On Monday night, Stephen Colbert returned to The Late Show after a week away from TV.
He’d missed a tragically eventful few days. Following terrorists attacks in San Bernardino, California, that killed 14 people and injured 21 others, Americans collectively grappled with some very heavy issues: guns, immigration, the role of prayer, terrorism.
But, in the midst of dialogue and debate, something uglier than heated discourse emerged. Inflammatory rhetoric and vitriol drowned out calls for unity and solutions, with religion at the center of much of the outrage.
A major news source scolded politicians who offered “thoughts and prayers” to terrorism victims, claiming they were simply making “meaningless platitudes.” Cable news outlets rifled through the belongings of the suspects, showing pictures of their child’s room and private documents on live TV. Two news anchors on one network were suspended for lobbing expletives directed at the president following his address to the nation.
Presidential hopeful Donald Trump called for overt religious profiling, saying that all Muslims should be banned from even entering the U.S. And then the president of the world’s largest Christian university asked students to arm themselves to “end those Muslims” (a comment he later clarified as referring only to terrorists).
In the midst of this, Colbert returned to TV—as the host of a comedy show—to deliver a brief monologue that offers some antidote to all of the sensationalizing, hate and rage.
He offered his own thoughts and prayers for the victims, and defended them—thoughtfully, not angrily. Echoing Romans 12’s call to “mourn with those who mourn” he explained, “The reason you keep people in your thoughts and prayers is admittedly not to fix the problem, but to try and find some small way to share the burden of grief.”
Colbert did concede that we can’t stop there, and said we must look for meaningful, impactful solutions to problems facing culture. But between acknowledging the need for more gun regulation and possibly even more (responsible) gun ownership, Colbert said this:
Also, and I should have mentioned this before: I don’t know what I’m talking about.
It was a simple, throwaway comment that actually offers an antidote to all of the increasingly hostile rhetoric.
It’s OK Not to Know
Offering up “thoughts and prayers” when tragedy strikes acknowledges two things: 1) That tragedy should force thoughtful reflection, not just an emotional reaction, and 2) that we are all reliant on a higher power. At their core, both thoughts and prayers reveal something else: We don’t have all of the answers.
Yes, they are both ways to share grief with actual victims—mourning with those who mourn. But, when applied to tragic events like terrorism, they signal that the big issues require us to acknowledge that simple solutions and easy answers may not be easy to find.
We need to be thoughtful and lean on the wisdom of God to understand what should be done. Thoughts and prayers are important, but so is the humility to admit “I don’t know” when faced with complicated questions.
If prayer and action aren’t coupled with humility, we run the risk that pride in our own ways of doing things will turn our comments into rhetoric, and our ideas into platitudes.
Competition for Opinions
There’s a verse in Proverbs 15 that encourages the people of God to be ready with, how some translations put it, “an answer in season.”
“A person finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word!”
It’s easy to take this verse as an encouragement to be able to offer up our own strong opinions in the wake of complicated situations. But, if we take it out of context—without reading the warnings that bookend the text—we miss the point entirely.
The same chapter begins with, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger,” and later, it also says, “The Lord tears down the house of the proud.”
Yes, if we have a “timely word” we should deliver it with grace. But we need to be warned of the dangers of “harsh words” proclaimed with pride in our position.
The Difference Between Truth and Answers
The premise of the Gospel is that Jesus is the truth. He literally said, “I am the way and the truth and the life.” It is in this truth that we are set free from death, and receive life in Christ. As the Gospel says, “Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”
The problem comes when we conflate the idea of “truth” with the need to have “answers” for every problem and to every question. Truth and answers aren’t always the same things.
Sometimes, the truth is that we simply don’t know the right answers to the problems facing culture. We must be humble enough to admit that our own tightly held opinions about politics, laws and culture might not be right.
We don’t have all the answers, but God does: The same God who openly tells us, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways … My ways [are] higher than your ways. And my thoughts than your thoughts.”
The need to have an opinion about every political or social issue, or a comeback to every hot-take, requires us to claim to know things we might not actually know. It elevates pride in our personally held position, over the humility to actually think and pray about what God wants.
Some situations require us to take action and seek meaningful change. But that might mean putting aside our own ideas by acknowledging we don’t know all of the answers, but we know who does.
It means sharing our opinion about an issue, but at least being humble enough to admit, “I should have mentioned this before: I don’t know what I’m talking about,” when we don’t actually have all of the answers.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.