The power of an “I don’t know”

April 21, 2014 | 30 comments

Happy Easter, everyone! I hope you all had a prayerful and transformative Holy Week, and a wonderful Easter Sunday. He is risen!

I want to begin the first week of Easter with a guest story by a new friend of mine who is absolutely delightful. For those of you who haven’t met her yet, her name is Allison Vesterfelt, and she’s the author of Packing Light: Thoughts on Living with Less Baggage. You can also connect with her on Twitter and Facebook.

I first met Ally when I went to the IF Gathering, and she exuded light and love and sweetness. I always looked forward to running into her during the events, because she’s one of those people who makes you feel encouraged and inspired just by being in her presence.

She has a story about an encounter she once had with an atheist that I really wanted her to share here. I am frequently asked for tips on how to explain the Faith to nonbelievers, and, frankly, I think that what Ally did is exactly right. Also, I have a bonus story I want to share with you, so be sure to scroll down to the end.

Here’s Ally:

* * *

What I Learned From An Atheist About The Value of “I Don’t Know”

Allison Vesterfelt

For most of my adult life, I avoided talking about my faith for two reasons:

1) I worried people wouldn’t take me seriously because I was a Christian; and 2) I didn’t think I could answer their questions.

Where I grew up, in the Pacific Northwest, there aren’t a lot of Christians. I read a statistic once that said there were more dogs than Christians in my city per capita, and I wouldn’t be surprised if that was true. Either way, growing up in a Christian family, and a Christian church, I always kind of felt like the odd one out.

By the time I moved out of my parent’s house, to be honest, I wasn’t sure I wanted to be a Christian anymore.

I moved to an apartment downtown and lived with a few friends and worked at a restaurant in the area while I worked my way through school. I did all the things that made me fit in to my city. I read books and rode bikes and walked everywhere I could. Well, I guess I did almost everything that made me fit in. I never did the naked bike ride, or smoked weed, so in that way I was super holy.

One day, at work, a friend asked me if I was a Christian.

I was totally caught off guard by his question, honestly. I had never talked about my faith at work, and especially not to him. I knew he was an Atheist and he was also really smart — so I was afraid if he knew I identified as a Christian he would have a ton of questions, and probably also hate me.

“I can just tell, ” was his response when I asked him how he knew.

The rest of the shift went on pretty much as normal and I tried to put the conversation out of my mind. Then, about an hour after that happened, this same co-worker pulled me aside. He said, “Hey, I have a group of people over to my house on Tuesday nights to drink beer and talk about philosophy or politics or anything we find interesting. Tonight is Tuesday.”

“Would you be willing to come answer some questions?”

My heart stopped. Not only was this my worst nightmare — trying to answering questions for which I was certain I wouldn’t have sufficient knowledge, but also I pictured this friend quickly calling his friends on his smoke break: “You guys, I found one—a real live Christian! You’ve got to come over to my house tonight and check it out.”

He must have noticed my hesitance and so said, “It’s really not that big of a deal. It’s just a bunch of us hanging out, drinking beer.”

“Okay, ” I agreed, after a minute, and sauntered off slowly to greet my next table.

That night I showed up at his house, not sure what to expect. What I found were twelve people gathered—who apparently did this every Tuesday night — eight of which were atheists, two of which were agnostic, and two of which refused to be labeled (so hipster). Then there was me, the Christian. The lone Christian.

You could tell they tried to make night as low-key for me as possible, so I wouldn’t feel uncomfortable. They handed me a beer, and then a second beer, and I drank three, which was more than my usual limit but I figured God would understand. In fact, I prayed the beer would shut off my own brain so he could impart the answers to me instead.

“God, just don’t let me make a fool out of you, ” I prayed.

So we talked for a few hours and everyone asked tons of questions. I wasn’t the only one answering, though. Someone would ask a question about heaven, for example, and several people in the room would give their thoughts. Heaven wasn’t an actual place, one person believed, but a state of consciousness. Another thought heaven was just a nice (but invented) concept that helps us cope with the trauma of death.

Then, they would always turn to me: “What do you think? What do Christians say?” I’d usually respond with “Well, I have no idea what all Christians think, but I think…”

Or I would just say: “You know what? I don’t know.”

At the end of the night, my friend walked me to the door to say goodbye. My spirits were low, honestly. I felt like I had disappointed them, and disappointed God for that matter. I hadn’t known the answers to most of their questions, and I had been a Christian my whole life. Maybe I should read the Bible more, I thought to myself, or maybe I shouldn’t have come over here in the first place.

