This is the confession of a failed know-it-all.
I have never been as smart or as wise as I was the day before my high-school graduation. On that day, I knew all I needed to know. I knew how the world worked. I knew how to win friends and influence people. I knew the secrets to contentment and happiness. I knew what was best for me. I knew… I knew… I knew…
I often repeated those very words as a chorus to my well-meaning but meddling parents: “I know, Mom. I know, Dad. I know, you guys. I know!”
Then graduation happened. I’m sure there were inspiring words spoken at my commencement ceremony. The speakers probably offered some great advice. But I didn’t listen. I didn’t need to listen: I knew. And that, friends, was the beginning of the decline. That began the long-spiraling decline into ignorance and naiveté. The moment I decided I had reached the pinnacle of knowing-ness was the moment I shot my life on a trajectory of never really being assured of knowing anything for sure ever again.
The moment I closed my mind to admitting that I didn’t know was the moment I assured that I never would.
Years later, I became a youth pastor. What better occupation could there have been for a know-it-all? Few topics are tougher to wrestle with than theology. And few people are tougher to educate than teenagers. Tough topics and a tough crowd are highly enticing to the know-it-all. After all, who else could bring deep meaning and understanding to their empty, ignorant lives? Youth pastoring promised to be a great proving ground for my knowing-ness. It was a call I couldn’t pass up.
I remember one of my first youth events. I had just given the best sermon ever. It really was a piece. I’m sure no one had ever dropped such knowledge. It was likely that Jesus was sitteth-ing at the right hand of God the Father Almighty jotting down notes as I was speaking. As I concluded, the room sat in stunned silence. I was sure I had just overloaded the synapses of my audience’s still-in-development brains. I wanted to help the students process what they’d heard, and I wanted to provide them with further access to my knowing-ness, so I asked if anyone had questions.
Of course they did. A hand immediately shot up. A voice broke the silence: “If God can do anything, then can God make a burrito so hot that not even God can eat it?”
In moments lacking clarity, one can imply knowing-ness by answering questions with questions.
Try it. It makes one sound very in-the-know.
It works really well in spiritual conversations because it’s a very Jesus-y thing to do. (Although, Jesus was likely asking questions not because he didn’t know, but because he wanted others to understand — which is seldom the case for a know-it-all.) In this case, I couldn’t come up with anything, though. This student’s careful use of gender-neutral language even blocked me from saying something like, “Would it even be possible for God to be both a ‘he’ and a ‘she,’ or neither?”
My actual spoken answer: “Yes … and no. Any other questions?” It was really no answer at all.
The real answer was “I don’t know.”
In the days following, I found that God’s ability to create burritos is a topic neither easily researched nor easily reasoned through. “Burrito” does not appear in a biblical concordance. There’s no biblical witness for God’s preference on burritos. I still don’t know if God can make a burrito so hot that not even God can eat it.
I’m ignorant, I admit it. 18-year-old me would be so disappointed. I’ve gotten dumber as I’ve gotten older. As Bob Dylan put it in “My Back Pages”: “I was so much older then. I’m younger than that now.”
Faith requires a certain amount of not knowing. When it comes to life, Spirit and God, we may never have it all figured out.
And for some, that may be a problem. There’s a know-it-all that dwells inside of each of us, like some caged songbird waiting to break through the bars of our ribs and sing out our self-glorifying knowledge. We’d love to have all the answers. We’d love for others to know it. We want to seem in control. So when faith suggests that not everything can be reasoned or known, we feel uneasy.
Maybe there is a way to reason through the burrito question. I’m sure there is (see what I did there?!). At this point, it’s irrelevant to me, for the know-it-all has stepped down from his high place. At this point, I’m OK with having some questions. I’m OK with not knowing all there is to know … and I love the idea of trying to find out.
Jesus said that the kingdom of heaven belongs to those like children (Matthew 19:14). Children generally ask questions without a fear of seeming ignorant or “not in control.” There’s a wisdom to asking questions. There’s a wisdom in admitting we don’t know it all. Perhaps this is part of what Jesus is hinting at.
So may we be “younger than that now.” May we adopt an openness to asking questions and hearing one another out. We’re spending a season diving into questions and welcome you along on the journey. Grab some questioning inspiration from the minds of children and begin asking some questions of your own.
What would you ask God?
Go ahead and ask, there’s wisdom in the question — and you’re not going to hurt God’s feelings by asking the tough questions, that I do know.
Ryan Dunn doesn't know everything. He knows a few things about Chicago Cubs baseball, Star Wars, and Christianity--there in part due to some academic training and a number of years serving as a youth pastor for United Methodist churches. These days he's learning more about being a dad, husband, and minister for the Rethink Church movement.