How to Say “I Don’t Know” Without Looking Like a Mindless Idiot

When giving the gospel to someone, we’re scared to say we don’t know something because we don’t want them to think we’re stupid. Maybe we don’t want to lose credibility in their eyes, or maybe our credibility is very central to the point we’re trying to make. You can’t blame unbelievers for valuing that because we are after all coming to them and saying that we know the answer to every big question that anyone has ever had. That’s a big claim to make, and depending on the person, it will take quite a bit of convincing on a myriad of issues before they can see the truth we’ve been given. However, we don’t know everything, so when we get to that point in a conversation where we don’t know something important, we should know how to admit to that. Hopefully this little guide based on my thoughts helps you become more comfortable with this. Hint: it’s not that big a deal.

There are three major things to consider in order to say “I don’t know”: being a good example of Jesus, navigating the actual discussion, and following up with the person afterwards. We’ll deal with each factor in its own little section.

Being a Good Example of Jesus

We should be men and women of character. I guess as Christians that’s a given, but the importance of that can’t be stressed enough. We are ambassadors for Christ into a world that knows very little of what He’s actually like. We can’t afford to misrepresent Him to the people who need Him most. Furthermore, it’s a matter of being authentic. If we really do live for Jesus, it should show. What does it look like when we say “love your neighbor” and then we talk bad about the professor of a class we’re doing bad in or constantly flake out on commitments. I’m sure books could be and have been written on the subject of living a life that tells of Jesus’ love, but one aspect that applies especially is being humble.

“But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear;” -1 Peter 3:15

Obviously we should be living more like Christ every day, but critical to our evangelism is our humility. If you don’t think it’s important to be humble in any discussion, let alone one on the gospel, think back to a time when you were frustrated and repelled by someone’s arrogance and stubbornness. Maybe it was even with someone you were trying to tell about Jesus. That probably didn’t go well, and it probably left an impression on you as to the kind of person you were dealing with. They didn’t see the truth. Realize that when we aren’t humble, you may as well reverse those roles, and the subsequent frustration.

If we’re humble, we can accept defeat and move on to the truth. That’s part of the point of Christianity anyway: growing in understanding of the truth of God. This isn’t to say that we are wrong in what we believe, but we can be wrong about things in general. You aren’t a good Christian for fervently hanging onto whatever you happened to believe at the time you were challenged about it. A truly humble person can lay down their pride and acknowledge a good point. In submitting to an argument we can’t respond to, we exercise the meekness and fear described in 1 Peter 3:15. When we’re humble, we at least partially diffuse opportunities for the other person to make us look bad, so that “when they defame you as evildoers, those who revile your good conduct in Christ may be ashamed.”

One last thing on humility. By being humble, you distance yourself from the need to know everything. We aren’t the ultimate Jesus gurus who can answer any question. In the way it was once expressed to me, we’re just beggars telling other beggars where the bread is. We don’t claim to know everything, only that we live. If others care to humor me, I could do nothing better than to tell them about Jesus as best as I can. May God work with the little we provide.

Navigating the Discussion

When it comes to what you should actually do in a conversation where you find you don’t know something, these are just general things to realize or keep in mind. Every situation is different, so this ‘advice’ (I’m not nearly so qualified to be giving proper advice) should be applied accordingly. I figured I’d just list them and describe them a little.

  1. The other person is allowed to not know things too. Neither of you know everything. Don’t expect the other person to know everything, and while we’re at it, don’t punish them for being wrong. It’s one thing to speak conviction, and quite another to draw out a dreaded or misspoken error. If you do that, you are doing the very thing you’re scared others will do to you, which is a bit hypocritical. Extend to others the mercy you would like to have extended to you.
  2. Pray that not knowing the thing you don’t know will not impede the other person’s search for truth (read ‘Jesus’). I don’t want my limits as a single human being to become an excuse for someone not receiving Jesus Christ as their savior, so I pray about it. *shrugs shoulders* It seems legit.
  3. Admit to not knowing the thing, but say you’ll look into it. Sometimes we can feel pressured to lie or figure something out on the spot just to save face, but unless that thought is honest and maybe if you admit that you are sort of thinking on the spot, you should admit you don’t know. It clears the air, keeps you from lying, and ensures a better opportunity for the truth to make a stronger impact once it’s discovered. And you do have to go and discover this truth, for the other person’s sake but also for yourself. If you can get back to them, great! Do that and continue the conversation. If you can’t, but still want to be a good evangelist, then you’ll take advantage of these chances where your intelligence is prodded to update and refine it.
  4. If the person treats your ignorance as a victory, remind them that not knowing something is not the same as being wrong. For the sake of making this easier for you to read, I’ve written my thoughts in a separate article linked here. I tried leaving it here, but I couldn’t format it to make it not look like one long block of text. Sorry for the inconvenience, but I do think it deserves a better treatment than what I could have offered if I left it here.
  5. If you don’t know something, but it isn’t critical to your argument, bring it back to the gospel. I touch on this in the separate article linked to in point 4, in the first scenario.
  6. If it is critical, admit you can’t continue that line of thinking without certainty, but bring up another argument. I touch on this in the separate article linked to in point 4, in the second scenario. Besides research, you can also try to tackle the question with a new argument that is separate enough from the problematic one. That might help in keeping the conversation going instead of stopping it in its tracks.
  7. Try to get their contact information and give them yours. While this really applies in situations where the other person is most likely a stranger, it’s good to be able to meet up with them again. Obviously you can’t always do this, and sometimes it may be imprudent (I might not get a girl’s phone number, for example,) but if you can and it’s wise, that’d be good.

Following Up

After giving the gospel to someone you hope to speak to again, the main things to do are pray for them, yes, but also to research the things you didn’t know and review what was said so you can prepare for future topics.

If you don’t go back to find the answers to the questions you had or the things you didn’t know, we’ve gone nowhere. As simple as it sounds, it’s just a matter of doing research. Someone says that the Jesus of Christianity is the same as the Jesus of Islam? Look into that. Someone says the universe couldn’t have been created by God because of the big bang? Do research. The only way to remedy your ignorance is by investigation. Unfortunately, we as evangelists don’t get to this point sometimes for various reasons. Maybe it’s because we are already confident in Christ, so we don’t feel the need. Maybe it slips our minds. Maybe we don’t care enough to do the legwork of finding a solid and complete answer (which often requires lots of context.) Whatever the excuse, remember that these issues can be legitimate reasons for these folks to not receive Jesus. If you were humble enough to say you don’t know something, be humble enough to submit to the work of helping them out by finding the truth.

Besides researching what you don’t know, review the other things the person said. For example, if you were speaking with a Muslim but were lucky enough to avoid topics you didn’t understand, look into Islam. When you speak to the person again, you’ll be able to better address their objections and demonstrate the reality of the God of the Bible. In reviewing the person’s philosophy, worldview, or character, look out for stuff you don’t know much about and learn about it. If you do this, you’ll be a little better able to construct a fuller argument next time.

Now, I hope there is a next time, because it’s a great opportunity if someone is willing to talk about the gospel with you again. God can use that willingness to build a relationship that leads to the other person’s salvation. For the sake of their salvation at least, befriend them and show them the love of Christ. Ultimately, the gospel does not center around what you do or do not know, but on the power of God. Love them with faith that God will use you to communicate the gospel in just the way that person needs it.