The voices that shaped my earliest religious memories were well intended. They passed on to me the understandings and traditions that had been handed to them by their parents and grandparents, pastors and Sunday school teachers. I say this as a preamble, a disclaimer of sorts, because I do value those people and places that shaped my earliest religious imagination. I have many wonderful memories of many wonderful people, and I wouldn’t trade them. They shaped me. They continue to shape me. And I am grateful.
However, looking back there were two things that I was handed, things that were central to our way of approaching faith, God, and people, things that I now see as problematic. First, I was given fear as a primary lens through which to experience God. To be sure, I have spent too much of my life fearing God; not in the “reverencing or honoring” way, but in the “I am terrified of you,” way. If God is the source of your terror, to whom can you turn? Further, God always seemed distant, angry, and disapproving, and there was no real way to know you were ok with God. After all, you could die at any moment, and any unrepented of sin would damn you to Hell for all eternity. I can vividly remember being in elementary school and being terrified to go to sleep. What if I don’t wake up? Meeting God didn’t seem to be an inviting option. I would fall asleep listening to cassette tapes: We Are the World, the theme from Ghostbusters, and Elvis were favorites. They helped me calm down; they assuaged my fear for a moment.
Then, there was the second thing I was given: certainty. I was taught not just to know, but to be certain about what I believed. Because having the certainty of our convictions was seen to be synonymous with the accuracy of our convictions. Doubt was the enemy, a chink in the armor through which Satan would wreck our faith. Our interpretation of the Bible had to be defended, even in the face of contradictory evidence. Actually, clinging to certainty in the face of evidence to the contrary was commended. Being sure, being certain, were essentially the equivalent of being faithful.
To say my understanding of faith has changed drastically over the past fifteen years would be a massive understatement. Sometimes people I once knew more familiarly will tell me they are praying for me, but I don’t think they mean it in the encouraging way, but in the “I pray you’ll get right with the Lord before it’s too late,” way. And, as you might imagine, my relationship to fear and certainty have also changed. Now I understand that one of these things we don’t need, and one we can’t have.
We don’t need fear, friends. We just don’t. Fear doesn’t bring out the best in us. Fear elicits our worst. Fear causes us to exclude “those people,” because they are unfamiliar, have different skin color, speak a different language, or hold a different perspective. Fear causes us to attack those we exclude, because the only way to be safe and secure is to strike preemptively against our “enemies.” Fear ultimately paralyzes us. We can’t move forward into new opportunity or progress because fear has convinced us that it is safer to shrink back than to step forward. The writer of 1 John puts it like this:
We have known and have believed the love that God has for us.
God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them…There is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear expects punishment. The person who is afraid has not been made perfect in love.
God is love. That has always struck me. The claim isn’t that “God is loving,” although that is true and good. The claim here is much more radical. God, at the very core and essence of what God is, is love. Further, love drives away fear. Just as light, even the smallest flicker of a flame, dispels the darkness, love removes the dark cloud of fear from our lives. When fear is gone, love can make us whole and complete (the real meaning of “perfect” in the above passage). As beloved ones we can begin to live and act out of that wholeness. Fear is the enemy of wholeness, because fear is the opposite of love. I know, if we were playing a word association game and I said “love,” you would instinctively answer back with, “hate.” And you’d be correct. Remember, however, that fear is what produces hate. Once you allow fear to cause you to exclude others, you are a couple steps away from hating them. We need love, not fear.
Which brings me to the other thing, the one we can’t have. I know this is alarming to some people, but we can’t have certainty. We just can’t. It isn’t available to us, especially when it comes to matters of faith (are you wondering if I’m certain about this?). Certainty implies some form of validation, some proof of which we do not have access. Seriously. Our best proof for what we believe is often that it feels true, but the conviction that something is true doesn’t make it so. For example, to believe in God isn’t the same thing as having certainty that God is, that God exists. Right? Think about this: there are roughly 36,000 Christian denominations; all of them believe their way of thinking about God/Jesus/faith/Bible is correct (because, why would you believe something if you thought it was incorrect?). If being certain that I’m right, and you’re wrong is the key to my experience of faith or God, then we are all in big trouble. Thankfully, that just isn’t the case.
We believe, but we don’t see.
Which might be the point.
I don’t think we can have certainty. It just isn’t available to us. What is available to us, however, is faith. Let me clarify what I mean by faith. I don’t mean the sort of name-it-claim-it stuff you see on religious broadcasting (although I was tempted to try it when my A/C went out last week). I don’t mean believing in things, in the sense of believing in Santa Claus or the Easter Bunny. What I mean by faith is much more practical and accessible. Faith, for me, means trust. Hebrews 11 gives a beautiful description of faith, one that is obscured by most translations. In our quest for certainty, we translate Hebrews 11v1 something like this:
Now faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see. (NIV)
I know what you’re thinking right now. “Look,” you exclaim, “faith is the assurance of what we do not see!” But, before we leave this text, take a look at the rendering in the Young’s Literal Translation, which as the name indicates, seeks to translate the biblical texts from the original languages, literally. While all translations are interpretations to some extent, I find that in many cases the YLT preserves some words/ideas/concepts that often, for lack of a better way of putting it, get interpreted out. Notice the YLT rendering of Hebrews 11v1:
And faith is of things hoped for a confidence, of matters not seen a conviction…
Faith is confidence, conviction…trust. Faith doesn’t mean that you don’t study or challenge what you think. Faith doesn’t mean ignoring the doubt or questions and clinging to certainty. Faith means trusting enough to engage those things. Faith is trusting that whatever, Whoever, it is holding us up, our correctness is not a pre-condition for our belovedness. We are loved, period. We probably have some things right. We definitely have some things wrong. Even better, though, is the reality that we are loved and held in grace through it all.
I wish I could go back to that elementary school kid version of me, lying awake, fretting and worrying. I wish I could tell that version of me that there’s nothing to fear. That God is far better than I could imagine. That I can rest in the unknown, the unknowable. That I can trust the goodness of Love. Deep down, though, that version of me always knew. Despite all my religious conditioning, I had great parents who loved me well. Now I understand how their love actually paved the way for my shift in understanding God and faith differently, from a place of love instead of fear. I hope to give my own son that gift.
So, while I am uncertain about many things, if I had to write one thing down in sharpie, if I were given a prompt to complete that said, “Of this, I am certain…,” this is what I would say: If I’m certain of anything, it’s that God is love. And when we allow that love to work in us and through us, there’s nothing to fear.
And if that’s true, we’re going to be just fine.