It was pride that changed angels into devils; it is humility that makes men as angels. —SAINT AUGUSTINE
The Limits of Our Knowledge
You don’t know everything. Nobody knows everything. Not even your condescending, skeptical coworker or classmate who has made you feel intellectually inferior for believing in God. So fear not. A lack of knowledge puts you in the same boat as everyone else. We all have our limitations. It is good and comforting to know this.
Realizing that you are not responsible to know every answer to every question a skeptic might ask should be a huge relief. It is not a burden the Christian need carry. Many of us never attempt to defend our faith because we fear not having an answer. Hear me: it is just fine not to have an answer. There is absolutely no shame in saying, “I don’t know. You raise an interesting question.” Understand that a person’s eternity is not dependent on your knowledge.
Not only is it a relief for you to understand that “I don’t know” is an option, others will appreciate your honesty in admitting your lack of knowledge. We like humble people, and in a day of glory-seeking pontificators, your honesty and humility will be greatly appreciated. It shows people that you aren’t out to win at all costs. It shows people that you value them more than the argument. It shows that you respect them enough to concede to a good point and allow them to look smart. Because, let’s be honest, one of the reasons we get angry in arguments is because we feel the other person doesn’t respect us and is making us look dumb for believing what we do. So when you can say, “I don’t know. Good point,” it shows the other person that although you disagree with him, you don’t think he is an idiot. Such humility goes a long way toward developing healthy conversation and lasting relationships, which are both more likely to produce fruit than firing facts back and forth.
A Credible Lack of Knowledge
Admitting that you don’t know everything also protects your credibility. This may seem backward because we usually think credibility is found in having answers. However, respect and credibility are lost faster by offering wrong answers to questions in the attempt to win an argument than by humbly admitting there are some things you do not know. The ability to concede in an argument will guard your reputation and allow you to maintain the respect of the other person despite your lack of knowledge. It is important to understand that much of what a person thinks about what you say is affected by what they think about you.
I learned this truth as a result of having an ongoing friendship with a person who didn’t believe in Jesus. My skeptic friend and I frequently had conversations about faith, but I remember one day better than others because it changed the nature of our conversations. We were engaged in a typical back-and-forth argument, and there came a point in our conversation when I didn’t have a good answer to one of his points. I hated it. First, I am competitive, and beyond that, I just like to be right. So I had to practice the humility of shutting up and saying, “Good point. Let me think about that.”
My friend’s countenance softened, and his expression was worth the price of my humility. It was as if a burden was taken from him. His tone softened and the rest of our talk was very pleasant. In that moment, my humility allowed him to feel respected, to know that I was not out to get him, and to know that I recognized his intelligence. Backing down was the best thing I did in that conversation.
The Power of Humility
By reflecting on this situation and my own natural hatred of backing down, I have come to understand one of the reasons we don’t admit it when we know we have no answer.1 We think that if we lose one argument, we lose the entire battle, and our friend’s soul will be lost forever. We believe the lie that our one moment of yielding will be all the proof the skeptic needs to maintain his rejection of God. But this is simply not true. In fact, our humble “I don’t know” can become a bridge that enables us to lead someone to Christ.
Humility disarms. It brings down the other person’s defenses. When someone’s guard is down they are more likely to see through their emotions and consider what you are saying. Sometimes all it takes is a small crack in the skeptic’s intellectual bastion for the light of the gospel to dispel the darkness of unbelief. Humility that disarms and brings respect may be the light that allows someone to see Christ.
I have found that my humility brings out the humility in others, and humility is essential to coming to Christ. The proud do not see God. When I am humble enough to admit that I don’t know something, or I am able to admit that the other person has made a good point, it affords them the opportunity to do the same. And then, their humility and lack of defenses make them more open to hear the truth of the gospel and respond to it in a positive manner.
The Humble Apologist
I know that many of us like to think we know everything and some of us actually believe that we do. But this attitude is of no use. It must be thrown away. Pride must be killed before it has a chance to grow into a monster that causes people to reject Christ. Arrogance, self-importance, and smugness have no place in the heart, mind, or conversations of Christ’s disciples. Therefore, be diligent in destroying the pride that is likely to surface in conversations about your faith.
Be grateful that the fate of a person’s soul is not contingent on your knowledge. Realize that in God’s grace and providence you are but a small part of His divine plan in drawing people to Himself. This is not an excuse to be lazy and not expand our knowledge, but it is a crucial understanding to have nonetheless. So start practicing humility in your conversations and do not be afraid to say, “I don’t know.”
Michael C. Sherrard is a pastor, author of Relational Apologetics, and the Director of Ratio Christi College Prep. RCCP is an organization that seeks to equip the church for effective evangelism by teaching high school students apologetics, fundamental Christian doctrine, and biblical evangelism.