I Don’t Know Anything About That

A Hermit advised, “If someone speaks to you about a controversy, do not argue with him. If what he says makes sense, say, ‘Yes.’ If his comments are misguided, say, ‘I don’t know anything about that.’ If you refuse to dispute with his ideas, your mind will be at peace.

For years I knew a man who was a very wise Christian. For most of those years I failed to recognize the wisdom and thought his simplicity came from lack of learning, training, or unfamiliarity with the many books I had read.

I was aware that in discussions of prayer we would quickly come to disagreements and he would say, “Well, I don’t know anything about that.”

It was commonplace that I would argue with him about his understanding of Providence (he had utter and complete trust in it). I would make very good points and he would say, “I don’t know anything about that.”

I knew that even in the years before he retired he would rise early to go to his Church to simply walk about and pray. He did this at least as regularly as he ate breakfast. He had many other times and places for prayer – but “I don’t know anything about that.”

He passed away several years ago, as faithfully and joyously as he had always lived. I used to argue with him about his attitude of giving thanks to God for all things. I remember many those arguments, like others, ending with his, “I wouldn’t know anything about that.”

I now know his understanding to have been true wisdom – the wisdom which comes from knowing God and keeping His commandments. Some years before his death I came to agree with him about thanksgiving for all things. After that, our conversations were largely confined to discussions of the goodness of God. About this we could find no disagreement.

If I live long enough, perhaps I will come to “not know” as much as he did.


About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.


33 responses to “I Don’t Know Anything About That”

  1. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Father Stephen,

    What would you prescribe for a soul such as myself, who, in thinking deeply about a great many things, finds he has a strong opinion on nearly every issue imaginable? How can I be saved?

  2. Robert Avatar

    Yes, Father, is this applicable to all people at all times? Would this not curtail the sharing, exploring and understanding of our Faith, ideas etc? Don’t get me wrong, it has a certain appeal to it, a “tuning out” of sorts.

  3. Atlanta Avatar

    Thank you for this post. I am going to incorporate that into my vocabulary. I am also tired of controversy.

  4. Petra Avatar

    Controversy certainly gets me in trouble because I become prideful (or it just shows my pride)…I end up looking foolish and two-faced on top of it all because I’ll have been trying to claim a humble Orthodoxy. I hope I can make a good beginning of following this advice. Thank you for posting.

  5. Isaac the Syrian Avatar
    Isaac the Syrian

    I have been mulling over the question as to whether the kind of Orthodox apologetics that compare and contrast distinctives with other traditions are particularly useful for evangelism as opposed to simply pointing out what is good about Orthodoxy.

    Arch. Meletios Webber has a talk posted on the AncientFaith site that talks about the need to be right and the offense that need gives to all those around us. On the other hand, I have heard of Orthodox monks calling Calvin a Church father just to get along with a Calvinist. I guess the need to be right is balanced on the other side with the need to be liked and both of these positions are the wrong ones to desire to be in.

  6. neil Avatar

    If I’m reading this correctly, this is another story about your father-in-law. I love stories about that man; the focus is always the same— grace in relentless thanksgiving and a great charity for his neighbor, whoever that may be at the moment. Truly wise man. May we all learn from his example!

    Thanks for remembering him here on your blog.

  7. fatherstephen Avatar

    I’m sure there are times this is not applicable…

    I’m also sure that it is not healthy to have strong opinions on everything since we can’t really know everything very deeply.

    There is a time to offend and a time to say, “I don’t know anything about that. Knowing that it is a time to offend is a very delicate matter and should be done with great care, and never lightly, and never with a sense of pleasure. These would be signs that the desire to offend comes from sin.

  8. Patrick Avatar

    Father, where do these little quotes about the hermit come from? They are wonderful. I especially like the one on humility the other day (I don’t follow it, but I really liked it 🙁 ).

  9. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    I’m also sure that it is not healthy to have strong opinions on everything since we can’t really know everything very deeply.

    My question wasn’t meant to be snarky or sarcastic – it was very much in earnest.

  10. fatherstephen Avatar

    Sorry, I didn’t take it as snarky or sarcastic. I was serious, it’s not good to have strong opinions – I’ll explain. There are things we should believe, because they are a matter of the faith. These we should hold without compromise. No heresy. But there are many things that fall outside that realm and strong opinions about things that can be viewed otherwise is a problem.

    I literally think the way to salvation on such things is to make them matters of prayer. Part of that is confessing our ignorance before God and let that ignorance turn into praise as we stand before him.

