The Art of Not Knowing
“But nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the heavenly angels and not the Son. Only the Father knows.” Matt. 24:36
“You don’t really know about tomorrow. What is your life? You are a mist that appears for only a short while before it vanishes.” James 4:14
“Life is uncertain, eat dessert first!” Unknown
We love to know. We hate being left in the dark, feeling helpless and afraid because the world is out of our control. We create complex plans and schemes to ward of uncertainty all the while knowing that they are just hopes often without foundations. If the past seven years of my life has taught me anything it is that swimming in ambiguity is the natural state for humanity. Jesus told us that we wouldn’t know the day or hour, James warns us that our life is a mist. Still we clamor after false assurances so we can attempt to control our own destiny.
The “self-help” industry assures us that if we eat the right things, say the right words, yell affirmations at ourselves in the mirror every morning, and eat enough fiber everything will turn out all right. We will get to live our Instagram lives filled with sunrises and umbrella drinks with our toes in the ocean and our adoring partner by our side. This is a great dream. It is by no means scriptural, and certainly not Christian, but it is a great dream.
What I have found is that ambiguity can either open us up to negative or positive things in our life. It can open us up to a form of post-modern Gnosticism, the embracing of secret knowledge we get from “reliable sources” on the internet. It can cause us to make an idol out of certainty, a god we pay homage to make ourselves feel better. Lastly it can provide a chance for our faith in God to grow. This is the most painful option; however, it is the best one.
Ambiguity opens us up to Gnosticism. We love secrets. We like to feel that we have been bestowed with some secret knowledge that will give us control over the universe. When we are faced with ambiguous situations it causes us to be afraid (sometimes this comes out as anger because we are embarrassed to be afraid). When we are afraid we will do anything necessary to alleviate that fear, including embracing ideas that would otherwise seem ridiculous. We embrace conspiracy theories, believing that is some malevolent force behind our uncertainty that needs to be exposed. This is fueled, of course, by the myriad of Hollywood movies where there is a secret conspiracy that only a few outliers really know. Gnosticism isn’t new! Since the time of Christ and before, there have been those who claimed secret knowledge. Armed with this knowledge they planned to control the world and stamp out ambiguity. Of course, in the end, history judges them and almost all of them are forgotten over time. Their “truth” was proven to be just a coping mechanism for dealing with the fear that comes from uncertainty.
Ambiguity makes an idol out of certainty. Despite multiple scriptural warnings people of faith, particularly, want absolute certainty. They seek to control, often by force, all the outcomes. This creates things like The Crusades and the Salem Witch Trials. Anyone that colors outside the line must be eliminated no matter what the cost. The price of doubt is extreme. In our pursuit of assurance, we minimize any conversation that might lead to a change of heart and shut out any voice that may speak an inconvenient truth. Once again, back to Jesus. If the Son of God lived in ambiguity not knowing the “day or hour” how can we expect to have unwavering certainty about where God is leading us? What we know is that Christ promised to be a “light for our path.” If you have ever been in the woods late at night, far away from street lights, you realize that the lantern you are carrying only lights up a couple of steps at a time, not the whole journey. That is just the way the life is for followers of Christ. You don’t get to know the whole path. If you did know it, truth be told, it would scare you worse than the ambiguity we live in. As Christ followers, we trust in God for the next step, and the one after that. And the one after that.
Ambiguity is a chance for your faith to grow. Faith is, “the reality of what we hope for and the proof of what we don’t see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Living with cancer has taught me anything it is that faith grows in extremely small, often painful, increments. Each day you arise and choose to trust in God for today. I have literally dozens of tumors growing in my body. In the words of Kate Bowler, it feels some days that my own body is trying to “murderize” me. I don’t know if today will be the day I have an attack. Ambiguity is my life. It is your life too. So, you don’t have cancer; you are also not promised tomorrow.
You have a choice, you can give into the secret Gnosticism you found on a special website your great uncle Floyd sent you that explains the end of the world. You can make an idol out of certainty and shut down anyone who disagrees with you. Or…you can embrace ambiguity, including the scary parts, and give your faith a chance to grow. I will be the first to tell you, the faith option isn’t easy! It is hard, every day to be open to hearing God’s voice in unexpected places in the midst of pain. The good news is that Christ is with you, understands your suffering, and will never abandon you no matter how difficult the path.
Consumed by the Call,