I didn't like fog and uncertainty. I wanted things to be clearly visible and put in their proper categories. I wanted to find the sofa exactly where it was when I left. If a chair had been moved, it gave the home a new, disturbing perspective. Arriving at an unfamiliar airport was painful. Where do I go? Left or right? Meeting strangers and new situations were stressful challenges. “New” never was a positive word in my ears. The old familiar paths, people, furniture, and airports still make me feel more comfortable.
My wife is different. She loves change and new adventures. She enjoys moving furniture. In the airport she takes my shivering heart in her hands and simply says, “Come, we will figure this out!” We always do, even if short of breath from running to catch the right bus.
In 1963, the Scandinavian Airlines Caravelle jet approached the airport in Stavanger, Norway. From my window seat I tried to make sense of the outside world. I saw nothing but thick, impenetrable, milky-white fog. Uncertainty filled my heart. I was sure the guys up front could see no more than I did; and they didn't. Suddenly there was a soft bump. We were on the tarmac, not chopping tree tops in the woods. What a miracle!
My friend Bruno, a captain in Austrian Airlines, told me once that he hardly looked out the windows of the cockpit. Come rain or shine, his eyes were fixed on the instruments until the plane was safely on the ground. To him, fog, rain, or shine made no difference.
The Clear Word of God
How often have you heard phrases like the clear word of God, our clear biblical teachings, our 28 fundamental beliefs, our firm, unambiguous, non-negotiable doctrinal ideas? We seem to have no compunction about claiming clear divine authority for all our opinions, ideas, traditions, standards, and even investment policies. I wonder how that aligns with the third commandment. Some adore our Church Manual where almost everything pertaining to church and private life is spelled out in do and don't detail. It all tries to satisfy our craving for simplistic certainty.
Some of the Bible writers speak in similar terms — but with greater authority. Peter writes, “We also have the prophetic message as something completely reliable, and you will do well to pay attention to it, as to a light shining in a dark place” (2 Peter 1:19 NIV). Isaiah assures us, “Whether you turn to the right or to the left, your ears will hear a voice behind you, saying, ‘This is the way; walk in it’” (Isaiah 30:21 NIV).
These statements are pleasing to my ear and reassuring to my natural heart. They inspire confidence that dispels doubt and uncertainty. No fog, only clear sunshine.
When in an unfamiliar airport I hear my wife's reassuring voice three paces in front of me saying, “Follow me!” I do – because I trust her! I have also come to trust the pilots of the plane that just parked safely at the gate. When hit by heavy turbulence between Greenland and Labrador, I enjoy the action, because I trust pilots, Airbus and Boeing.
I do not trust my own impressions and reasoning. As you may expect, I do not blindly trust yours either. I wish I could literally hear that inaudible clear voice from behind telling me which turn to make at the next intersection. I have never had a celestial experience. In a way I envy, but don't trust, those who claim they have.
The Certainty of Uncertainty
Our Christian walk is not always joyous, confident, and filled with “blessed assurance.” We experience doubts, perplexities, misunderstandings, disappointments, and uncertainty. Are we always sure that God is on our side, or we on His? Is every verse in the Bible the clear Word of God that we can read at face value without asking the disturbing question, “What does this mean?” Will the 28 fundamental beliefs, the way our church explains them, dispel all our perplexities? Do we simply consult the Church Manual's chapter on decency when dressing on Sabbath morning, without bothering to take a look in the mirror?
Before the time of Moses, God's children had no approved list of beliefs, nor a Church Manual. How confident about the future were Adam and Eve, standing with empty hands outside the Eden gate? What did they feel looking at Abel's dead body? What did Noah feel after 120 years of preaching, on the sixth day after entering the ark, with no rain in sight? What did he think after standing on Mount Ararat, his eyes taking in the devastation caused by the Great Flood? What did Abram feel as he left Ur heading he did not know where? What thoughts of future action went through Moses' mind while watching his father-in-law's sheep for 40 years? Elijah was bold on Mount Carmel; afterwards he was alone and depressed in a cave in the desert, wishing he could die. What did Jesus feel when he cried out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46 NIV). Were they never confused about the future?
Note the words of Psalm 77:19 (NIV), “Your path led through the sea, your way through the mighty waters, though your footprints were not seen.”
We crave certainty. But many uncertainties are bound to cross our path.
Where Not to Look When Facing Uncertainty
The Bible warns us not to look for certainty in the wrong places. When Hezekiah was threatened by Sennacherib he received these encouraging words: “Be strong and courageous…With him is only the arm of flesh, but with us is the Lord our God” (2 Chronicles 32:7-8 NIV).
The General Conference Working Policy L 35, “Qualifications for Ordination to the Ministry,” has the following disturbing introduction (L35 05):
The setting apart of men for the sacred work of the ministry should be regarded as one of the most vital concerns of the church. The spiritual growth of God’s people, their development in the virtues of Christ, as well as their relationship to one another as members of His body, are all closely bound up with and in many respects dependent upon the spirituality, efficiency, and consecration of those who minister in Christ’s stead” (emphasis added).
I asked myself, “Does this statement express an ideal, or is it referencing a highly deplorable situation?”