    St. Peter says, “If any man speaks let him speak as the oracles of God.” The difficulty in speaking strong opinions is that before long, no one can tell the difference between a strong opinion and something like a cardinal doctrine. We become like the boy who cried wolf.

    I think some of the strong medicine about such things can be the medicine of stopping (when we see we are doing this) and asking forgiveness of those to whom we’re talking. Such humbling of ourselves breaks our heart and lets better things flow.

    Please forgive me if my first answer seemed flip. I didn’t mean it to be. I hope this second answer is of some help and we can continue the conversation as you like. It’s a very good question.

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Currently I’m pulling quotes from a small collection arranged for a calendar. The better collections can be found in things such as Saying of the Desert Fathers, etc. Benedicta Ward has assembled some of the best selections.

    Go to the 8th day books link on the front page. Type in a search for “desert fathers.” I’m sure they’ll have a wealth.

  12. WLJ Avatar

    I am not Orthodox, but this reminds me of a quote by Richard Baxter that applies to all Christians – “Unity in things necessary; Liberty in things unnecessary; and Charity in all.”

  13. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Thank you, Father Stephen – that is most definitely helpful.

    Perhaps you can relate to me in a case in point. My wife’s uncle is a member of the Christian Church in East Tennessee. He is a good, kind man, who knows the scripture well and lives a godly life. But, as an Anglican, I disagree with him on some things I think important. He thinks, for instance, that our decision to baptize our Children puts their immortal souls at risk, unless they can bring themselves to reject their infant baptism and be baptized on the grounds of their own faith later in life.

    Now, I think he is wrong about this. Furthermore, I think the tradition he is a part of does not appreciate the fullness of the grace and communion of God in this respect. I believe I am doing what is well and good for my Children, and I will defend my viewpoint vehemently from scripture. Furthermore, I think his entire tradition has some grave flaws – where a mentally handicapped person, for instance, is not considered fit to take communion because he can’t “understand the gospel”. I think this absurd, and indeed, offensive.

    Yet this man is a dear friend, and no doubt a far better man than I. I daresay I am not worthy so much as to untie his shoes for him. So I sense that there is an element where my opinionated mindset may make me feel “superior” to such a “backwoods” faith. And yet I can’t imagine dropping one iota of my opposition to an impoverished view of the grace of God.

    This is an extreme example, perhaps. No doubt much of my “opinionatedness” is mere sophistry and arrogance – certainly much of my internet activity probably is. Wanting to “correct” people’s views and such. But even then, what about your conviction of the “one story world”? Here no doubt you often will say more than “I don’t know much about that” – for it is a conviction you think important. I guess there is a time to speak, and a time to shut up.

    Anyway, you’ve pricked my conscience, and God bless you for it.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    Obviously there are things to be said or I wouldn’t write. Though as much as can, I refrain from pure argument.

    I would even say that in the case you cite, I would be sure to tell the relative how much you admire him and apprecite his thoughts, but that your heart is convinced otherwise – which is not the same thing as trying to convince him of it.

    My father-in-law, a devout Baptist, no doubt thought that many points of my Orthodox faith were less than perfect, though he did not try to correct say the baptism of my children. Neither was he that keen on attending such events.

    There is always a pitfall – and it is love by which we should measure things – and the temptation to simply argue should be recognized for what it is. Heaven awards no points for winning arguments.

    I think we pray, listen, wait. There may be a way of saying something or of not saying something that is best.

    My efforts, for instance, on the 2-storey universe, has been an effort at saying something that could be stated in more classical terms, but the arguments to refute are ready and waiting. By saying it in a new way, I hope to make the conversation have a few more steps.

  15. David Withun Avatar

    WLJ: That’s St. Augustine of Hippo. Mr. Baxter must have been quoting him. Very apt quote, though! Something I try (and usually fail) to keep in mind.

  16. Isaac the Syrian Avatar
    Isaac the Syrian

    My priest once mentioned in a homily that discernment is one of the chief qualities to be desired in the Christian life. More and more the need for discernment becomes clear to me. I know I have argued when nothing good would come of it just to be right.

  17. jamesthethickheaded Avatar

    One wonders whether we shouldn’t from time to time.. while we can.. pray: “My father (and/or father-in-law) who art on earth… let me honor thy name..”. Yep. Sadly… by the time we get to that point, I think it’s because we’ve come in our own lives to a similar point.. but it may be too late. Oh… how I admire those young among us with discernment… and how humble one feels in their presence. Would have been nice…

  18. Lucy Avatar

    This is actually very helpful to me. I am in a situation where arguing and trying to “prove” anything would be, well, less than helpful, if not harmful. My situation requires a humility I do not have and a gentleness that does not come naturally. I care too much about the outcome. But this is a really good model. I too hope I can “not know” about many things.

