The power of an “I don’t know”
Happy Easter, everyone! I hope you all had a prayerful and transformative Holy Week, and a wonderful Easter Sunday. He is risen!
I want to begin the first week of Easter with a guest story by a new friend of mine who is absolutely delightful. For those of you who haven’t met her yet, her name is Allison Vesterfelt, and she’s the author of Packing Light: Thoughts on Living with Less Baggage. You can also connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.
I first met Ally when I went to the IF Gathering, and she exuded light and love and sweetness. I always looked forward to running into her during the events, because she’s one of those people who makes you feel encouraged and inspired just by being in her presence.
She has a story about an encounter she once had with an atheist that I really wanted her to share here. I am frequently asked for tips on how to explain the Faith to nonbelievers, and, frankly, I think that what Ally did is exactly right. Also, I have a bonus story I want to share with you, so be sure to scroll down to the end.
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What I Learned From An Atheist About The Value of “I Don’t Know”
For most of my adult life, I avoided talking about my faith for two reasons:
1) I worried people wouldn’t take me seriously because I was a Christian; and 2) I didn’t think I could answer their questions.
Where I grew up, in the Pacific Northwest, there aren’t a lot of Christians. I read a statistic once that said there were more dogs than Christians in my city per capita, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was true. Either way, growing up in a Christian family, and a Christian church, I always kind of felt like the odd one out.
By the time I moved out of my parent’s house, to be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a Christian anymore.
I moved to an apartment downtown and lived with a few friends and worked at a restaurant in the area while I worked my way through school. I did all the things that made me fit in to my city. I read books and rode bikes and walked everywhere I could. Well, I guess I did almost everything that made me fit in. I never did the naked bike ride, or smoked weed, so in that way I was super holy.
One day, at work, a friend asked me if I was a Christian.
I was totally caught off guard by his question, honestly. I had never talked about my faith at work, and especially not to him. I knew he was an Atheist and he was also really smart — so I was afraid if he knew I identified as a Christian he would have a ton of questions, and probably also hate me.
“I can just tell,” was his response when I asked him how he knew.
The rest of the shift went on pretty much as normal and I tried to put the conversation out of my mind. Then, about an hour after that happened, this same co-worker pulled me aside. He said, “Hey, I have a group of people over to my house on Tuesday nights to drink beer and talk about philosophy or politics or anything we find interesting. Tonight is Tuesday.”
“Would you be willing to come answer some questions?”
My heart stopped. Not only was this my worst nightmare — trying to answering questions for which I was certain I wouldn’t have sufficient knowledge, but also I pictured this friend quickly calling his friends on his smoke break: “You guys, I found one—a real live Christian! You’ve got to come over to my house tonight and check it out.”
He must have noticed my hesitance and so said, “It’s really not that big of a deal. It’s just a bunch of us hanging out, drinking beer.”
“Okay,” I agreed, after a minute, and sauntered off slowly to greet my next table.
That night I showed up at his house, not sure what to expect. What I found were twelve people gathered—who apparently did this every Tuesday night — eight of which were atheists, two of which were agnostic, and two of which refused to be labeled (so hipster). Then there was me, the Christian. The lone Christian.
You could tell they tried to make night as low-key for me as possible, so I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. They handed me a beer, and then a second beer, and I drank three, which was more than my usual limit but I figured God would understand. In fact, I prayed the beer would shut off my own brain so he could impart the answers to me instead.
“God, just don’t let me make a fool out of you,” I prayed.
So we talked for a few hours and everyone asked tons of questions. I wasn’t the only one answering, though. Someone would ask a question about heaven, for example, and several people in the room would give their thoughts. Heaven wasn’t an actual place, one person believed, but a state of consciousness. Another thought heaven was just a nice (but invented) concept that helps us cope with the trauma of death.
Then, they would always turn to me: “What do you think? What do Christians say?” I’d usually respond with “Well, I have no idea what all Christians think, but I think…”
Or I would just say: “You know what? I don’t know.”
At the end of the night, my friend walked me to the door to say goodbye. My spirits were low, honestly. I felt like I had disappointed them, and disappointed God for that matter. I hadn’t known the answers to most of their questions, and I had been a Christian my whole life. Maybe I should read the Bible more, I thought to myself, or maybe I shouldn’t have come over here in the first place.
But as my friend opened to the door to say goodbye, he gave me a hug and said something I’ll never forget.
He said, “Thanks for coming over tonight. I’ve never met a Christian who would have a beer with me.”
Then he added: “Or say, ‘I don’t know.'”
And suddenly I realized that there was no reason for me to feel ashamed of not knowing all the answers to their complicated questions about life and death, heaven and hell. In fact, even in a group of Christians you’d find varying opinions on the subject. People study these subjects for their whole lives and don’t know the answers.
It wasn’t really answers my friend was looking for, anyway. It was acknowledgment.
And in this sense, I realized, he and I weren’t that much different. Of course, it matters that I have a relationship with Jesus, and I want him to have that relationship too. But as far as the rest of everything, we were just both a couple of 20-something kids trying to figure out the answers. Neither of us had them. But what we wanted was friendship. What we wanted was for someone to have a beer with us and tell us it was going to be okay.
We wanted assurance it was okay to ask, okay to wonder, okay to doubt.
And ultimately I believe God showed up that night. I believe he answered my prayer. Not because I was the smartest person in the room (I wasn’t) and not because I had all the answers (I didn’t). But because I was willing to accept an invitation to someone’s house. I was willing to drink a beer.
And I was willing to admit: “You know what? I don’t know.”
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Jen here again.
A couple of hours before I went to format this post, I was cleaning out my bedside drawer. I came across an old devotional, and flipped it open to a random page. There was this quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict, in his Introduction to Christianity:
Both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt.
It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer.
I smiled when I read BXVI’s words with Ally’s post in mind, and thought that he would certainly agree that a beer and an honest “I don’t know” are a powerful form of evangelization.