Certainty is kind of a tricky thing.
I mean, there are some Bible passages that seem to make certainty something we all should not only strive for, but already have in spades. The flagship verse for certainty is probably Hebrews 11:1.
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (Hebrews 11:1, NIV)
(I have to admit, in my own memory that verse reads slightly differently, something closer to: “Faith is being certain about what we hope for and sure of what we do not see.” The change is subtle, but perhaps significant. I wonder if we have, in our collective North American Church subconscious, slightly shifted the meaning of these words to align more with a Modern logical positivism. Your own culture always affects how you read Scripture, and it is hard to notice, let alone be free from, those kinds of cultural filters.)
Faith, it seems to me, gets equated with certainty; and if you are not sure, you must not believe. We don’t leave much room for doubt in the lives of people who have faith. Look at Doubting Thomas: he often gets almost as bum a rap as Judas. Doubt is treated as something of a taboo, the opposite of faith.
And to some extent, I get it: I mean, I want to have confidence, and trust, and assurance about my faith and my Jesus. And while “certainty” feels like one step farther down the path than “confidence,” I can see why it appears to be on the same path. Why wouldn’t we want people to be certain about their faith?
Maybe that’s the problem: maybe the problem with certainty is when it becomes a way of measuring or evaluating faith, ours or others’. The problem with looking directly at your faith to measure your faith is that you can always get another layer deeper in your analysis: “Do I believe … ? Yes, but do I really believe … ? Yes, but do I really, really believe … ?”
Faith doesn’t turn towards itself for analysis; faith turns to Jesus. I think confidence and assurance work the same way. If I want to know if I am certain–really, truly certain–there will always be one more layer to the onion. “Are you sure … ? Yes, but are you really sure … ? Yes, but are you certain that you are really sure …?”
My confidence is not in my confidence, and I don’t take assurance from my certainty. Rather, the object of both my faith and my certainty is Jesus. Let him be true, and even my own heart false, and I will still trust he has me. Even when I doubt.
I resonate with the father in Mark 9, who cries out with tears:
Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief! (Mark 9:24, KJV)
(It just sounds cooler in the King James …)
That’s a man whose faith is mixed with doubt, but he doesn’t let that keep him from clinging to Jesus. That father came looking for Jesus somewhat desperately on behalf of his son. The followers of this Jesus had already failed miserably. When Jesus finally shows up, this man asks Jesus for any possible help he may or may not be able to give. He asks with little hope or confidence, but in profound dependence and need.
When confronted with the feeble character of his request and the weakness of his faith, this man doesn’t turn away. He doubles down on Jesus. “If you can …” turns into, “Lord, I believe; but I need your help, because I also don’t believe at the same time.”
If you were grading that man’s faith based on Hebrews 11, he probably wouldn’t pass. D- at best. The problem is not, I think, with Hebrews 11, but with using Hebrews 11 to “grade” anyone’s faith. Since when did “certainty” become the measuring stick we use to distinguish those who “believe” from those who don’t?
Another one of my favorite scenes comes early in the Gospel of John. Philip gets to know Jesus, and goes and tells his friend Nathanael: “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law, and about whom the prophets also wrote—Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph.” Nate’s response is not exactly a hallmark of faithfulness.
“Nazareth! Can anything good come from there?” (John 2:46, NIV)
But Flip doesn’t chastise Nate for his lack of faith; Flip doesn’t even defend his own faith, or give all the logical positivist reasons for why his faith is right and Nathanael’s doubt is wrong. Instead, Philip does something I think we all can learn from in our age of skepticism and doubt: Philip extends an invitation.
Philip practices hospitality, not apologetics. “Come and see,” Philip says. And getting to know Jesus changes Nate’s worldview. Philip didn’t beat Nathanael up over his lack of faith; Flip brought Nate to Jesus.
I think our current cultural setting requires us to be comfortable around people who have their doubts. And that may mean being comfortable with our own doubts, as well. Your faith in Jesus doesn’t have to be perfect in order for it to be true. Just like faith, certainty is a gift from God, worked by the power of the Holy Spirit. When you are certain, thank God for that gift; when you struggle or doubt, lean on the Spirit of Jesus to strengthen and console.
Maybe owning up to the weakness of our own faith will not only make us more dependent on Jesus, but more open to walking with other people who aren’t so sure they believe. And they are out there. All over the place. And they desperately need to find people who accept their doubt along with their faith so they can take a next step following Jesus.
