searching for what we know for sure :: an introduction

Oprah calls it one of her most embarrassing moments: when film critic Gene Siskel asked her on live television,”What do you know for sure?” and she didn’t have an answer. After that, she did a lot of thinking about the things she knows for sure and this is often a question she asks others.

Years ago, the question became a column in her magazine. In 2007, she wrote this piece on a day when she thought her dog was dying, she had to tape two shows back to back, and then catch a flight that afternoon. She was stressed and overwhelmed and her column was late.

“There are two audiences full of people who’ve traveled from every corner of the United States for their first visit to The Oprah Show. And I have at least three e-mails from Gayle and now Amy Gross, O‘s editor-in-chief, saying my “What I Know” column is holding up the presses. I’m feeling a little stressed. And I know nothing.”

On that day, when she was forced to consider what she knew for sure, all she could come up with was this: I know nothing.

Even someone who has done a lot of thinking about what they know for sure can forget it all in the middle of a hard time.

I’ve been thinking about what I know for sure for a while now and I even considered doing my 31 days series last October on things I knew for sure.

The only problem?

I couldn’t think of 31 things I knew for sure. I couldn’t even think of a weeks worth. And that wasn’t even because I was in the middle of a hard time.

I wrote about hushing instead. Probably a good call.

The question is important to consider because it slows me down. Ask me what I know, I can rattle it all off, list it out and run my big mouth. But ask me what I know for sure and I get quiet.

The “for sure” bit forces me to be more thoughtful than I might have been otherwise. I think that’s good.

But the things I thought I knew for sure when I was twenty are not the things I know for sure now.

There was a time I knew for sure I would never allow a dog to live in my house. We know how that turned out.

our dog

I knew for sure I would never like onions or fish or bellbottoms. All that changed.

Now I know for sure that God is good, but I don’t always know for sure how to interpret his goodness on a daily basis.

I know for sure my husband loves me, but I also know for sure there is a strength within my soul that cannot be destroyed even if he changes his mind.

Jennie Allen says we’re going to get to heaven and realize not one of us was “right.” We all had limited views of God and His ways and even His word. Maybe she means those things we think we know for sure may not be as sure as we thought they were.

I had every intention of doing a What I Know For Sure series on Mondays here in January and hope that Oprah didn’t sue me. But as I’ve thought more about it, maybe I’m not quite ready for that. And maybe there’s something I’m learning to value more than knowing something for sure.

These days, I would rather explore the step that comes right before what I know for sure — and not just the thinking and considering, but the people who speak into the questions bringing light and perspective and hope.

I’m in a season now where I’m taking the things I thought I knew for sure and holding them up in my hands, walking around with them, asking questions of them and sometimes, setting them down on the table and asking God if I need to go ahead and leave them behind.

I want write about some things I’m learning, ask you what you’re learning, and thank the people who are helping me uncover what I know for sure.

Next Monday, I’ll be back with the first in a series called She’s Changing How I Think About _____. Or sometimes, it might be He.

Or it could be Why ____ is Changing How I Think About ____. I reserve the right to change the title. Or to take your suggestions on a title.

Clearly I am no position to know things for sure.

And I’ll want to hear from you, because that’s the best part. Next week, I’ll tell you who is changing how I think about writing. Maybe you’ll think about that too, and join in the conversation.

We’ll see what comes out.


  1. says

    WOW! I think the only thing I do know for sure is that GOD loves me no matter what. Period. And that’s the best sure thing to know that there is.

  2. says

    “These days, I would rather explore the step that come right before what I know for sure ” This resonates with me so much. The introspection. The allowing yourself to see things differently and perhaps more brilliantly from another angle…

  3. says

    i really love that you are doing this. i went through a big period of my life “knowing” a lot of things only to have the rug pulled out from under me. i am always hesitant about people who “know” things and don’t question….
    can’t wait for this series!

  4. says

    I’m ready for this series for sure. I’ve been asking a lot of these questions, too. I think the biggest issue right now is the way the church has seen and hurt women for centuries. It’s funny, amidst an upbringing that wasn’t for sure on this issue (in either direction), I always knew in my heart that it was ridiculous to think any less of a person because of their sex and this wasn’t a popular notion with my peers (in middle school, no less!). Rachel Held Evans is doing amazing things to – funnily enough – help make this one of the things that I am surest about, but I have been so struck by how women and the church, and so many other ‘religious’ issues are really cultural ones. and THAT makes me a lot less sure about a lot of other things I’ve believed. Looking forward to this, Emily.

  5. Gwen says

    I read your blog every day, but seldom comment. I just soak it in. I look forward to this series. The older I get the less I know. I wish I was half as smart as I thought I was in my youth. Thank you, also, for introducing me to Jennie Allen.

  6. says

    Gosh, this is fantastic. I can relate – the older I get, the less sure I am about anything, and I’m starting to think maybe that’s not a bad thing. Looking forward to the series!