“The spiritual growth of God's people…are all closely bound up with and in many respects dependent upon the spirituality…of those who minister in Christ's stead.” Should not God's people turn to their God for their spiritual growth, and not to human clergy that claim to serve them in Christ's stead? Historically the Adventist Church has not approved of churches that lift their clergy to a mediatory level between the people and God, where they are said to serve them as Vicarii Christi.
Read “as it stands,” this policy seems to advocate that pastors and church leaders, “the arms of flesh,” are a source of guidance in spiritual matters that members may “depend on” and be “bound up with.”
Recently a person asked our General Conference president on his website what to do when a lady pastor wears a dress that the person did not like. The advice given referred to Matthew 18, but if that failed, the issue could be brought to the attention of the General Conference leaders. There was no mention of allowing the Spirit to teach the lady how to dress, nor permitting the Spirit to teach the person asking some tolerance. The appeal was made only to human authority.
One conference issued a brochure with pictures of sufficiently decent casual clothing as a “guide” on how to dress at the camp meeting. Isn't the Spirit able to guide the individual in such matters?
These cases illustrate how a craving for simplistic certainty, as reflected in GCWP L35 05, can be used to promote, seek, provide, and legitimize “guidance” from the wrong source — the “arm of flesh” instead of God. If leaders want to foster spiritual weakness, just teach members to look to them instead of the Spirit.
Dangers of Craving Simplistic Certainty
Uncertainty is often conflated with confusion, and confusion is perceived as a threat to the familiar homogeneous order. Differences of opinion stimulate thinking and may generate discussions. To some that is disturbing.
In a Sabbath School class recently, a question was raised if a point in the lesson had some bearing on women's ordination. The class leader smiled, and asked if we thought it wise to open that box. A sweet lady shouted loudly, “NO!” Obviously she was fed up with the issue and the thinking and discussions that come with it. She wanted peace and no controversy.
Do we understand the consequences of discouraging thinking and preventing conversation about “unpleasant” topics, preferring to repeat old questions and answers we have repeated so many times before?
Paul reminds us about the certainty of uncertainty:
Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when completeness comes, what is in part disappears.…For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:8-12 NIV, emphasis added).
This statement ought to make us humble in all matters, and leave the door open for continual examination and conversation. Our church has never had, and hopefully will never have, a self-proclaimed infallible magisterium. Spiritual maturity and unity can never be legislated or fostered by banning voice and vote; only through open conversations can it grow organically from the inside-out.
Unity manifests itself in freedom of thought and voice. Diverse understandings will enrich each other, prevent tunnel sight, and foster humility and tolerance. Paul's advice to exercise flexibility and respect diversity of cultures and circumstances above uniformity is as relevant today as when he wrote these words:
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23 NIV, emphasis added).
Being “free and belong to no one,” and still “a slave to everyone,” “for the sake of the gospel,” will help us to place the diverse needs of mission above bureaucratic rules aiming at providing false simplistic certainty.
The Blessings of Uncertainty
After an extended email exchange with a young pastor, he exclaimed in frustration, “Then we cannot be sure of anything! We cannot know what is truth!” Uncertainty was disturbing to him.
The Bible is not a cookbook. It invites us to explore the mind of God, joining him on a journey of adventures and discoveries. We are pilgrims searching for gems of truth, not guards at the gates of Fortress Truth. Like Abraham we are still en route.
By faith Abraham, when called to go to a place he would later receive as his inheritance, obeyed and went, even though he did not know where he was going.…For he was looking forward to the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:8-10 NIV, emphasis added).
The path of the righteous is like the morning sun, shining ever brighter till the full light of day” (Proverbs 4:18 NIV, emphasis added).
A path is narrow, winding, covered with gravel and rocks, crossing a creek, shadowed by trees, lit up by the sun, leading to a city on a mountain top that no highway will ever reach. Sometimes we stumble along. But we have guide:
…he leads me beside quiet waters…He guides me along the right paths…Even though I walk through the darkest valley I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:2-4 NIV, emphasis added).
What a blessing to travel that path! There is progression of thought, expanded understanding, new insights as the morning sun shines ever brighter. There is no fear of evil lurking around the next bend, only happy anticipation of what new treasures may be revealed. The pilgrims share and enjoy the pearls and gems they have found. My pearl and your pearl both reflect the spectrum of light from the same sun of righteousness.
With good reason our pioneers were skeptical to creeds. Creeds establish certainty, orthodox answers. But they also shut down investigation, bar questions, calcify thinking, and prevent the sun from revealing new facets of the diamond. Using threats and coercion to force compliance with man-made rules of orthodoxy, blocks the sun and envelops us in darkness.
I am no longer fearful of fog and uncertainty. They are God's means to build trust in him and provide new insights. What a blessing!
Edwin Torkelsen is a retired historian who worked for the National Archives in Norway. He also taught Medieval History in the University of Oslo and was an Associate Professor of History in the University of Trondheim with a special interest in the development of the ecclesiastical, jurisdictional, theological, doctrinal, and political ideologies of the Medieval church. He is a member of the Tyrifjord Adventist Church in Norway.
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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8848