“The opposite of faith is not doubt. The opposite of faith is certainty.” — Paul Tillich
For many years I equated faith with certainty, a kind of “know so” posture that could rest in having all the answers. I began with certainties about who God is and my eternal destination in heaven. From those two foundational blocks I attempted to back into the grind of everyday living, believing that I could have the same level of certainty about life and its perplexities. But it didn’t always work out that way. The everlasting problem of evil, for example, left me confounded. Every time I watched the news or witnessed the personal struggles of humankind, I found myself frustrated that I didn’t have the certainty that I felt I was entitled to have.
Daily faith is more related to clarity than certainty. Faith is not an answer to every question. Faith certainly includes questions, but the goal of faith is the process of learning. The outcome of faith, in my personal experience, is not an answer, or even the answer. The outcome of faith is the next better question. Faith is humble. Certainty is arrogant. Faith is directional. Certainty is explicit. Faith focuses us on the future and hope. Certainty is formed by and bound to the past.
Abram left the land of Ur with clarity, but not certainty. He was directed to go to a land he would be shown upon arrival where he would father a child in his impossible old age. He was promised to become the father of a great nation as numerous as the stars in the heaven, yet he only had one son. Abram knew the general direction of what, but wasn’t given the certainty of how or when. My American faith struggles to separate those nuances.
Here’s what has been helpful as I distinguish the two. Clarity is expressed in stories. Certainty is expressed in rules. Clarity possesses curiosity about other points of view. Certainty has little if any curiosity. Clarity embraces knowing what you don’t know. Certainty doesn’t know what it doesn’t know and doesn’t care to learn. Clarity emerges in the space between insight and action, comfortable with the direction its heading but flexible about the detail of how you’re going to get there. Certainty demands rigid formulas and processes with little room for variance. Clarity fosters trust and confidence. Certainty demands detailed explanation and guarantees.
Don’t get me wrong, I would love to live life filled with guarantees. But it’s not real. Each of us is only one test result or phone call away from being turned inside out and having our certainty shattered. Clarity empowers us to ride the waves of life’s undulations and ride the storm out until the clouds clear and the sun emerges. If I walk in clarity rather than certainty I can manage life free from resentment of the storms and see that I have grown from the experience.