Addicted to Certainty
It was the third and final night of our church’s annual revival and, despite the guest evangelist’s renowned theatrics, the prospect of disappointment loomed over the event like a dark cloud. The previous two nights had produced only a single convert—the seven-year-old son of one of our deacons, who’d walked the aisle, tears staining his cheeks, after a particularly vivid sermon about hell.
Had we church members invited more of our “unsaved” friends to the revival services, we thought to ourselves, perhaps we’d have seen better results. But the evangelist, knowing conventional tactics were unlikely to produce the kind of response that would get him invited back next year, had an ace up his sleeve. That night he’d chosen 1 John 5 as his text, an apostolic appeal to churchgoers to keep the true faith. His sermon reached its climax as he read verse 13: “I write these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, so that you may know that you have eternal life.”
He repeated the final clause again for dramatic effect: “So that you may know.”
“You church members here tonight: you’re saved and you know it,” he preached, his eyes fixing on each of us in turn. “That’s good, that’s good. But do you know that you know? Are you sure of your salvation? Are you one hundred percent certain that if you died tonight, you’d find yourself with Jesus in heaven tomorrow?”
I was certain that I wasn’t.
I knew all the right answers, of course, and had ever since my grandfather led me in the Sinner’s Prayer when I was seven years old. But knowing the answers didn’t keep me from having questions—lots of them. I had questions about the Bible and the church; questions about prayer and about miracles; questions about creation and about the end of the world. I even had questions about Christ’s birth and resurrection, questions I rarely found the courage to voice even to myself.
And, perhaps as a result, I had questions about my salvation. If I wasn’t sure of these basic tenets of the faith, how could I be sure of anything? My questions came to haunt me like some secret sin, always threatening to come out, and I experienced a lingering low-grade anxiety that would occasionally peak—usually in some dark and desperate night—but never fully recede with the awakening dawn.
When the evangelist offered his invitation, to the tune of “I Know Whom I Have Believed,” I was out of my seat before the first chorus. And I wasn’t the only baptized church member who walked the aisle that night in search of a comfort that had eluded us elsewhere. I prayed the Sinner’s Prayer again and felt certain, and that night I slept the sleep of the just.
But certainty, I soon discovered, is like a drug. It can comfort us, buoying our spirits as it blocks out the questions, but only for a time. When the mellow high of certainty wears off and the questions reassert themselves, as they always do, we’re sent running in search of a new fix. Certainty is addictive.
And like any addiction, certainty dehumanizes. Questions, it turns out, arise naturally in the human mind, a function of the God-given gift of reason. To claim certainty we must renounce that gift, in effect plucking out our own eyes because we imagine blindness to be a virtue. Certainty about the things of God makes us less than we were created to be, less than human. Only by applying reason to God’s revelation, and allowing the questions to come, do we ascend to our proper place in the universe: a little higher than the unreasoning beasts, a little lower than the angels who see God’s face and have no need for faith.
My teachers warned me that to privilege reason in this way is to reduce God to a “god of the gaps,” forced by the expansion of human knowledge into only those areas we are not (yet) able to explain. In truth, though, it is certainty that diminishes God. An infinite God can never be fully known. If God is truly infinite, as we say we believe, then the sum of all human knowledge of God will never amount to more than an infinitesimal speck of all there is to know. God’s revelation may be sufficient for human salvation, but how could it ever be sufficient for human certainty? With God, the closer you get to certainty the further you get from the truth.
Certainty is, therefore, the ultimate heresy. It presumes that the portion of revelation given to us is identical with the whole of God’s revelation. Certainty presumes too much.
It’s no wonder, then, that certainty about the things of God can cause people to be such assholes. Certainty caused Job’s friends to blame Job himself for the loss of his children and his livelihood—and to imagine that was good theology and good ministry, both true and loving behavior. Every schism in the church’s checkered past has had its source in certainty. But its effects can be far more personal, and far more pervasive, than this. Certainty causes thousands of Christian parents each year to abandon their LGBT and questioning children to the streets. Certainty on both sides of the debate has produced the rancor we have seen in Indiana, Kentucky, and elsewhere in the country over marriage equality.
Certainty destroys families, churches, communities. Certainty destroys faith.
Like almost any addiction, mine took me years to overcome. To do so I had to distance myself from the pushers and those still caught in certainty’s thrall and make myself accountable to a community of others who, like me, were in recovery. I had to get used to carrying the weight of the questions, and I had to learn to accept my own limitations, not fear them. I had to learn to trust God to love me even when I’m not sure, and even when I’m wrong.
But to get there I had to accept one of the hardest truths I know: that while certainty may indeed comfort, the Christian way of seeing the world isn’t meant to be comforting. It’s meant to be real.