Let me begin this post with my conclusion: I'm trying to get more and more comfortable with the words "I don't know." I've been trying to get more comfortable with these words for a while, which is why I'm grateful for how Mitch Stokes helped me think about this a bit further in his recent article, "3 Beautiful Words: 'I Don't Know.'" Most of what follows is piggy-backing off thoughts I generated while reading and reflecting on Stokes' article.
As someone who loves to learn and read and study and teach, I used to see these words - "I don't know" - as a sign of defeat. When I didn't know something, I felt like I had been bested and needed to get off the field. Now, however, I'm learning to see the words "I don't know" as an opportunity.
Specifically, I think "I don't know" can open up possibilities in at least three brief ways:
1. First, "I don't know" can give me an opportunity to learn
When I'm asked a question to which I don't know the answer, I'm trying to approach this as an invitation to learn. This might be learning from the person who asked the question, and seeing how they approach things. Or it might be learning through further research and study so I can think more closely and carefully about things in which I want to be more well-versed.
2. Second, "I don't know" reminds me of my own finitude
I believe that we need to look at things that remind us of our limits as blessings. Sleep and rest remind me that I'm not just a "producer." When I start hitting walls with ideas, I'm reminded I need others to help me think things through. And the same is true with knowledge. I won't and can't and shouldn't know everything. I don't want to know either a little about everything or everything about a little. (Instead, I'd rather know the right stuff about the important stuff!) When I say "I don't know," I'm blessed with the reminder that I need to rely on others (or point others to good study resources).
3. Third, "I don't know" is a chance to practice humility
I like what Mitch Stokes says in his article: "Knowing what you don't know is half the battle, and any good education will result in a humbling awareness of how little you know. In fact, intellectual humility is one of the main benefits of learning" (bold emphasis added). I couldn't agree more. "I don't know" isn't an excuse to champion ignorance, but offers an opportunity to exercise humility.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not advocating for intellectual laziness at all. Let's keep loving God with our minds (Matthew 22:37) and being renewed in our minds (Romans 12:2). Let's "demolish arguments" that set themselves up against the knowledge of God (2 Corinthians 10:5) and fill our minds with things that are true and right (Philippians 4:8).
But as we do these things, let's never make knowledge an "end" or an idol. Information is important, but it's never the sum total of discipleship. Remember - knowledge unchecked by love easily leads to arrogance and a lack of concern for others (1 Corinthians 8:1). The words "I don't know," then, can be a gracious way we humbly acknowledge our finitude, even as we continue learning and growing in certain areas.
Stokes finishes his article with important insight I want to leave us with us as well:
...the kind of ignorance I’m endorsing isn’t ignorance of the default kind—the kind with which we’re born. Rather, it’s a hard-earned, studied ignorance, predicated on genuine knowledge. The farther up the mountain you climb, the more unexplored terrain you can see. In fact, what I’m endorsing isn’t ignorance at all, but rather a knowledge of it; and this knowledge comes through serious toil.
Christian. Husband. Father. Pastor. Learner. Contributor. Reader.