It’s Better to Say You Don’t Know Than Give a Bad Answer

by Jill Briscoe

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 Spirits intelligence knows when to open its mouth! Now at the age of 76 you would think I could give my mouth a rest and let the next generation do the talking. That is till you come across such verses as these. Verses I took for myself for life beyond the 50s for 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 among other spiritual things the: “time for talking and the time to stop. To keep our mouths shut.” ‘Least said; soonest mended’ my Mom used to say. 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 or people wouldn’t ask you to speak all over the place – they reason!  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 and spent 7 days in a Salvation Army church there. There was nothing for those of us from flight 929 United to do but talk, as we waited it out till we could go home.  A young doctor who was sitting next to me on the plane when the pilot gave us the news of the national emergency, set up a time after breakfast with me in the Army hall to continue our debate that had begun in the sky as we made our emergency landing in Newfoundland and waited for hours to get off the plane and be processed. 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 believed the Bible was true. This young 30 something man wanted to have serious conversations and was looking for some serious answers, as we waited out the repercussions of the terrorists’ attacks in New York.

Each day I prayed hard remembering Christ who lived within me was my wisdom and 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 the twin towers” he asked. Nothing new here. The age old questions I hear all over this little swinging planet were asked again.  Why didn’t God intervene? Maybe there was such an all knowing all powerful being, but maybe he was impersonal. Too busy creating multiple more universes to care about the chaos on our little swinging planet. Somewhere in the recesses of my memory bank I remembered a debate on ‘Christianity and the Bible’ from my days at Cambridge University hundreds of years ago!

I was newly converted to Christ treading a new road with new friends, a new world view, and the dynamic of the living Christ beginning to enable me to live it out with new 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 stunned and grateful to find we were survivors of one of the most heinous and atrocious evil movements in History. We didn’t waste time in idle chatter. Every recess, every debate, every paper written and every dorm discussion we were asking WHAT WAS THAT? What just happened in our world?  How could pure evil have triumphed in so many countries?

Where was God? 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 with answers first for ourselves then for our friends, we were so often no match for our contemporaries. One day our Inter Varsity Bible group leader told a few of us who were asking for pat answers that “It is better to say ‘I don’t know: I’ll find out for you,’ than to give a bad answer!”

Years later sitting with my plane load of shocked people from 18 different countries  with nothing to do but absorb the news and recover from the shock as we began to deal with the ‘new normal’ of our post 9/11 world, 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 your questions, and I suspect there is no answer to satisfy you, but let me think about this and we’ll talk 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 to add:” 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. And in fact asked me as soon as we sat down with our coffee the next day—“well did your God tell you anything, Did your prayers get answered?”  I told him that yes, I remembered a verse of scripture, Deut. 29: 29 that had helped me leave the unexplained things in the hands of a Holy and Good God and trust Him with the secret things, while getting help from the things He has revealed. “I don’t know if you’ll be helped by it but can I read it to you?” “Yes” he said simply and so 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 for ever, 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 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 never too anything– there’s a world facing a lost eternity waiting for answers. But remember its Ok to say “I don’t know but I’ll find out.” Blessings

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One Response to It’s Better to Say You Don’t Know Than Give a Bad Answer

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