Three words have brought liberty to my life. Take a guess. No, not “I love you.” The proper use of the three words I’m thinking of brings great freedom. Ready? Here they are: I don’t know.
I’m not saying I don’t know what the three words are. I’m saying the three words are: I don’t know. The appropriate use of these three words frees us from shackles we were never meant to wear.
We demand to know every angle of a matter, every possibility, every eventuality. We must know who, what, where, why, when and how. Knowledge is power! Knowledge is liberty!
Sometimes that’s true, but other times the opposite is true. Yet that doesn’t set well with us. Without the answers we feel vulnerable. Only knowledge quells our worries.
It’s amazing how many people expect me to provide the knowledge to solve their problems. “Why did God allow my baby brother to die?” “What does God want me to do with my life?” “Is this person God’s choice for my life-partner?” Pastors must be not only theological geniuses, but also legal experts, financial wizards, and medical specialists. Trouble is, some of us think we are! Yet I’ve discovered there are times that the sanest thing I can say is: I don’t know.
“What are you,” you ask, “some kind of ignoramus?” Well, yes! That about sums it up. And here is the good news: So are you!
Now, before you use another name for me, understand what ignoramus means. It’s from a Latin word meaning “we do not know.” It was a legal term to describe the verdict when the prosecution’s evidence was insufficient.
We’re all ignoramuses! We don’t know everything, and we need to realize it. In ourselves we do not possess and are incapable of discovering the knowledge to prosecute God for the things we don’t like about how He is running the universe.
How does that bring peace? Frankly, in an atheistic worldview it brings terror. In such a worldview, if I don’t know and can’t know, then I am a pawn in a world out of control. In such a world “knowledge” becomes god. You’d sell everything to obtain it. But in a worldview that includes God this admission brings incredible peace.
Among Moses’ final words, were these gems: “The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may follow all the words of this law” (
1. Can we know anything we want?
Answer: No. Moses divides knowledge into two categories. First, there are “secret things.” The word “secret” means covered, concealed or hidden. God has left some things concealed. Try as we might, those “secret things” are not available to us. Research won’t uncover them. Science won’t lay them bare.
We only see a tiny portion of reality. At this moment you don’t see what the person behind you is doing, nor your children in Sunday School. You can’t see what politicians are cooking up, what the city council is deciding and what your neighbor’s throwing over your fence.
Limited knowledge has some implications. For one, what we can not know is by design. We don’t know them, not because of a lack of study, but because of humanness. They simply have not been brought within the orbit of finiteness. That doesn’t mean that what we do not know is necessarily by design. God has given us so much to know that there is virtually no limit to our discoveries. If we do not know something it may well be because of laziness, or the fact that the speed of progress hasn’t allowed us to discover it yet. But there are things we cannot know, and God arranged it this way. It also means that what we can know is by design. More about that momentarily.
What are these “secret,” unknowable things? Put yourself in Moses’ sandals. Deuteronomy is a series of sermons delivered as Moses and the people sat across Jordan from the Promised Land. This was an entirely new generation of God’s people. Their parents died in the wilderness after rebelling. It had been forty years since God gave the Law and confirmed the covenant. The people didn’t have a solid grasp of the covenant and its demands. Knowing he’d never enter the Promised Land, Moses preached to call this new generation to a renewed commitment.
Among the “secret things” is the future. Dean Acheson said, “I try to be as philosophical as the old lady from Vermont who said that the best thing about the future is that is comes only one day at a time.” Study all you want, “the future’s not ours to see.” Through prophecy God has let us know a bit of what will take place, but not all about how it will take place. The Israelites knew God would take them into the Promised Land, but as they looked across the Jordan, they worried about how He’d do it. We, too, worry over details regarding the future.
When I look back over the details of my life I realize that it took seven years after I came to faith to know that I was to follow God in the ministry. It took another four years to know it meant pastoral ministry. It took almost twenty more years to know it meant I would pastor this church. If, from the beginning, God had shown me these things I’d have died of fright! How merciful of God to withhold some of the details of His will!
But what about those tough questions like: Why did an all-powerful God allow evil in the world? Why does God allow babies to die? Why does God allow war? Honestly, I don’t know. I’m an ignoramus.
God has given us truth in the Scriptures that helps us with some broad answers, but the deep essence of why is beyond finite human understanding. That leads us to ask . . .
