There seems to be a great appetite among Americans for certainty these days. Perhaps this is because of the lack of control we all feel in these deeply uncertain times. We reach for certainty like a three-year-old reaches for his pacifier. No doubt, certainty can be comforting. This is why we tend to stay with our trusted news channels. God forbid that any conflicting narrative disrupts our secure echo chambers of reality.
I have been horrified this year at people's absolute certainty around the pandemic.
It is a hoax. It is a liberal conspiracy. It signals the end of life as we know it. It is so deadly that it is worth closing down everything for. Masks will stop it. Masks will do nothing to stop it. A vaccine will change everything. A vaccine is to be avoided at all costs. Anyone who doesn't adhere to the restrictions is selfish. Anyone who does adhere to the restrictions is foolish.
One would think that the unpredictability of the year would have produced in us a more humble posture towards that which we cannot fully understand. Do we think we are God that we can grab this leviathan of a pandemic by the tail? But it seems the more illusive certainty becomes, the more we grasp at it.
This appetite for certainty extends far beyond the pandemic, of course. The presidential elections dripped with similar certitude. Political pundits, celebrity pastors and prophets all made such assured predictions about their preferred candidate. And so many of them seem to be wrong. Or are they? I cannot say for sure. Does there seem to be some inconsistency in ballot counting? I think so. If there is legal proof that it did not make any significant difference to the outcome of the election, would those of us who are suspicious concede that it was a free and fair election. I think not. That would be a terrible admission of uncertainty.
There is a kind of political fundamentalism on both sides of the aisle that amounts to unholy certainty.
What we really need then is what the ancients called Holy Uncertainty.
John Mark Comer, in his recent book, 'We don't know what's going to Happen and that's Okay,' writes, "Holy uncertainty is the capacity to live with a very loose grip – or no grip at all – on our plans and, more important, on the outcomes of our plans, because our security is rooted in a relational connection to God, not in a false sense of control.
I am no relativist. I believe in absolute truth. Still, I believe it is a virtue these days to admit, "I am not confident to predict the future. I am not absolutely sure about the pandemic. I am quite confounded by the election." You may say, "That lacks conviction. People only follow you if you sound absolutely convinced about the future." What then do we do with the words of Jesus about the mystery of His return, especially those of us who are so certain about our end times predictions? "But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father." (Matthew 24:36) No one knows. Not even the Son! Only the Father. Holy Uncertainty.
The Boy who cried Wolf
My point is, that those who are anchored in certainty about Jesus and his gospel should be more free to admit uncertainty about disputable matters. In fact, there is a real danger that if we come across absolutely certain about everything, people will not believe us on things we should be certain about. It is like the story of the boy who cried wolf. Every night he warned the village that there was a wolf on the prowl when there was nothing. Then one night a wolf did come, but the village would not believe the boy, because he had been certain but wrong so many times before. We need to learn to pick our moments and topics of certainty if people are to pay attention. If only the Church in America were as certain about the gospel as they were about their preferred political candidate, we would have revival.
Blood, Ink, Pencil
What we need then, is a hierarchy of certainty. Andrew Wilson, a friend and notable theologian, provides a helpful framework for us. He proposes that Biblical truth be given three categories of certainty; Blood, Ink and Pencil.
Blood beliefs are contained in our Creeds. They are foundational to our faith. The Trinity, the Virgin Birth, the Lordship of Christ, the Atonement, the Resurrection, the Inspiration of Scripture, the Great Commandment, The Great Commission. These are examples of Blood beliefs. We must be absolutely certain about these truths. They are what it means to be a Christ follower.
Ink beliefs are secondary truths that are still deeply held convictions. Believers who hold different convictions about these matters would generally not be part of the same church, but would still be part of the Body of Christ. They might include different understandings about what the Bible says regarding sexual ethics, creation, the end times, the gifts of the Spirit, baptismal practices, the role of men and women in church and marriage. If a believer becomes more certain about their end time theology than the Atonement, they have escalated an ink belief into a blood belief, which has the making of a sect.
Pencil beliefs are what the Bible refers to as 'disputable matters', in which God gives freedom for believers to exercise their conscience. (Romans 14) They include circumcision, eating meat, drinking alcohol, watching movies, worship style, dress style, voting for a political party or our response to a pandemic. Of course, politics may be much more important to us than dress style, but it is a disputable matter. Again, if we escalate pencil beliefs into blood beliefs, we lose the gospel of grace. Each person may be convinced in their own mind, but we should not try to convince others to think our way. Unholy certainty about a pencil belief ends in the sin of legalism. This is a clear and present danger for us in our political and pandemic moment.
So, let's continue to journey in holy uncertainty with a loose grip on the things that we cannot control. Let's not lose our grip on the One who holds us, our sorrows and our tomorrows in His nail-scarred hands.