Seminary Chapel Sermon “Certainty Not” (September 15, 2015)

Seminary Chapel Sermon “Certainty Not” (September 15, 2015) September 15, 2015

This morning (Tuesday, September 15, 2015) I preached in chapel at Baylor’s Truett Seminary. Bill Gaither was the special guest. I had the wonderful experience of singing a duet with him. It wasn’t planned; it just happened. Here is the sermon I preached:


“Certainty Not”

(Truett Seminary Chapel, September 15, 2015)

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not to your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your path.” (Proverbs 3:5)

One of my favorite movies, one of the few that always makes me laugh out loud, is the 1991 Billy Crystal classic “City Slickers.” One scene seems to form the central message of the comedy. Billy Crystal’s character Mitch Robbins is about to turn forty and is going through a mid-life crisis. On a crazy dude ranch adventure Mitch meets crusty old cowboy Curly played by Jack Palance. Curly gives Mitch some advice about the meaning of life. The taciturn Curly holds up one finger and explains, after Mitch fails to understand, that life is all about “one thing.” He never tells Mitch what it is, leaving him to search for his “one thing” that will help him overcome his mid-life crisis and find renewed meaning and value.
Is there “one thing” that God expects of God’s people above all else? What if someone asked me what is the single most important thing in Christian living? What is the center around which it all revolves?
I suspect that many modern Christians have come to think the golden ideal, the pinnacle of Christian life, the “one thing” around which all else revolves is certainty—certainty of belief that God is real, Jesus is Lord and there is life beyond death. Something in our modern Christian culture has impressed on many Christians the felt need for certainty.

When I was a child and even into my teen years I believed there were people, probably my spiritual mentors, who had found absolute certainty—that the Bible is God’s Word, that God is real and cares for us, that in spite of all appearances, on some higher level, all is well because God is in control. I didn’t have that certainty, but I certainly hoped and even believed that my spiritual mentors did.
The flip side of that spiritual myth is that doubt is a sure sign of spiritual weakness; in the form of Christian life I grew up in there was almost nothing worse than doubt. I’ll never forget one youth evangelist whose favorite phrase was “Doubt your doubts and believe your beliefs!”
Without sanctioning doubt, my message to you today is that certainty can be an idol and it is certainly not what God asks of us or expects from us.
Let me give you two reasons why certainty is not what God expects from us. The first comes from experience and the second from theology.
I’ve lived long enough to realize that many things I once believed with certainty turned out to be wrong. When I was growing up I was often told about an English manor house that belonged to my ancestors; my grandmother’s maiden name came from the house: “Olmsted Hall.” I was told it was large, ornate, historical and proud. For years I craved going to Essex County, England, to visit my ancestral home. I pictured it as like Pemberley—the great mansion owned by Jane Austen’s “Mr. Darcy” in Pride and Prejudice. Then, a few years ago, I stumbled on a video of the ancestral house on “Youtube.” Imagine my dismay and chagrin to see that it is just an old, run-down, farm house with chickens running around in the yard!

Truly experience tells us that our most cherished beliefs can be wrong; we are not infallible. Nobody is but God. Belief in certainty is a path toward disillusionment.
The second reason God does not expect certainty from us is based on what God wants with us: fellowship. Certainty is foreign to fellowship; to expect or even hope for absolute certainty in a personal relationship of love is to violate the very nature of love and personal friendship. Certainty, if it were possible, would give us mastery. We have mastery over that about which we are certain. The nature of fellowship demands risk, commitment to the other as truly other, courage and hope. Certainty excludes them.
Where does this rage for certainty come from? Why are so many of us obsessed with finding and possessing certainty? It comes not from the gospel but from the Enlightenment. Disillusioned with the risk of faith and the warring religious parties of the sixteenth century Wars of Religion, philosopher Rene Descartes sought for certainty—to give him and others mastery over nature, politics and even religion. According to his own testimony he discovered certainty by beginning with doubt. After attempting to doubt everything, he found that he could not doubt his own existence and came up with the famous sentence every student who has ever taken Philosophy 101 knows by heart: “Cogito, ergo sum”—“I think, therefore I am.” Descartes could not doubt his own existence and from there he developed an entire philosophy of certainty—including certainty about God based on his own existence. But Descartes never met a Buddhist! And it’s quite a leap from being certain of one’s own existence to certainty about God. Modernity has bequeathed to us the felt need for certainty—even about God.

