The Role of Certainty

By

“Certainty is the place you stop when you’re tired of thinking.”

I loved this quote when I first stumbled across it. I guess I have always had a problem with people who are so firm on what they perceive as the correct worldview that it’s as if they think God has revealed all mysteries to them and them alone. Growing up, it was a church that was certain about who was saved and who was not. In college, it was professors certain of how the end times were going to work out. In a career in ministry, it has been leaders around me certain that their methods are the best.

On the television, it’s no different. News analysts and talk show hosts are certain that the Republican or the Democratic agenda holds the key to our country’s future. Entire shows are built around bringing together two people entrenched on opposing sides of a particular debate and watching them go head-to-head. The winner? It’s certainly not the one convincing the other that they are incorrect. Instead, it’s usually the wittiest one who emerges victorious, the one able to make the other person seem less together or less educated on their topic because the sarcasm from the other “certain” side presented their case better.

If it wasn’t for the Spirit of God convicting, wooing, and calling me throughout my entire life, I wouldn’t be a Christian. No way. I wouldn’t be able to make heads or tails of religion if I were a complete outsider looking in. To be honest, I’m not sure if I can make much of it even as an “insider.” With everyone so affirmed in their own position which is antithetical to the next guy/girl and their stance, there would be no way to find truth because we’ve all labeled our personal road as the “narrow” one.

As a pastor, I say “I don’t know” a lot more than I was told I should. How will things go down concerning end times? I don’t know. Where was God when this horrific thing happened? I really can’t say for certain. Does God really have a perfect will for my life and, if so, how can I find it? I’m not quite sure. The questions come one after the other yet I am increasingly comfortable saying, “I don’t have a great answer for you, because I just don’t know.”

Why? I have a sneaking suspicion that other people really don’t know either, and it’s a relief when they finally hear that it’s okay to not know. I don’t have the truth all figured out. I don’t have the ways and things of God hammered down. His ways are higher than my ways. His thoughts are higher than my thoughts. I am the created trying to make sense of the Creator. I am the natural making sense of the supernatural. By definition alone, there are things that I, as the ordinary, cannot understand about the extraordinary.

So I have to be okay with that. It’s humbling to not have it figured out. Yet, Biblically speaking, I can know one thing for sure–that humility is a good thing. I have to have faith if I can’t fill in the blanks on my own. Yet I can be certain that faith is also a good thing to possess. It seems, then, that the mystery I must embrace is good for me. I am finding that the uncertainty is actually where I’m supposed to live. Instead of frantically striving to understand all things and then declare my supremacy on a specific topic, it seems God is found in the tension of simply shrugging and saying, “I don’t know.”

And of that, I’m absolutely certain…

Matt Conner is a freelance writer and music journalist. As the founding pastor of The Mercy House, he led a church community for more than six years in intense community development across racial and socio-economic lines. As a writer, he’s interviewed thousands of musicians for multiple print and web-based publications.


32 Comments

  1. Gaël Cosendai

    Woooo…it’s so good and so relieving to know it’s okay not to know…Thanks a lot Matt! That’s a great thought! It makes me think of Steven Curtis Chapman’s song:
    “God is God and I am not
    I can only see a part of the picture Hes painting
    God is God and I am man
    So I’ll never understand it all
    For only God is God”

  2. Jenny

    Hi..
    Nice post. I think that this ties in…
    Our minister hit on this on Sunday at our church.
    He spoke on how sometimes he gets asked the same questions and how it’s ok to reply that he doesn’t know, but that the one thing he knows for certain, is that God does and that we need to rely on him, trust him and have faith in Him.
    He said some people ask him, “Why” or “How do you know”..he says he knows b/c the Bible says it and that he has total faith in the Lord, and that his word does not lie. He challenged us to read our Bibles more, so the word of the Lord is in our heart.

  3. Wes

    …well

    …of one thing I am certain as this day begins

    …we need more blog posts like this one

    …thank you!