  7. Leslie says

    excited about this series- lately it seems I have more questions running through my head than definitive answers. Looking forward to reading what you have to share

  8. says

    What a fantastic jumping off point! What an incredibly difficult thing to do! I need this kind of perspective…thank you for showing it to us.
    The one thing I know For Sure, since you asked…is that every last person around me is both profoundly beautiful and profoundly broken, making them both irresistibly lovely and really sucky to be around. And if all I can see is the lovely (or the sucky), then I know For Sure that there is something haywire in my heart.
    Love this blog. Love your writing.

  9. says

    Everything you write seems to feed my soul in some way. This series is no different. Can’t wait for next week, although this week you’ve already given me quite a bit to think about. :)

  10. says

    What a wonderful question. I had never heard about this with Oprah before. As a school teacher, I was at work when her show was on. It’s a question to ask at dinner. My first thought was – I know that my Redeemer lives. My second thought was did I think that because it is a song lyric or because I know for sure that He lives. I decided it is the latter. I see His hand on each sunset and in the laughter of children. I know because He saved me from my sins and healed me from my sickness. I do know for sure that Jesus lives. Now I need to figure out what else I know for sure.

  11. says

    This is a really good post and makes me stop and think. There have been times in my life I was so sure about what I knew. This is not one of them. I want to stop and add the “for sure” next time I think I know something. Thanks.

  12. says

    There is a line in one of Don Henley’s songs, Heart of the Matter, and it goes “The more I know, the less I understand; all the things I’d figured out, I have to learn again.”

    I feel that way myself sometimes.Typically, I find myself wondering what I know for a fact, when something has broken my heart.

    I’m excited to read you series! Great thoughts!

  13. says

    In November I joined Nanowrimo and wrote a 50,000 word book. Now I’m trying to edit/rewrite and I am very dry and discouraged. It’s like you talked to me this morning and knew this! Mondays are tough days. Thanks for writing.

  14. Judy says

    Lots of things I ‘knew’ have turned out to be illusions, but having walked a hard road these last years, I can say I know the Lord’s grace is sufficient – some days no more than that it seems, but sufficient. I look forward to pondering your un-knowings, and the knowings you discover too. Thank you so very much for the generosity with which you share your internal world with us.

  15. says

    Oh, how I love the honesty in this post!!! It is the one thing we can be sure of in life- that things will change and it is actually a good thing that they do. But in our God- our unchanging God!- there is so much that we can know for sure. Can’t wait to read all of your posts on this!

  16. says

    Hurry it on up, Next Week!

    I love this. L to the O to the V to the E. Yes, it’s cheer-worthy.
    I’ve done so much kicking around lately. It feels sort of great.

    Have you read Evolving in Monkey Town? Mmmhmmm.

  17. says

    I have come to the conclusion this week that one thing I know for sure is that I am not perfect. That was on my heart, that was my art in my own blog. Looking forward to more, Emily. Blessings

  18. laura says

    A long while back, I came across your blog and I printed out something you wrote…I hold it dear to this day…
    this is it —

    ‘But there are other times when the grace-showing feels tricky. There maybe a person or people in your life to whom you have shown grace and from whom grace has not been returned. Over and over again. Or even worse, you have been hurt by them in big ways, causing deep wounds and the need for soul-healing. Showing grace towards them does not necessarily mean you are to remain quiet and continue to pursue them and to allow the rejection to go on and on. Instead, showing grace means releasing them of the responsibility to meet your needs-perhaps your need to be loved, to be understood, to be right, to be safe – it may mean you are to continue to pursue that person. But, it may not.”

    These words have helped me immensely…as I continue to work thru some problems with others…than you for them…they reside on my desk by my bedside… :)

  19. says

    yeah. knowledge is overrated, i think. it is so temporary compared to love’s eternal flame. (1 cor. 13, right?)

    perhaps it is takes a new kind of courage to admit we don’t know. or maybe i’ts graduation into the true freedom that is called by the name of humility.

    either way, i relished every word of this, emily. so often i feel like i am arriving at an understanding of faith that has far more to do with trust than with certainty. and i’m finding it so large here.

  20. says

    What a fresh idea…perfect for January. January needs this series and I am filled with expectation for where you will go and where we will go with you. This is going dig deep and stir up good things from this community and you. WOWZA. I’m thrilled with this one, Emily.

  21. says

    I love that your blog is a ‘place where my soul can breathe’. That is how I feel about mine. I call it my mental spa. I have a feeling I will be popping over here often. Funny, in 2011, one of last blogs was titled ‘the one thing I know for sure’. I too got it from Oprah (hope she does not sue me! Lol!). Of all the things I think I know for sure, this is the surest:

    I can never disappoint my PapaGod. His love for me is truly agendaless and unconditional and completely incomprehensible.

    Is that one thing or four? Lol! Nice e-meeting you!

  22. says

    “But the things I thought I knew for sure when I was twenty are not the things I know for sure now.”

