“No distrust made [Abraham] waver concerning the promise of God, but he grew strong in his faith as he gave glory to God, being fully convinced that God was able to do what he had promised. Therefore his faith ‘was reckoned to him as righteousness.’”
Dear People of God,
These days, we have both too little and too much certainty.
On the one hand, it is hard to be certain in a world where no one can agree on anything. While at one time you could count on people to at least agree to a basic set of facts, now people have “alternative facts” from their preferred media sources to back wildly different pictures of reality. When even easily verifiable things are questioned—the shape of the earth, the reality of shootings such as Sandy Hook, the winner of the last election—what hope do we have for the big cultural and political battles: issues of sex and gender, our history of racism, and how to respond to a pandemic? With so many competing narratives about every facet of our lives, it becomes hard to hold anything as true.
On the other hand, we have so much certainty in our own pet theories that we refuse to listen to anyone who might disagree. We become so invested in political and cultural identities that we are threatened by anyone who questions them, responding in anger to anyone audacious enough to hold a different view. This kind of certainty hardens us against each other, and it only makes the general confusion and rancor of our society worse. As a result, we segregate ourselves into smaller and smaller echo chambers, where everyone thinks the same and no one calls us to question our political idols.
And yet, for all its problems, certainty is indispensable in the life of a Christian.
There has been a lot of confusion even on this essential point within the church. Some argue that faith is always uncertain, always a little doubtful, never fully knowing if what it believes is true. Others argue that faith is full and certain knowledge in every religious matter, an understanding of God and the world so complete that no serious questions remain. Still others argue that faith is simply a matter of personal choice or preference that should be kept private: “you believe your way, I’ll believe mine.” But none of these descriptions capture the reality that is Christian faith.
As the above-quoted passage from Romans indicates, faith is a particular kind of certainty, “being fully convinced” by the promise of God to the extent that you would stake your life on it. It does not waver or doubt, but instead remains absolutely certain that God will accomplish what God has promised to do. It is not something privately confined to the “religious” part of your life, nor is it a self-assured certainty “puffed up” with perfect knowledge.
This faith is concrete and specific, resting not in general notions of God or goodness or beauty, but rather in the specific promises God has made to you. It is trusting the voice of your Heavenly Father in baptism: “You are my child, my chosen beloved, and I delight in you.” (Mark 1:11) It is trusting the promise of Jesus given in communion: “This is given and shed for the forgiveness of your sins.” (Matthew 26:26ff) And it is trusting the messengers of the Holy Spirit whose “beautiful feet” (Romans 10:15) bring them near to preach these promises into your ear.
But even though faith is absolute certainty, none of us have perfect faith in this life. All of us Christians are caught in the pull of our two identities; the old creature who does not believe God’s promise, and the new creature who trusts perfectly. For as long as we Christians continue in this life, the old creature in us will fight against faith, and the new creature in us will trust in God’s promise. While this internal struggle will be ours for life, it is not a struggle that can be overcome by our efforts, as though by turning our attention inward we could work up sufficient faith. Rather, the faith we need comes always from outside us, always being implanted within us by the word and work of God, leading us always to pray “Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!” (Mark 9:24)
Because faith is certain, you are set free from worry; your “peace with God” (Romans 5:1) has been delivered, and your good future is already secured. Because faith is specific, you don’t need to have all the answers; your certainty in “the one thing needed” (Luke 10:42) lets you hold everything else loosely. And because faith is a gift of God (Ephesians 2:8), you don’t have to prove it to anyone; with God as your justifier (Romans 8:33), there is no need to justify yourself.
When this faith takes hold of you, everything becomes different. Where once the world was a threat to be feared, now it is an awesome and mysterious gift to be enjoyed. Where once those who disagree with you were obstacles to be overcome, now they are persons made by God for you to love. Where once God was a distant judge weighing your value on the scales of justice, now God is your Creator, giving you everything you need for this life and the next.
This faith gives freedom in a way nothing else can, turning us outward from our interior prisons towards the miraculous creation in which we live. It places us here and now into God’s peaceful kingdom, preserving us even through suffering and trials. It makes us busy and active, doing good simply because it needs doing. It bestows on us the confidence to live before God in the world, rooting us firmly in God’s grace, and giving us the certainty we need to thrive in this uncertain world.
Your Brother in Christ,