When a Caregiver Says, “I don’t know”

While in the midst of an ongoing difficult situation, I sat in a room across from a person who was offering me care. Amidst my weariness I angrily questioned, “Why is this happening?” The response was, “I don’t know.” For some, such a response may be interpreted as ineffectual. Granted, I had feelings of disappointment in the moment because I might have thought that knowing the reason would empower me and provide me with clarity or stability. Yet, I also acknowledge these three words had a powerful impact as the caregiver shared in my reality. The caregiver’s confession of his own finitude generated a connection with me at the place of vulnerability. No longer was the caregiver above me, demonstrating power over me and neither was he in front of me or behind me, directing me through the maze of pain. Instead, the person was alongside me, having entered into my uncertainty by admitting his own humanity. Rather than increased isolation because I was not “above it all” like the caregiver, he joined me in a limited way in my own chaos and lack of knowledge, being present to me in my ambiguity.

Such why-questions are commonplace among those who are experiencing suffering of various kinds. A terminal diagnosis. A tragic and startling death. Unemployment. Continuous unexpected events. I suspect that after the shock fades in the upcoming weeks and months that many who are experiencing profound loss in Houston and Montana will ask amidst the ambiguity of their grief journey, “Why?” Because of our own desire to state the cause of suffering, we may sense a pressure to provide answers in the face of overwhelming uncertainty. In many ways, such attempts are a natural response for humanity. We seek reasons for suffering, and sometimes we turn to blaming, such as blaming others (God, government, media, culture, or the neighbor) or blaming ourselves.

Of course, it goes without saying that there are occasions when the reason for our troubles may be clearer than at other times. If I am traveling at 75 mph in a 55 mph speed zone on a rural road when a patrol car is present, I more than likely will be pulled over and issued a ticket for my transgression. I can attempt to place blame on law enforcement for being parked in the area or for the state for having a 55 mph speed zone, but in this particular instance I come face-to-face with clear consequences of my breaking the law.

Yet, if we are to be honest, we would admit there are occasions when no ready-made answers are available, and in such situations it may take great fortitude to resist the magnetic pull to assert our own evaluations of distressing events. We want to appear confident, strong, and victorious in the face of such uncertainty. After all, appearing weak and having needs are frowned upon and at times even ridiculed in our culture, including the culture of the church.

It is risky as a congregational caregiver to say, “I don’t know.” By stating such words, the caregiver is becoming humble while making herself vulnerable. She is confessing that even though she is attempting to offer care, she too has limited knowledge. She is sharing in the other’s humanity by acknowledging she also is finite, having physical, psychological, and cognitive limits. But it is also freeing since it is without pretense. There is authenticity and integrity being demonstrated through these three words. As a Christ-follower, I am to be mindful of my dependency on God, and Scripture cautions me that when I state I know when I do not, I may miss an occasion where God is revealed.

I am drawing from the ninth chapter of the Gospel of John in which Jesus and the disciples come upon a man who was born blind. As is the tendency of humanity, the disciples are attempting to make sense out of this man’s troubles: “Who sinned, Jesus? This man? His parents?” Before we are too hard on the disciples, it is important to consider that the disciples had a particular perception based on the teachings of the day: Suffering was a result of sin. It is to be of no surprise, then, that as they see this man, they are confronted by a conundrum of how their worldview resolves the issues surrounding this man’s malady. As biblical scholar Leon Morris suggests, this particular scenario may have been perplexing to them [The Gospel according to John, The International Commentary on the New Testament, 425]. If suffering is a direct result of someone’s sin, who sinned in this case? Had the man sinned in the womb? Or maybe such cruelty was the fault of the parents? Could it be that the parents must watch their own child experience severe suffering due to their own sin?

To the disciples: sin is the issue but in what way is it the issue? Is it this or that?

But Jesus’ reply shows another possibility: God is to be revealed. Jesus explains by connecting this purpose to one of the “I am” statements in John that points towards Jesus’ divinity: “I am the light of the world” (v. 5). Thus, rather than condemnation due to sin, God is to be manifested or brought to light. Marianne Meye Thompson writes, “[T]he man’s blindness will show that God’s purposes are to bring light into the darkness of human existence” [John: A Commentary, 206]. In short, God is to be revealed, and humanity healed.

Jesus’ offering of another possibility stands as an indicator of humanity’s finitude and our dependency on God, particularly in the offering of care to another. In this case, it was not the sin of either the parents or the man born blind. Instead, Jesus’ answer to the disciples’ question goes beyond the reasons that humanity had established for suffering (without clearly eliminating those parameters). As the story unfolds, the limits of human knowledge will continue to be exposed as we read how those who have the so-called answers (who claim to know) are blind, and the one born blind, who humbly responds to Jesus, is the one who can really see.

