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Faith and Certainty

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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.

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