    …just a hint (…having heard Richard Rohr this past weekend here in Denver, his new book “Things Hidden” continues well the theme of your post. Thus, I thank God for you, Matt, and Father Rohr…and of that, I’m also certain.) 🙂

  4. Adam T

    It is good to hear this kind of honesty. While we don’t want to be lazy in our faith, it is encouraging for me to be reminded that I don’t have to know all the answers. I thought the second-to-last paragraph was especially profound.

  5. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Matt,

    I was just reading in 1 Corinthians where “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to confound the wise.” To have all the answers down pat is to leave no room for new revelation, new knowledge, new experience of God, and new learning. I’ve met believers who think they have God-thought down perfectly because they are an expert in Calvin or other men, and then when that boxed-and-wrapped god is questioned they get nasty, sarcastic, mean. We often mistake knowledge about God for actual relationship with God, walking with Him in a daily abiding, a daily reliance, because we think safety and assurance are in knowledge. But it is not so. We actually have to know very little in order to trust God. We know He is good. We know He does things we don’t understand. And we know that somehow the death and resurrection of Jesus made us right with God, and we know that the Holy Spirit is now our empowerment to trust, to walk in abiding faith.

    A child doesn’t have to know everything. In fact, the best children realize they don’t know it all and trust their parents to make it all work out for the best.

  6. Stacy Grubb

    Matt,

    “You won’t know,” is my favorite advice to give my friends who are expecting babies. When I became a mom, I’d spent my whole life listening to that advice of, “You just know what to do,” when I would ask someone how they handle some ghastly new-mom situation. Eventually, I became a new mom and guess what…I didn’t know what I was doing. Even worse, I thought I was the *only* one who didn’t “just know” how to be a calm, collected, has all the answers mom. At some point (after many tears – mine and the baby’s, sleepless nights, calls to the pediatrician, and posts on my Mommy Messageboards), I finally concluded that there was no way I was the first woman to come along to not know what I was doing. In fact, I never knew how much I didn’t know until I became a parent. So, in remembrance of how convinced I was that God had paired my son with the most clueless mom the world had ever known, I always say to my friends, “You won’t know…and that’s alright.” It’s alright because God will teach us.

    Stacy

  7. Loren Eaton

    A professor once told me that “it isn’t a sign of intellectual maturity to wallow in indecision.” The problem with certainly seems to be less the mental state itself and more the arrogance with which some present it. In other words, it’s okay to be right, just don’t be a jerk about it.

  8. Tony Heringer

    Matt,

    I’m reading a book called “(Re)Thinking Worldview: Learning to Think, Live and Speak in This World” by J. Mark Bertrand. He notes something that relates to this topic. He is telling about students who would come to him during his time as a college professor. He divided their questions into two categories:

    “Either they hoped to lay out their circumstances and have me tell them exactly what to do, or they wanted to share a technique for divining the will of God. I say divining, not discerning, because the requests really did seem to be aimed more at divination than discernment. The students imaged there must be a spiritual equivalent to the Magic 8-Ball that they could shake via prayer or good works to arrive at God’s answer.”

    That last line just slays me. I know that I’ve often thought of many a spiritual talk or good work as something that was really no more than divination. Discernment, like life, is typically messy. We can’t know all ends, but we can trust in the One who does know them. We can also obey His revealed will in the Bible — something that is uncomfortable in the tough times. Those are the times when I’d rather just roll the dice or shake my Magic 8-Ball (a sanctified version of course). 🙂

  9. Taylor Sandlin

    Well said. As another young pastor I find that my congregation has found it refreshing to here the occasional or oft spoken “I don’t know.” Equally refreshing for them is “Here’s what I think but I’m certainly open to learning something new about the topic.” I think for as much as the “sound-bite” media seems to be moving in the other direction, large sections of the church seems to be longing for a more reflective, humble faith. Thanks for the post.

  10. Sharon

    A favorite line of mine from a Michael Card song (To the Mystery) is:

    “Give up on your pondering,
    And fall down on your knees.”

  11. Karisa

    “Certainty is the place you stop when you’re tired of thinking.”

