It’s Ok to Say I Don’t Know

The following is a journal entry from my time serving in Africa as a missionary. It recounts a particular instance several years ago when I was teaching a new believer to read, so he could study his Bible.

Have you ever noticed the similarities between a lower case “r” and  “s”? Or for that matter, have you considered the fact that an “h” is really just an “n” with a tall back?

Yeah, neither had I, until a couple of weeks ago.

The setting was picturesque. I sat under the shade of a small grass roof while the cool ocean breeze blew across my face. My bare feet dug into the white sand. A stone’s throw away, the ocean lapped at the shore. It was high tide and the waves were inching closer, grasping for more land with each attempt.

Next to me sat a young man we will call Ronald. Well, I say a young man, he was several years older than me, probably in his mid-thirties. Ronald was larger than life too. He was a muscular man with dark dreadlocks in his hair that ran down his back. He was loud and excitable. A musician by trade, he played drums in a cultural dance group. He would perform in front of an audience dancing around, singing and beating on large, handcrafted instruments.

But this moment was different. He was learning to read, and I was teaching him.

His whole life Ronald has spoken this language. It is the language of his heart. He thinks in this language. He feels in this language. That tiny voice in his head speaks to him in this language. Yet, he has no clue how to read it.

I, on the other hand, have struggled for the last year to learn this language. It is foreign to me. The sounds are often hard to make, and the vocabulary at times is confusing. Every word of this language I hear has to turn into English in my mind before it even makes sense. Yet, I can read it.

Here we were, the two of us on a mission. He wanted to read a language he knew so well; I wanted to teach him to read a language I could barely speak.

We started at the very beginning. Ronald did not know the alphabet.

Strange sounds issued out of Ronald’s mouth as he tried to recognize each letter and sound them out. Often getting two letters confused, Ronald would stumble and get frustrated with his inability to remember the letters and their corresponding sounds.

This man, skilled in music and dancing, an athlete if I ever saw one, was gifted in so many ways. A man who paraded confidently around in front of spectators now sat timidly on a mat trying to remember what sound an “a” made.

In reality, I was the one learning a lesson that day.

Ronald’s response to this struggle produced conviction in my own life. It could have been one of embarrassment, trying to learn how to read his own language from a foreigner. Yet, that would have been unmerited. Perhaps his response could have been anger caused by frustration and a lack of patience. However, that would have been unqualified.

Instead, Ronald adopted the attitude of a learner.

He listened to my instruction, despite it being given in broken sentences and poor grammar. Furthermore, he would try, plunging into the unknown territory of a new skill. When he would fail, he would try again.

Why is it so hard to adopt the posture of a learner? Possibly it is pride. We hate to reveal the truth that we, in fact, do not know. Maybe people will see us as inferior. Maybe we are afraid of failing before watching eyes.

Therefore, we assume the posture of the learned, pretending to know what we are talking about, acting as though life has no surprises for us. So many people, when put into Ronald’s situation, would get embarrassed and quit. Or worse, they would barrel headlong into the task as if they knew what they were doing so as to keep up appearances, refusing any instruction along the way.

In my own life, I wonder how often Satan used this lie to derail my mission. I know he has. There are few things I like admitting less than, “I don’t know.” How many times have I stubbornly refused an opportunity for instruction in order to hide my ignorance?

Jesus had something to say about this attitude:

 

At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?”  And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them  and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.  Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. (Matthew 18:1-4)

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