The Christian prophet of Denmark, Søren Kierkegaard, rejected the Enlightenment obsession with certainty as a form of idolatry and taught us that Christianity is not about “mastery over” or “certainty about” but faith, the “leap of faith” into the arms of God. For him, as for Abraham and Paul, faith in Yahweh is risk, not security through certainty.
But doubt is not the only alternative to certainty; some misguided Christians make the mistake of idolizing doubt once they have discovered the myth of certainty and discarded it. As God’s people we are called neither doubt nor certainty but to trust.
Often, however, we are like the city fathers of the English town of Windsor who in 1690 commissioned famed architect Christopher Wren to design and build their new “Guildhall.” Wren was famous for Saint Paul’s Cathedral in London with its almost miraculous barrel vault ceiling unsupported by central pillars. The city fathers planned to use the first floor of their new Guildhall as an open air market and the second floor as their town meeting room where they would sit and make decisions. So they wanted the first floor, the ground floor, to be open sided with no walls.

Wren presented the city fathers with his plan. It included a large, airy ground floor with several pillars around the sides holding up the second floor but no pillars in the middle space obstructing the open space where markets would be held. The city fathers rejected the design, arguing that the second floor could not be supported without several central pillars. Wren could not convinced them that they would not fall through their floor, through the ceiling of the open air ground floor market space, so he eventually gave in and built the Guildhall with four large, ornate pillars in the middle.
Many years later, when the ceiling of the ground floor market space needed cleaning workmen built scaffolds and climbed up to the tops of the four added pillars. Much to their astonishment they saw that the pillars stopped about a quarter inch below the ceiling; they supported nothing. These have been called “Wren’s deceptive pillars” and later Windsor city fathers actually added filler between their tops and the ceiling still doubting the strength of Wren’s design even though it has worked for many years.
Like the city fathers of Windsor, we often crave security and for us it comes in the form of certainty or at least the hope for it. But even our most certain beliefs do not actually support our relationship with God because what God wants is not our security in certainty but our trust in him in spite of uncertainty.

Straining under the weight of uncertainty, we tend to believe there must be some magical talisman, perhaps a seminary class or apologetics conference or ecstatic spiritual experience that will suddenly catapult our minds and hearts into certainty beyond all possible doubt. But that’s a fantasy and one that erodes and corrodes our relationship with God.
Some years ago I taught a course on Christian apologetics at a college. The main textbook was by fellow Rice University religious studies alumnus Win Corduan, professor of philosophy at evangelical Taylor University in Indiana. The title was Reasonable Faith. In it Corduan, an astute philosopher and Christian apologist, rejected absolute certainty in favor of “reasonable faith.” A few years later his publisher, Southern Baptist related Broadman-Holman, changed the title of the book to No Doubt about It. This, I suggest, symbolizes the all-too-common evangelical Christian myth of absolute certainty attainable through either reason or spiritual experience or both.
What I want to tell you is that certainty is not the “one thing”—the golden goal and pinnacle of true Christian spirituality. And the obsessive search for it can be damaging to one’s relationship with God.

So what is the “one thing” that God expects of us? I say to you it is simply “trust.” If God came among us today and had only one thing to say, I believe it would be “trust in me.”
Now this may seem simple and even obvious to you. I’m not trying to be “Captain Obvious” here this morning. The problem is, though, that we often confuse trust in God with strong belief in doctrines and even achievement of certainty about God. My message to you is that trust is on a whole different plane than either doubt or certainty. And when Jesus told his disciples “believe in me” he did not mean “pull yourselves up by your spiritual bootstraps and achieve certainty about me.” He meant “trust in me.” Peter’s real test of his relationship with Jesus was not a series of doctrinal questions or the strength of his mental certainty; it was whether he could trust Jesus to keep him on top of the water. As long as he kept his eyes fixed on Jesus, trusting him, like Jesus he walked on the water. What made him sink was not doubt about a doctrine but taking his eyes off Jesus; ceasing to trust him.
Both doubt and certainty are cognitive states; they have to do with the mind. While the mind is important, a good gift from God to be used rightly, it is not the seat of the spiritual life. That is the heart—the inner person, the core of one’s dispositions and loves. The heart is also the seat and source of the will; one does what one loves. Fellowship comes from the heart more than from the mind. God wants our trust from the heart more than cognitive certainty.