    Funny… I interpret that quotation in a whole different way: certainty is a resting place, a refuge when I can’t understand God and His ways–which is often. Truth is Truth and I can anchor in it even when I can’t make sense of it. I don’t have all the answers, either–but I am absolutely certain they are to be found in the Lord and His Word. No exceptions.

  12. Nate

    I like answers and I think you can ponder on your knees. I’m reading a book called Total Truth on worldview. Its really good. It makes me prayerfully and strenuously consider my ideas and why I think them. And its helping me frame a lot of things.

  13. mike

    The problem with ponderings is that we too often ponder systematically. Derek Webb reminded us on a podcast with Donald Miller that God is not a system. Maybe we need to ponder relationally.

  14. Josh

    My only problem with the whole “there are just things we can’t know as humans” line of thinking is this: too many people use it as a cop-out. Sure there are some things about God we just can’t know, but there are lots and lots and lots of things we can learn and know with all certainty if we’re just willing to ask enough questions and study enough scripture. But the kicker to the asking and studying is this: that we do it all in the context of just getting to know God better, not that we do it just so we can more effectively argue against points of view we don’t agree with.

    I’ve seen many discussions that were very enjoyable to be a part of brought to a screeching halt by someone who, when they felt their argument (for lack of a better word) had run out of steam, suddenly threw out the “well I guess there’s just some things we just can’t know about God”. I think there are some aspects of God we can know, others we can’t. And beyond that, there are things one person may be able to completely understand that the next guy will be totally baffled by. There’s nothing wrong with feeling certain that you know the truth about something, but the problem comes when you stop even so much as considering that mabye your answer isn’t totally right. Be confident in what you feel you have learned to be true, but don’t be unbending and unaccepting of the possibility that maybe you’re actually not infallible in your knowledge.

  15. Nate

    I’ll take Graeme Goldsworthy or RC Sproul over Donald Miller any day. Please describe pondering “relationally.” What does this mean? What does it look like? If I want to ponder relationally how do I begin? Is it just inthe act of asking others what they think? I’m interested in this idea, but I do not know what it is.

  16. Brance

    I completely agree with Josh, and Nate btw – Sproul rocks!

    There are many things about God and Scripture that I don’t know, and if asked, I’m willing to tell those under my care that I don’t know. There are other things I’m certain of. As certain as I can be of anything while seeing through a glass, darkly.

    I don’t remember the exact quote, but in “Bondage of the Will” Martin Luther argues that we have enough confusion on our own, God gave us his Word because he wanted us to understand. If it’s in the Bible there must be some level of understanding we can possess.

    But I think Matt’s original point about our being humble enough to admit when we don’t know. And humble enough to admit that we might be wrong about some things we think we do know, is very important.

    The moment a teacher or theologian claims to have it ALL figured out, or claims, with obvious pride, to have a certain topic or doctrine completely figured out, I start throwing red flags.

    Great post Matt. It reinforced my commitment to just tell my youth when I don’t know. To often I think teachers and preachers feel pressure to have an answer for every question. I thank God he has freed me from that pressure. I usually answer that I don’t know, but I’m willing to help them study and pray about it, seeking God’s will in the matter.

    I look forward to the day when we’ll see face to face and know as we are known by God. What a glorious day that will be!

  17. david

    if you’re trying to develop a systematic theology, take Goldsworthy or Sproul – but if you are seeking to understand the practical nature of Christian community and how the Spirit moves relationally, read Miller. it’s unfair to compare the languages of knowledge that the respective theologians/authors employ.
    i’d take Schaeffer over Sproul, but that still isn’t exactly a fair comparison…

  18. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Matt,

    Came across this in 1Cor 8 this morning:

    “…we know that we all have knowledge. Knowledge breeds conceit, while love builds up character. And if any man thinks that he knows anything, he knows nothing yet as he ought to know. But if any man loves God, God is known by him.”

  19. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    In reading through more of the comments – Josh, I agree. Extremes are not good, and “we can’t and don’t know everything” can be a road to “we can’t and don’t know anything.” There are many truths we can know because the Word states them clearly. I had a pastor years ago who would say, “I major on the repeatables in God’s Word.” There are things God says over and over in many different ways; those things we can know. Where many get into arguments is where concrete knowledge ends and speculation begins, and then speculations are claimed as knowledge.