But as my friend opened to the door to say goodbye, he gave me a hug and said something I’ll never forget.

He said, “Thanks for coming over tonight. I’ve never met a Christian who would have a beer with me.”

I smiled.

Then he added: “Or say, ‘I don’t know.'”

And suddenly I realized that there was no reason for me to feel ashamed of not knowing all the answers to their complicated questions about life and death, heaven and hell. In fact, even in a group of Christians you’d find varying opinions on the subject. People study these subjects for their whole lives and don’t know the answers.

It wasn’t really answers my friend was looking for, anyway. It was acknowledgment.

And in this sense, I realized, he and I weren’t that much different. Of course, it matters that I have a relationship with Jesus, and I want him to have that relationship too. But as far as the rest of everything, we were just both a couple of 20-something kids trying to figure out the answers. Neither of us had them. But what we wanted was friendship. What we wanted was for someone to have a beer with us and tell us it was going to be okay.

We wanted assurance it was okay to ask, okay to wonder, okay to doubt.

And ultimately I believe God showed up that night. I believe he answered my prayer. Not because I was the smartest person in the room (I wasn’t) and not because I had all the answers (I didn’t). But because I was willing to accept an invitation to someone’s house. I was willing to drink a beer.

And I was willing to admit: “You know what? I don’t know.”

* * *

Jen here again.

A couple of hours before I went to format this post, I was cleaning out my bedside drawer. I came across an old devotional, and flipped it open to a random page. There was this quote from Pope Emeritus Benedict, in his Introduction to Christianity:

Both the believer and the unbeliever share, each in his own way, doubt and belief, if they do not hide from themselves and from the truth of their being. Neither can quite escape either doubt or belief; for the one, faith is present against doubt; for the other, through doubt and in the form of doubt.

It is the basic pattern of man’s destiny only to be allowed to find the finality of his existence in this unceasing rivalry between doubt and belief, temptation and certainty. Perhaps in precisely this way doubt, which saves both sides from being shut up in their own worlds, could become the avenue of communication. It prevents both from enjoying complete self-satisfaction; it opens up the believer to the doubter and the doubter to the believer.

I smiled when I read BXVI’s words with Ally’s post in mind, and thought that he would certainly agree that a beer and an honest “I don’t know” are a powerful form of evangelization.


  1. Michelle

    This is such a wonderful story. I have also had experiences like this, although none so complete or so profound, and have had many friends express their gratitude for my openness to chat and discuss without any judgement or pressure. I like to keep in mind the words of St Francis (I think), “Preach the Gospel at all times, and if necessary use words.” It is an incredibly fulfilling way to live.

  2. Amy

    This is a lovely story. It’s so refreshing to encounter people who don’t claim to have all the answers of pretend to know something they don’t. I needed to read this, as I get nervous sometimes about answering questions as well. Thank you Jen and Allison!

  3. Heather

    Jen and Allison – this is such a great post. So many Christians come across as know it all’s and as people who can’t just relax and be normal. All that does is keep them in their own little bubble.

    When we stay in our own little bubble, we can form our own little cults..and we are missing out on so much. We miss what it means to truly be human, I think. We miss out on opportunities to gain empathy and wisdom, and valuable experience, but mostly we miss out on potentially awesome relationships with so many other people.

    Some of the people in my life that I most look forward to seeing are not believers at all, but they are kind. They smile when they see me. They can crack a great joke and make me laugh hysterically.

    Then I think of some of the believers I know. Miserable, mean, critical, petty, unkind and unsupportive…we, as Christians, have so much to learn about what it means to be truly human.

    Thanks for this, ladies.

  4. mary

    Wow. I loved this. There is so much power and humility found when we recognize it is okay to say that we don’t have it all figured out. AS people of faith, I think that’s particularly hard to do. So, instead of being comfortable with, ‘I don’t know’ we get defensive, even angry, and then alienate people.
    Thanks for the reminder that sometimes it’s okay to say, ‘I’m still kind of figuring it all out’

  5. Josee

    What a wonderful observation on the part of all involved. Thank you, and thank you for appreciating Pope Emeritus’ insight. A blessed Easter season to you!

  6. Christian

    Doubt is the Handmaid of Faith.

  7. Caroline Starr Rose

    This is really, really beautiful and a reminder we all want to be heard and respected. You did just that.

