The Three Hardest Words in the English Language

I came home from the gym determined – determined to see if a claim I had heard was true. I asked my seven-year old, “Is red heavier than yellow?”

“Yes,” he said immediately.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because it’s a darker color,” he answered confidently.

I turned to my five-year old with the same question, “Is red heavier than yellow?”

Her answer included what are reportedly the three hardest words in the English language . . .

“I don’t know.”

That’s according to the Freakonomics podcast, “The Three Hardest Words in the English Language.” We are socialized early on to think that not knowing is a bad thing. It seems that as we mature we are taught/programmed to think that “not knowing” is inferior. In my limited study on my own kids, that programming seems to take place somewhere between ages five and seven!

The podcast tackles this question through an economics lens. I want to think of it through a Christian lens. Thinking biblically, why are these words hard?

At our core, we want to be right. We hate being wrong. To admit we don’t know is not the same as being wrong, but often it is considered too close for comfort.

I remember how my high school Spanish teacher would go around the class and test our vocabulary. I so feared not getting my word right that I would quickly calculate which word I would likely get, based on how many people were before me. Why do we do this?

Our desire to be right is a good one in some ways. Being wise and knowledgeable, both which are closely associated with being right, are often praised in the Bible and help to advance society. Moreover, we are created in God’s image. And God is a God of truth, who sent his Son in “grace and truth” (John 1:14). So when we love the truth, and want to be right, at some level we reflect God.

Yet our desire to be right can also be wrong. And the clue is how we get uncomfortable. We squirm and feel uncomfortable if we have to admit we don’t know something. Where’s that coming from, and what do we do with it?

Typically, we try to get rid of that uncomfortableness by faking an answer. One expert interviewed in the podcast admits that many students and professionals become proficient at covering up “I don’t know” with good alternative answers. I know I’ve been guilty of this repeatedly. What’s wrong with my heart in these instances?

jeopardyFirst, it may be that I’m uncomfortable with the simple fact that I’m human. Admitting that we don’t know is a way of accepting that we’re finite. I’m not God. I’m not supposed to have perfect, complete knowledge. Only he does. Even if I were sinless – which I’m definitely not! – I wouldn’t know everything. My knowledge is limited. So one benefit of saying, “I don’t know” is that it reminds me, in a small way, that I’m not God.

But it’s not just about being finite. It’s also about sin. This inability to admit a lack of knowledge or to confess to an inadequacy may be an attempt to be someone we aren’t – to appear other than we really are. It is in many ways trying to ‘work’ our way to be being right or acceptable. I operate with an implicit mindset that if I’m smart enough, if I have the right answers, then I have legitimacy. What we know makes us acceptable.

So when I don’t know something, and feel uncomfortable, I may try to cover up my ignorance so that I can be acceptable. I’m aware that I’m “naked” because of not knowing. So I try to sew together a fig leaf to cover up my nakedness by making up something that sounds good. My faking it is trying to find a way to be accepted.

But the gospel tells us that nothing we do makes us acceptable. There’s no way we can make ourselves acceptable before God. Sin ruins that. In Christ, though, God has made me acceptable. I have legitimacy, not because of what I know, but because Christ died in my place and took away my sin and gave me his legitimacy. It is what Christ has done that gives us our self-worth, not anything we have done or that we know.

With this in mind, we can be freed not to know all the answers – we can and should freely admit “I don’t know” at times. Making “I don’t know” the three hardest words is living from a worldly perspective, not a Christian one. There are many things I don’t know, but one thing I do – our identity in Christ is not based on what we know but on who we know.

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