I recently read a newsletter a friend forwarded to me; it was about a youth event in a large US city. The organizers provided a way for the youth to make a commitment toward life change at the event. They used language I probably wouldn’t have used for the ask (looking at your decision is like looking at your faith or your certainty: “Did you decide … ? Yes, but did you really decide … ? Yes, but did you really, really decide … ?”), but what caught my eye was the third option you could check: “I am not ready to follow Jesus today because …”
One teenage girl checked that box and wrote on the line provided the reason she is not ready to follow Jesus today: “I’m not 100% sure I believe.”
And that’s why I’m just not so sure about certainty: it gives the impression to real people in the midst of real struggles, that unless you are 100% sure, you can’t follow Jesus, you can’t take a step forward in faith, you don’t belong to our club, you’re not in the Kingdom.
Coming out of an Age where the only things that were real or true were the ones you could objectively prove mathematically or by scientific experimentation, and coming to terms with an Age where even science and math will tell you there is no such thing as an objective viewpoint, the Church needs to be able to deal graciously with people who aren’t sure. It has to be OK to have doubts. We need a new liturgical prayer, “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief.”
I think that teenage girl who isn’t 100% sure she believes is the kind of worshiper the Father seeks, one who worships in Spirit and in truth; not in some objective, abstract, disembodied Truth, but in the Truth who is a Person; the person of Jesus, who heard a father’s cry, and helped him overcome his unbelief, and healed his son.
My friend Doubting Thomas actually deserves all the bad press he gets, because the word we usually translate as “doubt” is in point of fact much worse. The opposite of faith isn’t doubt; faith and doubt exist together (Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief!). The opposite of faith is unfaith, the absolute refusal to believe, no matter what.
We should actually call him “I Refuse to Believe” Thomas. (Not as catchy, I know.) Thomas gives doubt a bad name. This isn’t weak faith, or little faith, or faith mixed with doubt: this is UN-faith. In fact, Thomas expresses a kind of certainty: Thomas has no doubt about his unbelief.
“Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe.” (John 20:25, ESV)
And we tend to treat the 17-year-old girl who isn’t 100% sure, as if she had made Thomas’s faith commitment: “I will never believe … !”
“I Refuse to Believe” Thomas is way worse than a Thomas who has faith mixed with doubt. And yet–! And yet even Unbelieving Thomas, who at that moment probably is outside of the Kingdom, is not outside of the faithfulness of Jesus to bring him home.
Jesus shows up again, even to Thomas who has made a confident commitment to unbelief. “Here Thomas! Put your fingers in my nail marks! Put your hand in my side!” And I think we do a disservice to all who have ever doubted, even a little, when we get the next verse wrong. Jesus does not say, “Stop doubting…” Jesus says, “Give up your commitment to unbelief, and start again to believe!”
I don’t know if I can stop doubting. I don’t know how capable I am even to give up my commitment to unbelief. But I trust that I have a Jesus who shows up and makes himself available to those who are not 100% sure.
Jesus’ final words to Thomas are actually intended for us:
“Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29, NIV)
Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet believe. Faith is having an assurance of things not seen. Maybe that’s like, “when I am weak, then I am strong …” A kind of paradox of our faith: seeing isn’t believing, believing is believing (even when you aren’t 100% sure).
So I’m not so sure about certainty, at least when it becomes a grading scale for your faith. As we do with so many gifts from God, we can turn certainty from a gift into a burden. But the certainty, assurance, confidence of your faith is not a burden to carry; if the certainty is a measuring stick, your faith will never measure up. (Yes, but are you certain that you are sure?)
Instead, certainty is a gift and a delight. Enjoy it. Seek it. And when your faith seems less than certain, don’t try harder to make yourself more sure. Instead, turn to Jesus and pray, “Lord, I believe; help!”
And if you meet a teenage girl who isn’t sure she believes, don’t try and convince her that you are right and she is wrong; instead, extend an invitation to the presence of Jesus, and let him figure it out.
And if one of your closest friends has made a faith commitment, “I refuse to believe,” don’t give up on him. Instead, just keep hanging out together, living life together, spending time together. For some strange reason Unbelieving Thomas was back in that Upper room the following week. Don’t reject your friend because of his doubt, or even because of his unfaith. Do keep looking for Jesus to show up.
Can I tell you a secret? I’m not 100% sure I believe. But I trust that Jesus will deal with me by the power of his Spirit. I trust that Jesus accepts me as I am and invites me to keep following. I trust that his faithfulness is stronger than my doubt. To me, that’s real certainty; the assurance of things I can’t see, I don’t see, I’m not supposed to be able to see yet, which is why I still need my faith.
My faith may be feeble; it may even be mixed with doubt at times. But you should see the guy I have faith in! His faithfulness is certain! (What a relief!!)