Embracing Uncertainty

We as human creatures are not good at dealing with uncertainty. There is an inevitable pull toward dogmatism, toward confidence, and toward oversimplifying questions - especially questions without clear answers.

We live in a deeply uncertain time. Not just in terms of what will happen, but in terms of what should happen. We face a disease pandemic where the science is scrambling to catch up to present realities. We face unprecedented political decisions. Those in authority are trying to decide between a terrible disease and terrible options for containment, trying to determine which is worse without knowing how bad either will really be. Whether we are discussing politics or business or even just how to conduct our personal lives, we only have available information that is incomplete, at times conflicting, and force us to balance concerns which defy easy comparisons.

People keep asking questions that boil down to "What should we do?" I don't know, and I think anyone who pretends they do probably deserves to be ignored right now. Instead, I want to ask a different question: how do we as Christians live when we don't know?

1. Admit Your Uncertainty
"Do not boast about tomorrow, for you do not know what a day may bring." (Proverbs 27:1)
The most important thing we can say on many topics is "I don't know," or at least "I'm not sure." We live in an age uniquely suspicious of expertise, but the result of this is that we all think we are experts. This is dangerous, and it is also anti-Christian. Foundational to our faith is a posture of humility. To be humble is not simply a show of being self-effacing; it is a posture of the heart. It looks at the deep and hard questions of the universe and says, "Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is high; I cannot attain it." (Psalm 139:6) We do not know the future; we don't even really know the present. As such, we should freely admit what we don't know. In particular, this means we should shy away from dogmas of all stripes, especially in situations like this one. There are lots of pundits and news outlets and public figures who are quick to tell us what to think. They do this because we crave it - they are the prophets of our age. Yet the mark of a false prophet is that they speak beyond what God reveals.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't be informed or have opinions. It does, however, mean that we should hold whatever opinions we form with a spirit of provisionality and be extremely hesitant to share them as fact. More than that, in the case of something like this pandemic, it means that we should admit the terrible costs associated with the view we hold and grieve them. If you are all for reopening, you ought to hold that view while weeping for the thousands of lives whose blood might be on your hands if you do, the workers forced into unsafe environments, and the risks of a collapsing medical system. If you are all for keeping everything closed, you ought to hold that view while weeping for the elderly slowly wasting away in nursing homes, the poor who have lost the dignity of work and are struggling financially in an unprecedented way, and the many deaths of despair that will result from loneliness. Again: you need to grieve the costs of your position, not let those of the other side make you feel smug. If that process of grief makes you less certain: that is good. It is the beginning of humility to recognize those costs. 

2. Be Faithful Where You Can
“One who is faithful in a very little is also faithful in much, and one who is dishonest in a very little is also dishonest in much. If then you have not been faithful in the unrighteous wealth, who will entrust to you the true riches? And if you have not been faithful in that which is another's, who will give you that which is your own?" (Luke 16:10-12)
One of the less-emphasized themes of Scripture is that of testing. A test, in the Bible, is not really about determining the outcome - God already knows all things. Rather, it is about revealing the reality of our hearts. Abraham was never going to be asked to physically kill Isaac - God was always going to provide a lamb. However, that doesn't mean his sacrificial test wasn't important. It was the faith Abraham demonstrated in adversity that resulted in God's blessings being reaffirmed.

One of the devil's common ploys is to make us focus on what we cannot do rather than what we can. We cannot gather for worship. We cannot congregate with friends. The more we obsess in frustration about those challenges, though, the more we miss all that we can do. There is much in which to be faithful today. Have you spent time in prayer or the Word? Have you sought to love your spouse and children well, if you have them? Have you been diligent in your vocation, whether that means working online or caring for your home and family? Have you praised God in your heart for each blessing He provides? Have you taken every opportunity to do good works? Have you considered ways to bless your neighbors? While we shouldn't draw straight lines in a simplistic way, the testimony of Scripture is that what God blesses is faithfulness in what we have, not in what we lack.