Complications begin when Jesus heals the man born blind on the Sabbath. Jesus makes mud from spit, puts the mud on the man’s eyes, and sends the man to wash in the pool of Siloam whereupon the man can see. Notice that for the next twenty-some verses, Jesus is apparently absence in the events of the story (vv. 8-34). It may be that such an absence spoke loudly to the original audience as they were attempting to be Christ-followers in Jesus’ absence and finding themselves at odds with the religious leaders of the day. In light of that, let us consider that the man who was born blind has not physically seen Jesus neither does he know where Jesus is (v. 12), but he has had an experience with Jesus (vv. 25, 30). As Thompson points out, “The man’s testimony to Jesus is cast into sharp relief in Jesus’ absence. Indeed, bearing witness to Jesus in his absence is what Jesus’ disciples must do” (209).

Unfortunately, not everyone in this story who hears the man’s testimony of healing sees the manifestation of God. Namely, the religious leaders miss it as they focus on Jesus’ act of ministry transpiring on the Sabbath. Contrary to the man’s testimony, they proclaim Jesus is a sinner (v. 24). They claim to know, to see, but they are blind, denying Jesus is from God. Rather than continuing the healing work of God as seen in Jesus, they throw the man out of the synagogue.

Meanwhile, when Jesus hears the man has been tossed out of the synagogue, Jesus re-appears in the story by approaching the healed man again (v. 35). When Jesus asks the man if he believes in the Son of Man, he humbly wants to know who the Son of Man is so that he may believe (vv. 35-36), and when Jesus reveals himself to the healed man, the man believes in Jesus and worships him (v. 38).

However, our story does not end there. John’s Gospel vitally connects this particular pericope to the following chapter, providing the reader with insight on pastoral care. In chapter 10, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd” and contrasts his pastoral care model to that of a hired hand. In essence, Jesus’ pastoral model includes remaining present with the sheep, even to the point of death, while the hired hand, who has no concern for the sheep’s welfare, abandons the sheep.

In reading chapter 9 alongside chapter 10, we may find two kinds of pastoral care. The first is one in which God is not revealed and/or healing fails to transpire in some dimension, which is the pastoral care model of the religious teachers. Their claim to know, as Pentecostal scholar Craig Keener writes, may be connected to the “ ‘sight’ language” in this story [The Gospel of John: A Commentary, 775]. Even though they claim to see, they actually remain in the dark. Since they neglect to see that God is brought to light in the darkness both in Jesus and in the healing of the man, God is not revealed and the ongoing healing of God fails to occur in their pastoral response to the healed man.

The second kind of pastoral care is one in which theologian Ray Anderson called a genuine act of ministry in that God is revealed and humanity is healed. For Anderson, each time God ministers as portrayed in Scripture, these two elements appear, and this is particularly the case in Jesus. Through the very being of Jesus, God is revealed to humanity, and humanity is reconciled to God. Not only that, but in a specific act of ministry in chapter 9, the Fourth Gospel demonstrates Jesus revealing God and physically healing the man born blind. Thus, if I am a Christ-follower who desires to participate in God’s ministry to humanity, I must ask myself, “Is God being revealed and is humanity being healed in some dimension, be it spiritually, physically, emotionally, or relationally?”

Reflecting upon my own caregiver’s response of “I don’t know” and Anderson’s understanding, I would assert that a genuine act of pastoral care does not necessarily mean the one offering care has the answers, but it does involve God being manifested and healing or reconciliation occurring. I am concerned that all too often we sense a pressure from either within or from without to solve a problem by knowing the answers. As a result, we deny our own limits by claiming to have knowledge when we are in fact still in the dark. We say we have the answers to the person’s problem, but we only generate shame and/or condemnation, not healing. Instead of God being revealed in our weakness, we miss the manifestation of God for which we seek. Let us then consider the possibility that when uncertainty is all we see, one of the more helpful and healing responses to the why-questions may be, “I don’t know.” Such a response joins another human in his uncertainty. Perhaps the Apostle Paul’s theme of power in weakness in 2 Corinthians may be helpful to us here in that by admitting we are jars of clay, the glory of God may be seen.

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that the extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. (2 Cor 4:7)



2 thoughts on “When a Caregiver Says, “I don’t know”

  1. The phase which one caring listener shared with me in a similar time was, “‘there is no answer which will satisfy us.” A step further than “I don’t know,” but one I found satisfying and empathetic. He is.

    Liked by 1 person

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