The search for certainty in spiritual matters is a poor substitute for the risk of fellowship which requires only trust.
In fact, it’s possible to at least think one has achieved certainty and miss the trust necessary for true fellowship with God.
In 1860 dare devil Charles Blondin, “The Great Blondin,” became famous the world over by walking across Niagara Falls on a tightrope. Eventually, to prove his prowess, he pushed a wheelbarrow over the falls on the tightrope as an admiring crowd watched and cheered. After returning to the side where he began Blondin asked the crowd if they believed he could push a man across the falls in the wheelbarrow. One man in particular shouted out his confidence, even his certainty, that this would be easy for Blondin. Blondin pointed at the man and said “Get in” whereupon the fan quickly escaped through the crowd.
Blondin’s fan was theoretically certain of his prowess but lacked the practical courage to trust Blondin’s skill. True faith is not theoretical, cognitive certainty or even strong belief in propositions; it is the practical courage to put one’s life in God’s hands trusting him for security.
My thesis that “the one thing” in Christian life around which everything else revolves is trust raises inevitable questions such as “Why trust God?” and “Trust God for what?” and finally “What are the benefits of trusting God?”

First, trust God because God has shown himself worthy of our trust. God’s steadfast love for his people, demonstrated conclusively in the exodus, the cross and resurrection of Jesus, is more than enough to justify trust in him. But also, God has shown himself faithful to us by forgiving us, giving us peace and joy and hope in spite of life’s circumstances. When I was a kid growing up in church we had “testimony time”—something we think we’ve outgrown in our contemporary Baptist and evangelical churches. The stories of God’s faithfulness convincingly told by people in my church bolstered my trust in God until I found God faithful in my own times of crisis. If you struggle with trusting God, what you need is a close, personal relationship with Jesus. Get down on your face and ask God to show you his faithfulness. Be ready, because that usually happens during a crisis—if you let it happen.
Second, trust God for security, guidance and blessing in your life and on your ministry. But don’t expect to see or feel anything; the guidance and blessing is usually noticed retrospectively—after it happens. My own life has had many of what I have come to call “God’s detours.” I’ll mention one.

Years ago I returned from studying theology in Germany with world class theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg—a miracle in itself. God’s provision for that was nothing short of amazing. But upon returning to the United States I had no job. Eventually God left me only one option—take an offered position for very little pay at Oral Roberts University. He closed all other doors and left that one open. It was a very unpleasant two years filled with struggles of all kinds. I felt like the proverbial fish out of water. I asked God many times why he took me through that place and time. Recently I had the privilege of spending a whole day with Adam Hamilton, pastor of the largest United Methodist church in the U.S., twenty-two thousand member Church of the Resurrection in suburban Kansas City. Adam reminded me that he was in two of my first classes at Oral Roberts University many years ago and said that I was instrumental in his theological and spiritual journey. I can now look back on those two difficult years as one of God’s detours.
As you face into your future in ministry expect detours now and then; trust God in them.
Trust God to do what in them? Third, one of the benefits of trusting God is believing that God will bring something good out of even the seemingly most terrible circumstances—including the detours. If I may paraphrase Paul, “All of life’s circumstances can work for good for those who trust God in them.” A major benefit, blessing, of trusting God is genuine hope, proper confidence, blessed assurance, that God can make something beautiful, something good even when we feel confused and broken.

One turning point in my own spiritual and theological journey in life came as I watched and listened to Bill Gaither sing one of his own compositions on a “Homecoming” video. During a brief time of testimony during the taping several “Homecoming Friends,” gospel musicians, shared their struggles with doubt—what Martin Luther called his “Anfechtungen”—attacks of spiritual anxiety. It was one of the most honest few minutes of Christian expression I have ever heard. One shared his questioning of God when he was diagnosed with leukemia. Another told about his occasional moods of depression as he faced his own inevitable demise. Then Bill sat at the piano and sang this song that so beautifully expresses my message to you this morning: “I Believe; Help Thou My Unbelief….”

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