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Can I Ask a Dumb Question?

Have you ever said something dumb—something really, really dumb? Have you ever said something so dumb that you cringe to even allow the memory to crawl back into your mind? We all have at one time or another, haven’t we? Few things are more painful than realizing we’ve displayed ignorance or arrogance through dumb statements or dumb questions. Really, the only thing more painful is having our dumbness met with anger, outrage, or mockery. Such responses only compound the pain and shame of it all.

Social media shaming is a new force for justice, a means of shaming an offender into silence or repentance. Jon Ronson has aptly compared it to medieval pillories and the stocks in colonial town squares. Malicious actions or words are met with deluges of furious tweets, outraged Facebook messages, angry blog posts, and sarcastic memes. Now, some actions and some comments are so dangerous or outrageous that they deserve immediate, unqualified rebukes. The problem is that the response we bring against the worst malevolence can also be the response we bring against those who say or do things that are merely dumb. We can mete out the same punishment as a response to two very different offenses.

Jesus knew a thing or two about dumbness, didn’t he? All throughout his life he had to face endless and endlessly dumb statements and questions. Just think of all the dumb things people said to him: The infamous Rich Young Ruler properly summarized the whole law and then dared to say, “Teacher, all these I have kept from my youth.” He essentially said, “I have never once sinned against you or your Father or anyone you have created.” Dumb. But “Jesus, looking at him, loved him…” Jesus responded with love and compassion (Mark 10:21). The mother of James and John approached Jesus on behalf of her sons and asked that they be given the preeminent places in his kingdom. Dumb. But Jesus replied gently by asking them, “You do not know what you are asking. Are you able to drink the cup that I am to drink?” (Matthew 20:22). Martha grumbled an accusation: “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to serve alone? Tell her then to help me.” Doubly dumb. “Martha, Martha” he softly replied (Luke 10:40-41).

Jesus responded in these ways because these people were sincere, even if they were sincerely ignorant, sincerely dumb. They were foolish, they were misinformed, they did not know things they ought to have known. But they were not being malevolent. He had room for rebuke, of course, but his rebukes were reserved for the religious hypocrites, the people he was uniquely able to identify and confront as being enemies of his work. To others he was gentle and kind. He allowed them to say dumb things. For friends and strangers alike Jesus met dumbness with kindness.

The path to wisdom is littered with evidence of our inborn foolishness.

See, I think Jesus knew something: The path to wisdom is littered with evidence of our inborn foolishness. Before we learn to say things that are wise we say things that are dumb. Before we learn what is wise and true we inevitably blurt some things that are dumb and false. We think dumb thoughts. We ask dumb questions. We make dumb statements. That’s what we do when we learn.

Social media is the way we communicate today. It is also the way we learn. It is the way we encounter new ideas, the way we discuss them, the way we come to settled convictions. What we read in the news or see on television we then take to Facebook or blogs or Twitter. There we mull them over, we evaluate them, and we determine what we believe about them. But I wonder how much we don’t say and don’t ask because we are afraid of the response. How much could we know and how much could we discuss if the fear of outraged responses didn’t keep us from exploring new ideas and asking new questions? What could we talk about, what could we learn, if we were granted the grace to ask dumb questions?

We ought to learn from Jesus the value of extending grace to people to say things that sound outrageous to our ears. We have to be patient and kind and forgiving. We have to be realistic. Before we expect people to say things that are wise, we first need to let them say things that are dumb.


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