It is a curious paradox that the pleasures we plan most carefully to recreate give us less joy than the serendipitous pleasures that overtake us. I think this provides a clue for how God thinks about happiness. Not only are we surprised by joy, but the surprise increases the joy. This is why “He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!'” (Revelation 21:5 NIV).
Ἔστιν δὲ πίστις ἐλπιζομένων ὑπόστασις, πραγμάτων ἔλεγχος οὐ βλεπομένων.Hebrews 11:1 (Original Greek)
The New Testament makes very clear how damaging doubt can be to faith. For example, Jesus tells his disciples that they can move mountains with the smallest amount of faith, provided their faith admits of no doubt. What is less clear, however, is that certainty can also damage faith.
The author of Hebrews is a careful reasoner who leads his readers step-by-step through an argument to show that Jesus’ sacrifice for sin makes the Jewish sacrificial system obsolete. By the time he gets to the end of chapter 10, he is applying what he has taught to the lives of his readers, and he is exhorting them to persevere in their faith despite ongoing suffering and persecution. This leads him to consider the nature of faith and how it has influenced the behavior of believers who have gone before. He starts chapter 11 with a definition of faith: “Faith is what supports our hopes, what proves matters that can’t be seen. (My translation).”
He identifies two areas where faith is essential: things that don’t yet exist because they are future events, and things that exist now but can’t be discerned by our five senses. He then lists several champions from Jewish history, all of them commended for holding on to what they believed despite opposition from those around them and despite having no tangible proof. He says that they were “looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” and “looking for a country of their own.” They were holding on to hope for a better world, a better future which they glimpsed by faith but which they never attained. Instead they were
tortured, refusing to be released so that they might gain an even better resurrection. Some faced jeers and flogging, and even chains and imprisonment. They were put to death by stoning; they were sawed in two; they were killed by the sword. They went about in sheepskins and goatskins, destitute, persecuted and mistreated—the world was not worthy of them. They wandered in deserts and mountains, living in caves and in holes in the ground.Hebrews 11:35-38
In a word, they suffered without obtaining what they hoped for. He goes on to refer to them as a “cloud of witnesses,” like spectators at a marathon, cheering and encouraging the participants to keep going no matter how hard it might seem or tempting the desire to throw in the towel.
Faith, because it grasps what doesn’t yet exist and perceives what is invisible to the senses, is essential to every creative endeavor. Creating something—anything from composing a symphony, to writing a novel, from proposing a new philosophy to propounding a new theory—requires faith, a grasp of the not yet, a vision of the invisible. Faith will endure suffering, even face setbacks and failures, to procure a better future that the believers themselves might never see.
Certainty, by contrast, is thoroughly grounded in what is. It focuses on the past, on what has always been true, on what is incontestable, on what can be seen and touched and heard and smelled and tasted. In Jesus’ interactions with the Pharisees and religious leaders, we can see their certainty, their conviction of their own rightness. They have devoted themselves to meticulously keeping the law, structuring their lives to maintain the smallest observances like tithing their mint, dill, and cumin because they believe that flawless adherence to the legalistic requirements of the law is the way to have life. In their myopia, they give their attention to minutiae and completely miss the main point of the law, which is love.
When Jesus healed a man born blind on the Sabbath, the religious leaders were divided by their certainties. Some, starting from Jesus’ violation of the Sabbath, declared him to be “not from God.” Others, beginning with the incontestable fact of the healing, asserted that such miracles could not be performed by sinners. The one thing they did not do was question their own preconceptions about what constitutes godliness. Yet that is precisely what Jesus’ miraculous healing invited them to do. Jesus had already told them that the sabbath was instituted for the benefit of people, not to force people into honoring God’s rest after creating. In doing so, he put human needs ahead of legalistic proscriptions of the law. But for those leaders, the law was holy, and any infraction was dishonoring to the law and to the Lawgiver. That is why they plotted to kill Jesus: they were certain that he was dishonoring God.
Certainty is empowering because we will fight for what we believe is true and right. We will commit violence. We will hate. We will kill, as long as we are certain that what we are doing is right, perhaps even God-ordained. Faith is empowering because we will suffer for what we believe is true and right. We will endure violence and still love those who persecute us. We will die rather than give up our hope for a better future and a better kingdom. The devil loves certainty because he is risk averse. God loves faith because he accepts risk in order to access possibility. Certainty is content to leave mountains where they are, accept the status quo, and deal with reality as it is. But faith imagines mountains cast into the sea, yearns for a better world, and reaches for a reality that is still to come.