    Screwtape says to Wormwood, “It sounds as though you supposed that argument was the way to keep him out of the Enemy’s clutches. That might have been so if he had lived a few centuries earlier. At that time the humans still knew pretty well when a thing was proved and when it was not; and if it was proved they really believed it. They still connected thinking with doing and were prepared to alter their way of life as the result of a chain of reasoning. But what with the weekly press and other such weapons we have largely altered that. Your man has been accustomed, ever since he was a boy, to have a dozen incompatible philosophies dancing about together inside his head.”

  20. Stacy Grubb

    I agree that, “I don’t know,” can’t be a destination. What I took from the post, though, is that it’s okay to admit it when it’s your starting point. A couple of days ago, my little boy asked me if worms have mouths. “I really don’t know. I don’t think so, but I don’t know.” I’d never really though about it before, so nothing has ever prompted me to research the answer to that. But the fact that he did think about it and dragged me in on it means that, in order to help him understand it, I have to find the answer and report back to him with my facts and figures.

    I think it’s very possible, and maybe even probable, that God will pose a question to us through the mouths of someone else. Perhaps the answer to a question is one He knows you need to know. It’s okay if you don’t know it, yet, but don’t let that be the end of it.

    That said, I do believe there are many truths we accept by faith because we simply can’t understand it. The way Salvation works; the Trinity; even Eternity. I can’t understand no beginning and no end. I accept that on faith. Complete understanding is something God has promised us for a later time. One day, we’ll understand why certain tragedies occur; why children suffer; why we have to lose, sometimes. Until then, faith that God has a reason will get me through it all (though, some things test my faith more than others).

    By the way, earthworms do, in fact, have very tiny mouths. And they don’t eat dirt like I’d always thought. They eat bacteria, microorganisms, and detritus. If you’d like to learn more about the crop, gizzard, and other digestive stopping points, look it up.

    Stacy

  21. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Stacy,

    In George MacDonald’s Thomas Wingfold, Thomas is a parson by trade. He uses the sermons of a deceased relative. Early on in the book, an atheist asks him, “Do you really believe a word of all that?” And as a result, Thomas asks himself that question and it causes a journey of spiritual awakening. He realizes he became a clergyman more for a career choice than for Christ, and in fact comes to doubt whether he is even a Christian, whether he really believes any of it (sometimes God has to tear sham buildings down in order to build the real one).

    It frustrates some people around him who are complacent in their belief-systems, but others find light through his search (including the reader!). One question from an unbeliever, an atheist, sets him on a whole new and better spiritual track. And eventually, like an earthworm, he tunnels to the open air.

  22. Stacy Grubb

    Ron,

    My husband sometimes teaches the high school-aged youth group during Sunday School and most of the kids in his class have been attending the church since they were born. There is one girl in particular who, over the last couple of years, has been openly questioning God’s Word and, really, whether God is even real. I think she feels more comfortable doing that because my husband is very candid about his own experience questioning the Bible when he was a youth. She’s often chastised by the other teenagers, though, who either wholeheartedly accept the Bible as truth or at least won’t admit to having doubts. This girl, by all accounts, is a great kid. She’s polite, disciplined, friendly, active within the church volunteering to assist in the nurseries, and has a phenomenal musical talent. I often hear her singing over the rest of the congregation. I actually admire her for posing the questions she asks in Sunday School because they don’t seem to come from a place of challenge. She’s just sharing the fact that she thinks about this stuff and genuinely wants someone to show her why something is true. Unfortunately, in typical teenage fashion, she questions things, but hasn’t been motivated to seek answers on her own. But she has motivated my husband, as her teacher, to find the answers and share them in class. For some, it may just be the concrete proof to back up what they’d accepted on faith. I have to think, though, that she’s not the only person to question these things they’ve been told all of their lives; she’s just the first person to question them out loud.