More than that, we should reflect that for many of us this season provides unique opportunities. Parents - you know how you always felt like your kids were busy, too busy to develop good spiritual habits with them like daily prayer or devotions? You have the time. One person I spoke to recently informed me he was taking his sudden abundance of free time as a chance to read through the entire Bible in three months. He was halfway through. Another told me it finally gave them the excuse they needed to meet their neighbors. 

3. Honor Those In Authority
"Be subject for the Lord's sake to every human institution, whether it be to the emperor as supreme, or to governors as sent by him to punish those who do evil and to praise those who do good... Honor everyone. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor." (1 Peter 2:13-14,17)
Hoo boy, here is a hard one in our modern world for many of us, yet it is an unavoidable fact. Scripture looks at the tyrants of Rome, petty men with selfish ambitions who are busy shedding innocent blood, including the blood of Christians, and the commands it gives are: submit to them, honor them, and pray for them. That's it - full stop. Of course, there are complexities here, especially in a democracy. We can have opinions and support parties and think those in power are misguided. However, in terms of our speech and our hearts, these three commands are non-negotiable. Whatever we might say in addition to Scripture's words about how we interact with politics, they must be the foundation on which the rest of the house is built.

This is radically countercultural, and sounds almost unbelievable to most of us. Thanks to the state I live in, it seems almost everyone I talk to holds either that our President and the party in power nationally are a bunch of incompetent nincompoops, or that our Governor and the party in power in my state are a bunch of incompetent nincompoops, or that everyone is and we should burn the whole thing down. I feel that way too, although I'm not saying which group I fit into. However, that is not the attitude of Christ, and inasmuch as we let it rule us, we are in sin.

Perhaps the best thing we can do is try to remember the brutal, unclear choices these men and women are being faced with. There are no easy decisions for them to make, and whatever they do, lives will be ruined and lost. I don't envy them their positions. Certainly, some of them might be unfaithful in how they face these choices. God is the great King and Judge, and they will have to address that with Him someday. However, I do not sit on His throne, and there is plenty of judgment I deserve as well. So my posture should be one of prayer and sympathy, asking for divine guidance for them that we might be able to live peaceful and faithful lives.

4. Trust God
"Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make straight your paths." (Proverbs 3:5-6)
The ultimate reason our hearts run toward false certainties in uncertain times is because we lack faith. We want to lean on our own understanding, to walk by sight, and to be able to manage things on our own.

By "faith" I do not mean "faith that nothing bad will happen." God is in control of the universe, and that includes this pandemic. He governs the world in a way that includes our own suffering and mortality. This is mysterious but unavoidable. God is telling a story that ends with joy and life everlasting, but in the middle, He does write pages of sorrow and conflict and struggle. Walking by faith does not mean that we might not get sick or die or that our economy might not collapse or any of that.

Faith means recognizing that God is greater and wiser than us, that He is good, and that He has Himself shouldered our suffering in Jesus, that He bled and died to break its power, and that He will bring life in the end. God is in control of the universe, and that includes this pandemic. I don't know what the future holds, or even the present, but He does. Being a human creature ultimately means trusting our Creator, resting in His love for us and knowing that, while we don't know the way, He will make it straight before us as we walk forward in Him.

This is the only posture that can bring true peace in such a time. If our trust is in easy, trite answers, we will not receive them. If our trust is in princes or policies or vaccines, the future is uncertain and all human institutions are warped by sin. If our trust is in ourselves, we cannot escape the reality that we are frail and mortal creatures. There is no time that is clearer than now. However, if our trust is in God, then no matter what comes tomorrow, He remains the same. To quote the words of an old hymn:

"I do not ask to see the way
My feet will have to tread;
But only that my soul may feed
Upon the living bread.
'Tis better far that I should walk
By faith close to His side, -
I may not know the way I go,
But oh, I know my Guide. 

And if my feet would go astray,
They cannot, for I know
That Jesus guides my falt'ring steps,
As joyfully I go.
And tho' I may not see His face,
My faith is strong and clear
That in each hour of sore distress,
My Savior will be near.

I will not fear, tho' darkness come
Abroad o'er all the land,
If I may only feel the touch
Of His own loving hand.
And tho' I tremble when I think
How weak I am, how frail,
My soul is satisfied to know
His love can never fail."