“I don’t know.”
You could make a case that it has become one of the most divisive phrases you can utter in an era when almost any topic can spark a social media argument.
Turn on the news, listen to the radio or peruse social media, and there’s one thing you’ll likely find in common: Certainty moves the needle.
Whether it’s a trivial topic like sports or the critical merits of a new album, or a more weighty subject like theology or politics, the opinions that matter (or, at least get the most attention) are the ones that are confident — from those who know they are “right” and every one else is wrong.
Admitting that you don’t know the answer to tough questions, has, in effect, become a sign of intellectual weakness. But, when it comes to faith, it may actually be the ultimate sign of strength.
But Even If He Does Not …
The book of Daniel tells the story of three citizens of Babylon who defied the king’s order to worship his false Gods. They were summoned to the palace where the king told them they would be thrown into a furnace if they didn’t reject their faith, and worship him. Here’s how they responded:
If we are thrown into the blazing furnace, the God we serve is able to deliver us from it, and he will deliver us from Your Majesty’s hand. But even if he does not, we want you to know, Your Majesty, that we will not serve your gods or worship the image of gold you have set up.
God did supernaturally rescue Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego, but what stands out about their confrontation with Nebuchadnezzar isn’t just their boldness in facing death, but their admission of uncertainty about whether or not God would behave in the way they think he should.
Faith is an interesting concept. It’s the belief in something that can’t be proven, at least in the ways we normally think about “proof.” Without some window of doubt — or, at least, the very possibility of doubt — faith couldn’t exist. It would be certainty. And, by its very nature, certainty doesn’t even require faith.
But, for reasons we may not fully comprehend, God has chosen for our relationship with him to operate through faith. If He wanted, an omnipotent God could fully reveal himself to us. He could physically appear to us, make himself fully known and relinquish all doubts.
But He doesn’t. He wants us to believe without seeing. He wants faith, even in an age that often demands certainty.
The Bible constantly warns about the dangers of “wisdom” that is not rooted in reverence for the bigness of God. Or, as it is sometimes put, the “fear of God.” It’s not simply a “fear” as in being “afraid” of what He might do. But, a reverence for something so powerful, wise and holy.
For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
In other words, God does things differently than we do. He can be unpredictable. His very nature is to challenge conventional wisdom with a new kind of thinking based on faith in the unseen, not on the way we want things to be done: “But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong” (1 Corinthians 1:27).
It’s not that God wants us to necessarily doubt His existence, but He does want us to know that we don’t always know.
That’s the danger of living according to the values of a culture where certainty is synonymous with wisdom. It leaves no room for God to do the unexpected, and prove He’s even greater than we thought He was.
Truth is important. And so is confidence in God’s word. But, we can’t ignore the parts where God challenges preconceptions. The parts where he humbles the proud. Where he “shames the wise.”
Where Were You?
Job thought he understood God. He believed God rewarded those who served him, and protected them from harm. Then he lost everything.
But, even though he questioned God — with deep, honest, emotional questions resulting in his own preconceptions being uprooted — he never lost faith in God’s ultimate plan.
How did God respond? Yes, He rewarded Job’s faith with blessing, wealth and restored health (that is, after Job repented for presuming he understood justice better than God.) But, first, God responded with a reminder: God is God.
Who is this that obscures my plans with words without knowledge? … “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundation? … Have you ever given orders to the morning, or shown the dawn its place?
Certainty isn’t a bad thing. But neither is uncertainty.
It becomes dangerous when we’re certain of things that we can’t be certain of. When our wisdom becomes equal to his wisdom. When we replace wonder, awe and “fear” in confidence of our own understanding.
When we become too afraid or too proud to utter “I don’t know” and “even if He doesn’t.”
Faith isn’t just about having answers. It’s also about being able to recognize we may not have them all, but we have confidence in the one who does.
Jesse Carey is a mainstay on the weekly RELEVANT Podcast and member of RELEVANT's executive board. He lives in Virginia Beach with his wife and two kids.