    For whatever reason, I was definitely one of the kids who felt secure in just accepting what I was told. Perhaps it was the trust I put in the folks who were teaching and guiding me mixed with something in my character that just doesn’t question things. I don’t know. But I do know that a lot of the spiritual awakening I’ve experienced in recent years came about because of answers I didn’t have, but wanted. I don’t question that I’ve had Salvation all of these years, but I wasn’t maturing in my faith. I was so certain that I wasn’t smart enough to find answers that I didn’t even try. Shedding that “certainty,” though, has taught me that, if I seek it, God will show me the answers. He won’t just flip open my head like a lid and pour in information, though. I have to show to Him that I want to know more and since He knows me better than I know myself, He teaches me in a way that I can comprehend. That’s much more than I can say for my 9th grade Algebra teacher.

    Stacy

  23. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Stacy,

    Right – that’s why it’s so important to study the Bible for ourselves. And of course we listen to pastors, teachers, and “receive the word with all readiness of mind”; but we check it out for ourselves rather than just taking what so-and-so told us. If we seek God, seek to know Him, seek to trust Him and obey Him, He will definitely reveal Himself.

    Here’s a great passage from Donal Grant – I’ve read it before but like all great art it is shocking me anew with its beauty and freshness.

    “What a huge block of chimneys!” said Arctura.

    “Is it not!” returned Donal. “It indicates the hugeness of the building below us, of which we can see so little. Like the volcanoes of the world, it tells us how much fire is necessary to keep our dwelling warm.”

    “I thought it was the sun that kept the earth warm,” said Davie.

    “So it is, but not the sun alone. The earth is like a man: the great glowing fire is God in the heart of the earth, and the great sun is God in the sky, keeping it warm on the other side. Our gladness and pleasure, our trouble when we do wrong, our love for all about us, that is God inside us; and the beautiful things and lovable people, and all the lessons of life in history and poetry, in the Bible, and in whatever comes to us, is God outside of us. So long as we do not give ourselves up heartily to him, we fear his fire will burn us. And burn us it does when we go against its flames and not with them, refusing to burn with the fire with which God is always burning. When we try to put it out, or oppose it, or get away from it, then indeed it burns!”

  24. becky

    I think God only lets us go on for so long accepting whatever we are told. Being what everyone expects us to be. Trying to look like we have it all together. Sooner or later that facade just becomes too much to carry around. My greatest period of growth as a believer was following a time of deep questioning, and withdrawing from the game of keeping up appearances. Who is Jesus, really? Do I know? Does it mean something to me? When I know all the answers, there is no reason to question. And no way to learn.

    One of my current favorite songs talks about thinking I have everything figured out, and finding out how wrong I am. It was written by a musician I know named Leesha Harvey (you can hear this and her other songs at http://www.youtube.com/leeshaharvey.) It’s called “Beautiful Destruction”, and this is the third verse and chorus:

    Windblown, drenched by all the rain, I stand here shocked and quite ashamed
    It made so much sense
    I chose the obvious
    Forgetting You’re mysterious and love to work in ways that seem both foolish and weak
    I lost sight of Your love…. Your love…

    Beautiful destruction
    You’re tearing me apart
    Melting the cold logic of my heart
    All these years I’ve known You
    And sat with You to dine
    Could it be I’m seeing You for the first time?

  25. Nate

    I like that “beautiful destruction/tearing me apart.” Its like the refiner’s fire or the pruning. The pruning does hurt.

  26. Stacy Grubb

    Ron,

    Thank you for posting that. It is a great visual explanation of God’s omnipresence. That’s one of the things that I take from it, at least. It is God existing within us – through us – and God reaching us through others, as well. I tend to understand the more complex concepts better when some creative person comes along and breaks it down in that sort of way.

    That is just the sort of thing, however, that I will usually let slip right past me and the idea behind it won’t stick to my hairspray. I was thinking of that a couple of weeks ago because of how often I see movie reviews here that give wonderful parallels to Christian life or something of the like. I feel like I’m missing out because when I sit down to watch a movie, I usually never think to take it at anything more than face value. I guess, though, in a way, my tendency to do that really goes along with this post. I’m subconsciously confident that I know what a movie or book is about, yet missing the bigger (or maybe subtle) picture.

