the impact on a bright young man who shuts out everything in his life (I.e., music, books, internet, movies, tv shows, entertainment and alcohol (and of course weed which I would never have to have added 30 years ago etc.) and immerse yourself exclusively into the Word of God and spend serious time memorizing entire passages of scripture during this time.
    Ya game?

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