What 40 years as a pastor has taught me: It’s OK to not know everything (Part II)

As a young pastor/scholar who was fresh off of years of studying theology in seminary, and then philosophy in the University’s PhD program, the goal toward which I was driven was to be the person who could answer every question – mine and anyone else’s. I might not have had the gall to articulate it like that then, but I can see it clearly now. I was also a fairly intuitive counselor, and kept up a bit on the newest popular theories of counseling. I also had a fairly avid interest in the relationship between science and the Bible. So what else was there to know?

Besides all of that, we had just started an exciting new church, and it grew to more than 300 people in a very short time. The seminary I graduated from offered to pay my way to any PhD program in theology in the world if I would promise to come teach for them – and I turned them down because starting New Covenant was even more exciting. Being one who seemed “to know” seemed to be paying off.

As I look back, my personal arrogance is frightening. I am delighted that God was merciful and patient. Over the years, it took a lot of growth on my part, and much grace and mercy on God’s part, for me to learn to be able to say, “I really do not know,” without hedging or feeling like a failure. Perhaps it is a stretch to say that now I am completely comfortable not knowing the answers — to what God’s next step might be, why things happen, how to understand the relationship between Biblical history and the current historical and scientific claims, or what we (and I) should do next — but I certainly have come a long way down that road.

This new attitude is not the result of knowing less – I actually know quite a lot more than I did 40 years ago, about many things. It is not due to losing the desire to learn — I love learning new things, and I love being stretched into new and better paradigms of reality. At least to this point, at 72 years of age, I never find it tempting to avoid being challenged to wrestle with new possibilities or different intellectual perspectives.

Rather, this new peace with not knowing all the answers stems from coming to peace with how big God is, how big the creation is, how big history is, how big each human being is, how big the experience of the church is, how big the range of possible good choices and possible bad choices is, how big the future is, and how big….

Psalm 8 has become a favorite of mine through these passing years, since it so clearly celebrates all that we do not know while relying on the promises of God to be enough to secure the present and the future.
1 O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth! You have set your glory above the heavens. 2 Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger. 3 When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; 4 what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them? 5 Yet you have made them a little lower than God, and crowned them with glory and honor. 6 You have given them dominion over the works of your hands; you have put all things under their feet,

Although the old Gospel songs have their obvious weaknesses, they sometimes capture reality with great power. So with the song writer of the last century, I now celebrate:

“Many things about tomorrow I don’t seem to understand. But I know who holds tomorrow. And I know who holds my hand.” And, to reapply another song by Linda Ronstadt and Aaron Neville that captured another part of reality for me with great power: I know God has loved me; “And, that may be all I need to know.”

As always, if you have any thoughts, comments, or questions about this post, or if there is another topic you would like me to explore in a future post, please leave a comment. I always enjoy your questions and thoughts.   / Ron

2 Comments On “What 40 years as a pastor has taught me: It’s OK to not know everything (Part II)”

  1. I so appreciate this post and your perspectives. It is far better for me to place my faith in God who is big enough to handle the creation and complexity of this world than in my own ability to figure it all out. Thanks for sharing.


  2. I think being comfortable with “not knowing” is one of the most important aspects of being a person. As a physician, I often have to say ‘I don’t know” too. I have struggled with that WISH to know everything and be able to answer every patient’s questions, but you just can’t. A colleague of mine (a very good doctor who I don’t consider arrogant) once told me he never says “I don’t know” to a patient. If he doesn’t know he tells the patient he has an urgent issue to deal with, leaves the room and looks up the question as best he can and then comes back and answers the question as if he always “KNEW.” I remember thinking what a burden that must be to have to maintain that kind of omnipotence. I feel comfortable with just saying, I don’t know, lets try to look it up or I will have to get back with you after researching that. The thing is, a lot of medicine (and life) you just don’t know anyway, so you have to just make your decisions with the flawed but best knowledge you have then. Kind of reminds me of that scripture about seeing through a glass darkly now, but eventually it will be clear. I have been listening to tapes on the world’s great religions recently. It really strikes me how each religion presents its view as one of KNOWING but they all KONW different things as truth. It also makes me think of my own attitudes about my religion. I had the thought the other day when I was listening about Hinduism that I actually feel really comfortable not KNOWING a lot about my own faith. The other thing that helped me feel comfortable as a person “not knowing” was living in another culture. I remember thinking when I moved to Germany how a lot cultural assumptions German people had were entirely different than my cultural assumptions as an American, but we both KNEW we were right about our assumptions. Its kind of like that in a marriage too. When you first get married, your spouse “knows” a lot of things from growing up in his family and you “know” a lot of different things having grown up in a entirely different family. You have to come to a new family reality of knowing and that is passed on to your children who then have their own set of things they “know.”
    I think one of the best things about you Ron, is that you don’t KNOW the answer to every thing. I have loved being pastored by you over the years because of that.


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