    I was the only Christian in my book club a few years back, and I often felt like you did — unsure and ill-prepared. But people often wanted my take on things precisely because I was a believer. It ended up being a wonderful thing for all of us.

  8. Kristen N

    Thanks for reminding me that love and humility can go a long way. Wonderful post Allison and Jen. What a truthful quote from the brilliant Benedict.

  9. Allison

    This is certainly wonderful and smart; I also find myself encouraged and soothed. Glad you posted!

  10. Kimberly Amici

    I love this. I always want the right answers to the questions people ask, especially family members that aren’t Christians. However there is so much more to be said for humility and plain old honest relationships. That has more power to draw people to Christ than knowing facts or doctrine. Thanks for this reminder.

  11. Brian Dolleman

    It’s funny how it works… where there is an answer for everything and certitude abounds, I find myself unable to trust – sensing a sham. But where there is humble honesty and plenty of “I don’t knows,” I let down my guard and listen from my soul.

    Thank you for sharing this story!

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      You bring up an interesting point — when I was first exploring Christianity, I too found it alluring when Christians had the confidence to admit that they didn’t have the answers to every single area of life — and that some were un-know-able.

  12. Kathie

    Like all the other commenters, I think this was a wonderful story. But one thing that really struck me was when the young man said that Allison was the first Christian who was willing to have a beer with him. Christians wouldn’t socialize with him because he was an aethist? I thought that we were supposed to love our neighbors, no matter what.

    • Mrs. Amen

      The Christians I grew up with didn’t drink alcohol. I didn’t even consider that they didn’t hang out with him because he was an atheist, but rather that the Christians didn’t drink beer. Maybe they were all willing to talk, just not drink.

  13. Caron

    What strikes me is that no one ever thinks they are the ones who are unfriendly, unsupportive, mean or critical. Yet we all encounter them. In fact, we encounter them in our own churches, Bible studies, Sunday school and other groups.

  14. Micaela @ California to Korea

    This is a beautiful story, Jen (and Allison). I had a similar experience but made a different choice, and I’ve always regretted it. I wrote about it here: True North.

    Happy Easter! Hallelujah, He is risen!

  15. Monica

    A very timely post for me, Jen. The other night my husband and I met our new neighbors for the first time. We hung out and roasted marshmallows with them and eventually learned that some were fallen away Catholics and others were Agnostic. I left feeling sad and unsure if we would ever connect and be friends, but your post gives me hope. I’m inspired to hang out with them again with humility in my heart because I don’t have all the answers and we are all on the same journey, just at different places in our spiritual life. Your post filled me with hope, possibility and the reminder that if it weren’t for God’s grace, I could be in their shoes.

    • Kyle

      “I don’t have all the answers and we are all on the same journey, just at different places in our spiritual life.”

      I’m an atheist and I’d say exactly the same thing. I have no doubt that you can connect with your non-believing neighbors.

    • WSquared

      There’s nothing to fear when anyone at all is a person of good will.

      And I do have atheist and agnostic friends as well as non-Catholic Christian friends who do respect me as a Catholic. But I’ve also done my best to answer their questions and to try to show them that those answers are about God’s love for us, even if I most certainly don’t have all the answers. It’s okay to not know everything. But it’s not okay to dumb things down, either. There are also fallen-away Catholics/agnostics, and then there are Catholic anti-Catholics. Not all fallen-away Catholics are the latter. A couple of our friends once pointed that out, joking to me that perhaps I’d like to “lapse back” with them, and I just as jokingly invited them to “Pope back” with me.

      One such non-believer friend is someone who is very brave, who does hunger for the truth, and does care about freedom of speech. We feel very comfortable in each other’s presence. So we’ve had some very deep discussions about history (we’re both historians), politics, philosophy, and theology. …usually over at least one bottle of wine between us!

  16. Lisa-Jo

    Will be thinking about this for a LONG time to come. Grateful to you and Ally and of course, Pope Emeritus Benedict.

  17. Stacy

    I love this story! Thank you so very much for sharing Allison’s experience!!!!

  18. Jennifer


    And, I think I live in Ally’s hometown. I’ve never participated in the naked bike ride either…

  19. Megan Swanek

    When I was agnostic, I used to envy those of strong faith and wondered how they could “know” there was a God. Now that I am trying to become Catholic, I realize that being religious exists on a continuum. It’s not automatic…and there is doubt.