Well, of course, God is in control. He’s the supreme being, the maker and ruler of the cosmos. How could he not be in control of what he has made? It depends somewhat on what you mean by “control.” Does God determine everything that happens? Is he responsible for earthquakes and tsunamis, witch hunts and revolutions, murders and rapes? Does he get some kind of twisted delight out of tragic accidents or childhood cancer or Covid-19 deaths? If he does not cause disaster and evil, then does he permit it? And if he permits it, isn’t that the moral equivalent of causing it?
These are deep questions, and I am ill-qualified to answer them, but like many others, I can’t help trying to come to terms with them. As a Christian who trusts God and believes he is all good all the time, it does not sit well with me to imagine he created terrible evils or permits them. Perhaps, then, he allows evil because he can’t put a stop to it. In other words, God is not in control.
I’ve written already about who rules the world. Here I would like to introduce another bit of evidence, this time from the Lord’s Prayer. Jesus taught his followers to pray, “Your name: be hallowed; your kingdom: come; your will: be done. As in heaven, so on earth.” Yet who prays for what they already have? If God’s name is already highly esteemed, if his kingdom is already manifest throughout the world, if his will is already being done, then why make a petition of it? Christians pray for God’s will to be done because it’s not being done. How is it that omnipotence cannot do whatever it pleases whenever it pleases?
One conclusion that many people come to is simply that there is no God. This view has several advantages—a simplified morality where nothing is Good or Evil in some universal, cosmic sense but merely good or bad to or for particular outcomes in particular situations; a sense of intellectual superiority to the vast majority of mankind who throughout history has believed in some kind of god; freedom from arbitrary rules about how to live and behave; and the seductive promise that the pain and despair of existence can’t last forever.
It has disadvantages, too. Without God, there is no ultimate justice. The uncaught murderer will forever go unpunished. Without God, the longing we all have to be fully comprehended and to be loved can never be satisfied. Without God, we each and also collectively face the daunting task of deciding for ourselves what is good and what is evil. Without God, there is no lasting life, no meaning to everything. We can only look forward to the heat death of the universe and perhaps—if some models are correct—an endless cycle of new universes that come into being, grow old, and die over unimaginably vast stretches of time and space.
At this point, I think it is helpful to introduce a distinction between power and authority. Power is the ability to act in a situation or context. Authority is the right to act in a situation or context. To act in a way that is good and right requires both power and authority. For example, a police officer might respond to a call about a domestic dispute and discovers that one of the participants is an undocumented immigrant. However, her city is a sanctuary city, and the police are specifically prohibited from detaining undocumented immigrants unless they are in violation of a city ordinance. The police officer has the power to act but not the authority.
The opening chapters of Genesis reveal a God who, in the act of creating, made creatures enough like himself that he could commune with them and love them. He subjected the world he had made to their authority, and when they rebelled against his good governance, they ceded that authority to God’s enemy. Thus Satan became the ruler of this world, and by his schemes and deceptions he has brought much evil into the world.
If God were like us, his judgment would have been swift and severe. He would have overpowered and immediately crushed the serpent, slain Adam and Eve for their disobedience, and restarted the whole project afresh. But God is not like us. He responded with love like a parent with disobedient children. He gave them consequences for their actions and waited to see what they would do. Would they repent and seek to re-establish the communion they had had with him? Or would they continue in rebellion? Throughout history, some have chosen repentance and some have chosen rebellion1Of course, the Christian understanding is that everyone defaults to rebellion, but some choose repentance and life. In his efforts to persuade rebellious humanity, God even sent his own son as an emissary, not with violence and threats, but with gentleness and love, to persuade the rebels to lay down their arms and surrender. He commissioned his church to the same task, calling them out from their accustomed lives to live a new life in obedience to God by displaying his own loving character in their words and deeds.
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.2 Peter 3:9
For this reason, those who claim to be Christians but act with judgment and condemnation toward others have not rightly understood the mission of the church. The church has not been tasked with making society righteous by advocating for laws that reflect Bronze Age values from the Law of Moses. Indeed, Paul taught that the Law no longer held sway over those who commit themselves to Christ2Read just about any of Paul’s letters but especially those to the Romans and the Galatians. Therefore, when Christians spew forth vituperation and anger toward those whose political views differ from their own, they are revealing how much their own hearts and minds are still in bondage to the sinful nature. They are still in rebellion against God, who is patient with everyone but especially with those who have never known his goodness and love. Just as parents are gentle with young children who have not yet learned how to behave but harsher with older children who certainly know better, so God has more patience with sinners who have not known him but has less patience with those who have tasted his mercy and forgiveness.
The greatest single cause of atheism in the world today is Christians who acknowledge Jesus with their lips and walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable.Brennan Manning, attributed
- 1Of course, the Christian understanding is that everyone defaults to rebellion, but some choose repentance and life
- 2Read just about any of Paul’s letters but especially those to the Romans and the Galatians