    Stacy

  27. Josh

    Stacy,

    That’s a great point about movies. I have found that when I watch a mnovie I know nothing about beyond the title I find so many little allusions to things and spiritual parralels that I’m just not sure i would’ve seen if I had been exposed to the spoiler-laced previews we’re bombarded with today. The trailers we see in theatres basically go ahead and tell us what we’re in for and refuse to leave anything up for interpretation anymore. I hate that.

    That was way off topic.. My bad… Back to the certainty thing…

  28. Stacy Grubb

    Josh,

    I don’t think that really is off-topic (of course, I’m prone to rambling bunny trails, so I’m the last person to give an unbiased opinion on such a thing). We can be so certain that we already know what the movie is about, that we completely miss other conclusions we might’ve drawn sans a know-it-all attitude. Admittedly, I’m probably not watching the right types of movies if I hope to get a deeper meaning. When reading Ron’s above excerpt, I couldn’t help but have at least a flash of Dr. Evil saying, “Lik-wid Hottt MAG-maaaa.” But anyway, my point is, I do see a parallel in this post and Ron’s last post, “Sacrificing Sacred Cows If Necessary,” because they both deal with taking an approach that says, “I don’t know all the answers.” When you don’t already know, you’re open to deeper truths. Naturally, you don’t want to be so open that your brain rolls out, but it’s about seeking knowledge moreso than education. I wouldn’t entirely blame previews and spoilers for taking away interpretation because I believe that I as a Christian could draw a parallel that may not have even been intentional on the movie-makers’ parts. That doesn’t mean that the movie isn’t about what the previews tell you it’s about. It just means that we approach the movie-watching experience open to the idea that there may be more than one meaning that we can take away from it. If we can learn to approach our Bible study in that way, we stand to gain a deeper understanding. As we grow in our faith, that maturity may reveal something in a passage that, had we took for granted that we already knew what that passage meant, we would’ve missed.

    Stacy

  29. Ron Block

    @ronblock

    Stacy, Josh,

    I used to go to movies and see anti-Christian bias. After God broke down my theological framework and transformed me by renewing my mind in a big way in the mid 1990s, I began to see God in movies.

    So much in art depends on reception; like a radio station which can be a little out of range, with static and cutting in and out, so we can be a little out of range of a movie if we go there with preconceived notions or expectations. The static created by “my expectations” or “my perceptions” can prevent my receiving the movie, or book, or music, as an open, clear receiver.

    Lewis, in An Experiment in Criticism, deals with that by saying in effect that in order to truly evaluate any art, we must first lay aside preconceived notions, expectations, etc, as best we can, and receive it as uncritically as possible. I’ve found that it sometimes takes at least several good hearings of a record to begin to understand it. As with Bonnie Raitt’s Fundamental, sometimes at first I don’t like a recording, based on my expectations that were created by the last one. But an open mind, and repeated listening, gives me a real knowledge of what the artist is doing, and at least in part, why they did it.

  30. Nate

    I read this by Schaeffer (Escape From Reason) earlier and I thought it pertinent:

    “It is an important principle to remember, in the contemporary interest of communication and in language study, that the biblical presentation is that, though we do not have exhaustive truth, we have from the Bible what I term “true truth.” In this way we know true truth about God, true truth about man and something truly about nature. Thus on the basis of Scriptures, while we do not have exhaustive knowledge, we have true and unified knowledge.”

  31. Stacy Grubb

    Ron,

    I’ve come to realize that at least one reason why I’ve never been able to draw more from movies/books/music is actually a perception I had of myself as not being capable of getting anything other than the obvious. I used to have a job where I worked around a slew of medical professionals. It was a university setting and, in many ways, I felt painfully out of my element. I often heard them discussing this or that movie and the symbolism that represented blah and blah and blah (meanwhile, I’m cracking myself up quoting “Old School”). It was for that very reason that I thought I could never study the Bible on my own. Thankfully, I’ve very recently discovered that God will deal with me – speak to me – on my own fruitcake level.

    Stacy

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