    It’s amazing how the older we get the less we know for sure.

  23. says

    Oh, Emily. This will be good. And I am right there too. I keep saying that the older I get, the less I know, but the things I do know, I know deep in my bones: that I am loved, that my true home is abiding with Christ, that there is a surprising strength in quietness and trust, and how (really) listening changes everything. These are the things I’m leaning in to. Do you know that Avett Brothers’ song “Backwards with Time”?- it would make a nice theme song for the series! Looking forward to next week’s post.

  24. Dee Dee says

    The older you get, the more you realize how little you really know. When people want to tell me what they know for positively sure without a single doubt (about life), and they are under the age of 40 and have small children, I try not to laugh. When Barbara Walters was 50, she wrote a piece entitled, “50 Things I Know Now That I Didn’t Know Then.” It highlighted things she had learned in the years since the beginning of her career. For example, one was that people you trusted can look you straight in the face and lie without batting an eye. I’m not sure why it took her so long to figure that one out. It was an interesting read, though. She’s what, pushing 80 now? I wonder how that list might change if she wrote it now. We are always learning.

  25. says

    Oh, how I love this. We open up so much more room for understanding when we admit what we don’t know. Can I link to this post when I focus on humility in my blog during the month of March? You are inspiring, as always.

  26. says

    Ah, one thing I know for sure: I don’t know very much! And furthermore, it seems to me God likes to keep me in that place of not knowing. My husband and I have been in full-time inner-city ministry for 13 years now, and so much of the time God asks us to have faith — sounds obvious, right? But it isn’t faith if He hands us a blueprint, it’s only faith when we’re going blind with only an invisible Father’s hand to hold. I kind of think the longer we walk with God, the more often we have to go blind… instead of taking us more into His confidence, He withholds more information and asks us to trust. At least, that’s how it seems in my life. “Tis so sweet…”

    My oldest son is prone to being ABSOLUTELY SURE about everything. You name it, he knows it, and you better not question! I hope in time he moves from Oprah-Ville to Emily-Town!

    • says

      We sat behind your parents at church last Sunday. Your mom gave me your blog address and of course, I lost the tiny slip of paper I wrote it on. So glad you commented here so I can click over!

  27. says

    I know Oprah used to ask her guests this at one point, and I remember when she asked Meryl Streep, who said that she knows for sure that she will never lose the last of that baby weight. Preach it, Meryl.

    • says

      I’ll have to add that one to the list. Right after knowing for sure I will never be able to eat cake with a spoon. Or if it comes to that, like in a cake emergency or something, I know for sure I will not enjoy it.

  28. says

    Emily — I laughed out loud about your bellbottoms comment because I was right there with you years ago, and I still remember telling my mother I knew for sure I would never wear wide-legged pants again. Ahem. What I know for sure now is that God has a good and perfect plan for my life, but I know that I’m not sure I believe I’ll be comfortable with what He has planned! I’m looking forward to reading your series, especially next week’s topic of writing!

  29. Lisa says

    I’m in a similar season of re-examination. Mine is prompted by becoming a mother 7 months ago. Right now, the things I need to teach my daughter are fairly simple, but they will get complicated rather quickly. I grapple with how to teach her about God and faith and the Bible when I still have questions about all those things. Why do I believe what I believe? Why are her father and I teaching her the things we will teach her? Very complicated stuff on a good day, let alone with a sleep-deprived brain!

  30. says

    What a great series! I can’t wait to read more next Monday. I think life is a constant education; I too shy away from saying “I know” because I’ve already had myself proven wrong so many times. I love to see God do that – open my eyes and show me something new. Excited to follow your journey through this!

  31. says

    I love this idea – even at the surface level. I know that ‘the things I know for sure’ about myself are continually evolving. This is something I am learning to love & embrace instead of getting lost in it. Grace is good.

  32. says

    I don’t know Jennie Allen, but based on what you wrote here, I want to know her. :)

    This year is big for me. I will turn 50 this year. And one thing I know for sure is that I used to know a lot of things for sure, but now the list of what I know for sure is much shorter. That shorter list is now pretty much filled with life-altering truths (e.g. God is light and in Him is no darkness at all) and tiny, insignificant details (e.g. I don’t want chairs covered in dark-colored upholstery that will show dog hairs). Most of the in-between stuff I don’t really know for sure any more.

    HOWEVER, this I do know for sure, to wit: anyone with any sense would be delighted to be a she or a he who changes how you think about something. To influence the thoughts of such a thoughtful person as you? That would be a delight for anyone.

  33. says

    This sure felt good to read, thanks Emily… “Jennie Allen says we’re going to get to heaven and realize not one of us was “right.” We all had limited views of God and His ways and even His word. Maybe she means those things we think we know for sure may not be as sure as we thought they were.”

  34. says

    Today I realized I know a few things FOR SURE. And I wrote them down in my own blog. This post has been one that I can’t get out of my head. Thanks much for making me think and for the inspiration to write.

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