Heart on a log

Certainty is not the enemy of faith

Normally, I don’t pay too much attention to the quotes people share online. But every once in a while I see one that makes my heart hurt. One of those is a quote from Ann Lamott: “The opposite of faith is not doubt, but certainty.”

Why does this quote bother me? Is it because I have no room for doubt or uncertainty in my theology? Not at all. But the concept behind it still bothers me. It speaks to a deep confusion I suspect many of us struggle with, which stems from our struggle with absolutes. We are constantly told that absolutes don’t really exist. It is arrogant, even presumptuous, to say you are certain of something—to say that you know something. As the philosopher once said, “The only true wisdom consists in knowing that you know nothing.”1

Thus, certainty is the enemy of faith.  And of this we can be certain.

Being certain of our uncertainty

Amazing certainty about certainty being the enemy of faith aside, the difficultly is our tendency to equate certainty or knowledge with absolute certainty or exhaustive knowledge. We create a straw man, give him initials starting J and M, and tear down his certainty-driven Christianity.

But for those of us who have perhaps drank a little too deeply from the well of relativism, we run into a large difficulty, that being the Bible. For it is difficult to walk away from reading the Scriptures and see any claim to certainty being the enemy of faith.

Knowing what can be known

Instead, what we is the opposite—not a command to achieve exhaustive knowledge, but to be certain about what can be known:

  • “I  have written these things to you who believe in the name of the Son of God so that you may know that you have eternal life.” (1 John 5:13)
  • “May they know that you alone—whose name is the Lord—are the Most High over the whole earth.” (Psalm 83:18)
  • “…the secrets of the kingdom of heaven have been given for you to know,” Jesus told his disciples (Matthew 13:11)
  • “I know my own, and my own know me,” Jesus said (John 10:14)
  • “Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)
  • “He made known to us the mystery of his will, according to his good pleasure that he purposed in Christ.” (Ephesians 1:9)
  • Peter commends to us, “knowledge with self-control, self-control with endurance, endurance with godliness” (2 Peter 1:6).

Certainty and a healthy faith

The Bible does not commend an anti-intellectual faith, nor does it advocate full heads with empty hearts. The consistent message in Scripture is that we are to strive to know God. But even as we strive to know God, we do so knowing that we will never know until the day we stand before Him.

But that day is not this day. And so what we need to remember is it is not certainty that is the enemy of our faith. Unbelief is. Unbelief draws our hearts away from the Lord. It takes our eyes off the promises of God. It sets our hearts on something other than his glory, striving to find joy in something that will fail to satisfy.

Certainty is not the enemy—unbelief is. Lord, I believe! Help my unbelief.

  1. That being Socrates, though most of us over 30 remember this from Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure because we’ve never read Socrates. ↩︎
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