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3 Reasons to Say “I Don’t Know” More Often

I want to know the right answer. I want to be able to give the right answer. So do you. Our educational system is built to help us know more. We seek out professionals for advice for everything from gardening to finance. Learning, knowing, telling and training seem to be basic underlying behaviors in our culture.

When you hear someone say, “I don’t know.” How do you react?

I believe we should hear it more often than we do. To be clear, I am not advocating for being passive or lazy to excuse the hard work of investigation. Pause for a moment, how did you react the last time you heard that phrase? Have you even heard it recently?

Here are 3 reasons I believe we all, and as a pastor specifically, should say “I don’t know” more often.

1) It highlights wisdom is more than an intellectual pursuit.

I read through the book of Proverbs regularly and am reminded every time how wisdom has little to do with intellect. A simple definition of wisdom I work off of is, “wisdom is applying what I know of God into my life in tangible ways to reflect God’s heart.” This kind of wisdom is not reserved for those with high IQ and is often lost on the very ones we might think are most likely to have it. I know in my life some of the most brilliant people I have known are also the very people who have struggled to say “I don’t know” or to empathize with those who experience life differently and as a result, lack the wisdom of God I read about all throughout scripture. When I genuinely say, “I don’t know” as a starting point I am reminding myself and those around me that wisdom is gained in pursuit of God and in lived experience with others. I have much to learn. No one gains wisdom through detached reasoning alone.

2) It actually builds credibility rather than eroding it.

When you are confronted with a challenging question or situation do you assume you have all the information to make an informed decision? If so, you are most likely wrong and headed for a mistake at best or disaster at worst. Pastorally, it is not our job to answer every question perfectly sent our way or mediate perfectly every conflict. Yes, we step into those things. The question is, what is your posture? I believe courage, leadership, and humility are best activated by saying, “I don’t know, but let's start with this.” You may find yourself because of age, experience, industry or situation asked to speak about things you have little to add. Say that, then move ahead with prayerful wisdom. “I don’t know” are not words of disaster, but instead they will very often grow others' trust in you at the very moment you fear the opposite.

3) It is the honest answer.

When you don’t know. Say it. There is pressure to know. As pastors, we feel a certain pressure for dynamic prayer life, vibrant personal devotions, and the perfect marriage. Guess what, we need the same gospel and the same grace we share with others. Naming failure, fears, and disappointment actually helps others' faith grow. It also can protect you and me. I sin. You sin. Who do you confess out loud to? As a pastor, a great response when we don’t know an answer is, “I don’t know, but that is a great question and let’s look at it together.” You remind others and you remind yourself that pursuing Jesus is a lifelong relational journey.

Next time you find yourself internally wrestling with what to say. Say that, “I don’t know.” At that moment you have done one of the most pastoral things you can. You reminded yourself and others that it is okay to ask questions. You have been honest and you have built relational trust through your vulnerability.

Now the pastoral work of entering into people’s lives, inviting study of what God says in scripture, and looking for ways to live it out begins. 1 Peter reminds us to always be prepared to give an answer for the hope that we have. My reason for the hope is Jesus. I don’t always know the answers to the questions you ask me, but I know where to look. Would you join me in that pursuit, because you ask great questions!

Q. Do you find yourself experiencing the pressure to “have the right answer” at times? What environments? Why is that?

Q. When you think of starting a response with, “I don’t know?”, is that more terrifying or freeing? Why?


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