2. What Can We Know?
While all is not known, some things are “revealed.” The word means “to uncover.” A full view of reality is not naturally available to us, but God has graciously pulled back the veil to let us peer in at part of it. These things are ours. God has given them to us.
We do well, however, to remember Mark Twain’s oft quoted statement: “It’s not the things in the Bible that I don’t understand that bother me, it’s the things that I do understand that bother me.” Indeed, this has some profound implications.
It means that what we do know has been given to us. We didn’t scratch and claw our way into it. Human ingenuity didn’t wrestle the answer away from mystery. It also intimates that someone else set the agenda for what we know. Since what we do know has been given to us, we should humble ourselves before the One who alone knows all things and has graciously given us this thimble-full of knowledge about reality.
A philosopher might say, “If I cannot possess all knowledge then I cannot know if I possess any knowledge!”1 One day I might discover something in the realm of what I do not yet know that will prove what I think I already know is inaccurate.
Only one of two things can keep me from despair. One, I must know all facts. But anyone who claims such a thing proves he’s an ignoramus, because he doesn’t even know he doesn’t know everything! Second, I must know someone who does know all the facts. This is precisely the case with God and His Word. God knows . . . and He is good, loving, benevolent, wise, just, gracious and committed to my ultimate good! As Wayne Grudem points out, in such a case we can be more certain of the facts that Scripture presents than the so-called “facts” gained from other sources.
So what are the “things revealed”? God through Moses was reaffirming the revealed will of God. God has revealed the requirements for walking with Him. God does not show us all the future holds, but He has shown us what’s necessary to walk with Him through that future. We have a Bible full of promises. We can know that God will keep them and conduct Himself accordingly. The Israelites didn’t know how God would give them the Promised Land nor how He would enable them to defeat the peoples of the land, they just knew He would and that, as they took one step of obedience, He’d reveal the next step.
God’s done the same for us. Someone said the Bible contains approximately 30,000 promises. That’s plenty to guide us. God has given, not just promises but also commands, prohibitions and principles. He has not told us everything, but He has told us much! We have not been given everything we want to know, but all we need to know.
As vast and unmanageable as is the ever-increasing knowledge of man, it is in God’s eyes a thimble-full of His omniscience. Every ounce is a gift from Him. Thomas Edison said, “We do not know one-millionth part of one percent about anything.” God has given us access to enough discoverable knowledge to keep us busy for countless millenniums, but we need to see all of that as a gift from Him. What is revealed to us in the Scriptures is a sufficient guide to walk with Him. But still we wonder . . .
3. Why the Division Between What is Secret and What is Revealed?
God’s purpose is that fellowship might be created between us. He desires that obedience might be produced in us. These “things belong to us . . . that we might follow . . .” God has drawn the line between what we can know and what we can’t know for this purpose — that it might maximize the opportunity to enter into relationship with Him.
We want to know answers. God wants us to know Him! God drew the line between knowable and unknowable so that we can walk that line in fellowship with Him — believing what He has shown us and trusting Him for what we cannot see.
Do you see how radically different this is from the world’s view of knowledge? To them knowledge is for convenience, survival, curiosity and independence! But Owen Hanson observed, “After thousands of years, western civilization has advanced to where we bolt our doors and windows at night while jungle natives sleep in open huts.” All our brilliant seeking after knowledge has done little more than pollute our hearts, muddy our vision, and feed our rebellion against the God who alone knows all things. Yet He continues to hold forth His gift of knowledge, insisting that He’d like to have fellowship with us if we’ll just accept the gift and embrace the view of reality it affords us.
Here are the profound conclusions of an ignoramus: Can we know anything we wish? Answer: No. What can we know? Answer: Plenty, and all of it is a gift from God. Why the division between the two? Answer: So that we might know and walk with our Creator.
Maybe we’re like the old farmer who was approached by a book salesman. As the salesman approached the weather-worn farmer, he said, “I’ve got a book here that will tell you how to farm ten times better than you’re doing it now.” The farmer quietly considered the offer and then replied, “Son, I don’t need your book. I already know how to farm ten times better than I’m doing it now.”
While we fuss and fume over things we don’t know, most of us know how to live ten times better than we’re now living. Knowledge is not our problem. Walking with God in light of the knowledge He has given us — that’s what matters.
1. Grudem, Wayne, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1994), 119.