    • Jennifer Fulwiler

      That is such a great point. It took me years to figure that out — I kept thinking I was totally lost spiritually because I didn’t have the 100% certainty that I (wrongly) perceived all believers had.

  20. Tanya

    I loved this. Thank you for sharing. I recently (in the last year or two) have become friends with a non-believer. Our friendship developed over the course of time… And knowing that she had been raised in a Catholic school I never dreamt that one day she would tell me she didn’t believe. I’ll never forget that day/moment. I felt faced with a huge decision… Had I known right away that she didn’t believe I am ashamed to admit I do not think we would have become the close friends we are now. That was a startling and unsettling realization for me. From the moment she told me she didn’t believe it was too late for me to “not care”… I treasured our friendship (and her) too much. We have since had several random conversations about faith and I pray for an outpouring of wisdom each time. After one very long and very late-night conversation about faith just before Christmas I shared with her the following day that I was afraid I had come across as too pushy (in my desire for her to know and understand)… I’ll never forget her response. She said “that’s why I enjoy visiting with you about it… You don’t push it, you just live it.”
    I do feel we as Christians sometimes get over zealous in our desire to teach/preach/share… When just living it and letting Christ’s love shine through us speaks louder than anything we could say!

    • WSquared

      I do feel we as Christians sometimes get over zealous in our desire to teach/preach/share…

      That’s a pretty good point, because we often feel that we’re “not proclaiming the Gospel” or not being responsible enough.

      But then, there’s overzealousness and then there’s timidity that thinks itself to be prudence. When I was more of a lapsed Catholic, I saw a professor of mine making the Sign of the Cross, praying over a meal we were sharing, without fear. So I started doing it, too. I didn’t know what to think when at a Jewish friend’s house for dinner, and discreetly made the Sign of the Cross at dinner on Shabbos. They very kindly asked me to not feel afraid to say grace aloud.

      So it’s funny how these things work. Every situation is different, and I guess the point is to discreetly hug the creative middle and let the Lord take it from there.

  21. elizabethe

    Love it. Speaking as a former unbeliever (hostile unbeliever), I have to say that in my experience unbelievers almost always respect an authentic lived faith, even if they don’t agree with it. What they hate (if I can generalize, and I think this is a reasonable generalization) is emotional manipulation and hypocrisy above all.

    Popular culture is so filled with the stock character of the hypocrite Christian — the preacher who swindles people out of money, the religious believers who are sexual predators, or the Christian politician who lies and/or uses tenants of the faith to get people to support this or that political position — that just encountering people who do believe, don’t “preach” but do live their faith is often a close encounter with God.

    I know that was the start of my conversion road: actually meeting faithful Catholics and Christians who would just talk about things in an intellectually curious and honest way, would ask me what I believe, but otherwise didn’t try to convert me, and (and this was a big one) who would laugh at jokes. It didn’t even occur to me they were different from me until I caught them doing something different. My first friend at grad school told me when I asked why he and his fiance weren’t moving in together as it would be so much more convenient for them and they were getting married in 6 months anyway: “Well, we’re Christian, so we don’t believe in doing that.” I was like “huh? really? real people actually do that? I thought it was just an unreachable ideal.”

  22. Maria

    Allison Vesterfelt feels like a new friend to me as well, although we’ve never met. Her 2013 post “Why I Quit Being Nice” from Donald Miller’s Storyline blog (link below) found me yesterday during my early morning surfing-for-inspiration session. Since I could identify with every single word, I made a mental note to look for more from her. I didn’t have to go far – within hours, I was reading this via my Facebook feed.

    The theme of “Why I Quit Being Nice” dovetails well with the the idea of being just who we are in the company of people with different – even opposing – beliefs. My Catholic faith influences my life more than anything else, yet I have been reluctant to let anyone know for fear of inducing disharmony and of looking like an idiot, since I know apologetics is not my gift. Still, this approach does not sit well with my heart. On the list of priorities for any Christian, truth ought to rank higher than comfort (mine or yours). Sometimes standing for truth means speaking up, other times it means keeping quiet, although it always requires courage and humility.

    Thank you, Jennifer and Allison!

  23. Elizabeth

    Thank you so much for this post. I needed to hear what was in it AND it connected me to Allison’s website which I’d never visited before and love reading so far (and now want to purchase her Packing Light book, too!).

  24. Elizabeth

    Thank you for sharing this story. Beautiful and inspiring…will take it with me!

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