being certain of God–not our beliefs–is the mark of the spiritual life

being certain of God–not our beliefs–is the mark of the spiritual life April 30, 2014

The following was posted as “Gracious Uncertainty,” the daily reading (April 29) at My Utmost for His Highest (I made my own paragraph divisions). My Rector at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Dave Robinson, sent this to me. When you preach 12 minute homilies you’ve got extra time for passing on nice things like this.

The text for these reflections is 1 John 3:2, …it has not yet been revealed what we shall be…

Our natural inclination is to be so precise—trying always to forecast accurately what will happen next—that we look upon uncertainty as a bad thing. We think that we must reach some predetermined goal, but that is not the nature of the spiritual life. The nature of the spiritual life is that we are certain in our uncertainty.

Consequently, we do not put down roots. Our common sense says, “Well, what if I were in that circumstance?” We cannot presume to see ourselves in any circumstance in which we have never been.

Certainty is the mark of the commonsense life—gracious uncertainty is the mark of the spiritual life. To be certain of God means that we are uncertain in all our ways, not knowing what tomorrow may bring. This is generally expressed with a sigh of sadness, but it should be an expression of breathless expectation.

We are uncertain of the next step, but we are certain of God.

As soon as we abandon ourselves to God and do the task He has placed closest to us, He begins to fill our lives with surprises.

When we become simply a promoter or a defender of a particular belief, something within us dies. That is not believing God—it is only believing our belief about Him.

Jesus said, “. . . unless you . . . become as little children . . .” (Matthew 18:3). The spiritual life is the life of a child. We are not uncertain of God, just uncertain of what He is going to do next.

If our certainty is only in our beliefs, we develop a sense of self-righteousness, become overly critical, and are limited by the view that our beliefs are complete and settled. But when we have the right relationship with God, life is full of spontaneous, joyful uncertainty and expectancy.

Jesus said, “. . . believe also in Me” (John 14:1), not, “Believe certain things about Me”. Leave everything to Him and it will be gloriously and graciously uncertain how He will come in—but you can be certain that He will come. Remain faithful to Him.

Two points ring true for me. First is that not knowing is not simply something we must put up with, but a necessary means of spiritual growth. Second is the connection between an unmoveable certainty in our beliefs about God and the self-righteousness that invariably results from that posture.

I have to confess, I’ve never read much of Oswald Chambers. Maybe I should.

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  • Fine, but what if it leads you to polytheism?

  • Essentially, my entire belief about God comes from what Jesus tells us of the Father. What Jesus tells us is good news, but it is limited; it does not fill a book on systematic theology.

    I believe there is much value in embracing ambiguity.

  • Craig H Robinson

    We are called to believe in Jesus. Believing in Jesus is a belief. Should I not have certainty in that belief?

    • “Second is the connection between an unmoveable certainty in our beliefs about God and the self-righteousness that invariably results from that posture.”

      The key here is the word “about”. All theology is about God. If your beliefs about God are unmovable then you face the danger of self-righteousness. Rarely does belief in God lead to the same.

    • I think there is an important distinction between trust and belief, though not always made in the way we use the terms. How “belief” in God is being used by Chambers, I would consider more like trust, as a posture or attitude, than our common use of belief as a mental or intellectual judgment on something. I “believe” that God exists but am cautious about trying to describe him/her… and I “trust” in God’s graciousness (basic equivalence of “love”). I’ve found that does leave me room for and encourages my growth.

  • Lise

    “Dearly Beloved, we are gathered here today….”. Many things need to die in order to lead a truly spiritual life.

    • peteenns

      Indeed, Lise. Yes.

  • Jeff Y

    Wow, great. Thanks!

  • It strikes me that certainty of God alone is kind of the minimal certainty required for sanity without believing in comforting falsehoods (like God won’t throw you a curveball tomorrow, or the passive voice version). You either trust in God and his promises, or falsehoods which merely keep you from seeing the truth until calamity strikes, or you get eaten alive by anxiety and stress.

  • James

    I’ve been reading Deitrich Bonhoeffer’s scattered notes on Ethics. Jesus said to Pilate, “You would have no power over me at all unless it were given to you from above.” DB comments that “government can only serve Him…no matter whether it discharges its office well or badly. Both in acquitting Him of guilt and in delivering Him up to be crucified, government was obliged to show that it stands in the service of Jesus Christ.”
    Like Chambers, Bonhoeffer was somewhat of a Christian mystic–as we all must remain in our humble quest for knowledge.