    It always comes down to doing it, not talking about it, doesn’t it? And there’s the rub, so to speak.

  19. LynneA Avatar

    What is the difference between discernment, which seems to be a quality to be desired, and judgement, (as our Lord said, Judge not, that ye be not judged)?

  20. fatherstephen Avatar


    It’s actually pretty clear in the Greek – since there are two different words used. To discern (krino) is to tell the difference between to things, etc. It observational.

    To judge (katakrino) could also be translated condemn. We may see that someone is wrong in their actions or thoughts, but we are forbidden to condemn them (to consign them to the flames, as it were). Love does not condemn, but does not have to be blind.

  21. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    Fr. Bless,
    I spent years being very opinionated and arguing my ignorant points on what “I” thought was the right belief. I was drawn to Orthodoxy because there was nothing I could argue about any more. I am ashamed about the prideful, arrogant state I was in thinking that I possibly could. I still struggle to change, but now I can turn my attention to prayer and worship instead of thinking I have to prove myself right to someone. Thank you so much for this quote. Glory be to God for all things!

  22. mrh Avatar

    Wow! “Condemn not, lest ye be condemned” would have quite a different ring than the usual translation. The entire cultural history of English speaking people might be different if the KJV had gone that way, I imagine.

    Do you think that would actually be a more accurate rendition than the one we all know?

  23. Patty Joanna Avatar
    Patty Joanna

    In my previous church, Presbyterian, our pastor did “word studies” with us to explain the Greek. I will never forget his drawing this distinction for us, pointing out that the root is the same–krino–but the prefix “kata” meant down. He then said it in a very dramatic way, “judge DOWN” to make the point.

    It helped make clear that it is foolishness to walk around without using our judgment (discernment), but that it is completely out of our place to be judging DOWN. It is simply not our job.

    Patty Joanna

  24. Petra Avatar

    I just realized that this is also a great tool for dealing with idle-talking/gossip.

  25. Victor Chiasson Avatar

    Saint Isaiah the Solitary said: “He who wishes to acquire the anger that is in accordance with nature must first uproot all self-will, until he establishes within himself the state natural to the intellect.”
    This has always reminded me of how my ‘righteous anger’ was mere selfish pique and my need to win or be right. It’s not about me or the wild sea of passions swirling within me. It’s about God’s truth and His love for His creation. God doesn’t need me to defend Him,but to defend the very person who is arguing against the truth.

  26. Matt Avatar

    “I would even say that in the case you cite, I would be sure to tell the relative how much you admire him and appreciate his thoughts, but that your heart is convinced otherwise – which is not the same thing as trying to convince him of it.”

    Thank you for this, Father. My mother-in-law keeps trying to push astrology on my wife, sons, and I. I have not been able to think of what to do. Up till now I’ve just smiled and nodded, and tried to explain to my son (not in her presence) that she is wrong but we love and respect her for her position in our family, and because of that we are not going to openly disagree with her. But what you have suggested is so much better. It shows respect but at the same time gives us a way to end the conversation, and thereby protect my children from those wicked ideas.

  27. Wonders for Oyarsa Avatar

    Obviously there are things to be said or I wouldn’t write. Though as much as can, I refrain from pure argument.

    Thank you, father Stephen. I suppose the Lord is making me particularly sensitive right now on this point – showing my sin to me. For I enjoy argument almost like a sport, and perhaps there is a place for good natured intellectual sparring somewhere, but wisdom and goodness are far deeper than fun and games – especially when they are at another’s expense. Thank you for showing me how far many of my conversations about God are from the kingdom of God.

  28. Flower Avatar

    Opinions are good things for humans to have. But listening never fails to reach an empty heart.

  29. NeoChalcedonian Avatar

    Truly wise words!

  30. Alyn Minnerly Avatar
    Alyn Minnerly

    The reading truly depicts wisdom, as wisdom, for me, comes from the acknowledgement that I truly do not know anything. “I am” just a vessel that sometimes is filled with ideas, negative emotions, attachments to worldly things, prideful images of self-righteousness, and maybe, on rare occassions, filled with the joy and splendor of the Holy Spirit. I am nothing, except the deepest wish to receive the Grace of God, His forgiveness, and His mercy. That is the only thing I know. Everything else, comes from somewhere else.

  31. Andrew Battenti Avatar
    Andrew Battenti

    “I am nothing, except the deepest wish to receive the Grace of God, His forgiveness, and His mercy”.

    We are not taught to value humility very highly Alyn, but this really sums it up, thank you for saying it!

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