Peter Enn’s book The Sin of Certainty: Why God desires our trust more than our correct beliefs has become a new favorite of mine. In it, Enns confronts the faulty but popular assumption that in order for faith to be true faith, a Christian must maintain clear and unequivocal theological certainty. In other words, Christians should maintain consistent absolute certainty of all our spiritual beliefs at all times without any break due to questions or doubts. Doubt (in this view) is both the enemy and opposite of faith rather than a normative part of the life of faith. The underlying assumption is that only a faith rooted in certainty is truly “strong” faith, the only kind that pleases and honors God. For a great many Christians, this kind of faith (the certain kind) must be upheld at all costs. Keeping faith means consistently resisting any question that may give rise to doubts. All doubting is faithless in this view.
Maintaining faith rooted in “certainty” in practice means having and maintaining a fixed theology. From this point of view, rethinking one’s theological beliefs is not a normal Christian practice as a rule. Because of this, questions in general, but particularly questions dealing with conflicting theological beliefs are looked upon poorly. “Too many questions” is indicative of a doubting person and doubting leads further down the dark path of uncertainty (not good in this view). Faith as certainty is presented as “safe” and “sure faith.” But is it really safe? Enns says no. His critique is that this view of the life of faith is overly simplistic and actually harmful to our spiritual health. What happens to the kind of faith that boasts of certainty only to find that life situations and circumstances not only challenge the very beliefs we were once so certain of but also demonstrate those beliefs are on shaky ground? And what happens when the control we so desperately attempt to maintain in protecting our spiritual beliefs somehow gives way to doubts and questions?
Enns points out that having doubts and raising serious questions is far from “heretical,” nor is it foreign to the spiritual giants of Scripture. The Bible is full of countless stories of people who were unafraid to raise their doubts and questions to God? Rather than “certainty” (that is maintaining theological or intellectual certainty) being the normative faith praised in Scripture, we find another approach to faith that is more common. Instead of approaching faith as maintaining certainty, the Bible presents faith as trust in God.
Trust in God involves opening the tight grip of theological certainty and holding on to our beliefs more loosely and humbly enough for God to speak and perhaps change our minds. Trusting God is not about knowing everything for sure (as in with absolute certainty). It involves the willingness to trust God with the things we “know” (or think we know) and the things we don’t know. It involves letting go of the things that are out of our hands. Seeing and actively embracing faith in God through the lens of trust (instead of certainty) will create the space necessary for real trust in God to grow and mature. This kind of faith (faith as trust) means that when life happens, when disappointments come, when circumstances that we didn’t want to happen take place, when our theological beliefs don’t seem to line up perfectly to those circumstances, it isn’t maintaining a sense of certainty that will keep us but the steady assurance that God is with us right in the middle of our uncertainty. It’s in those times that trusting God with what is out of our hands, with what is deeply uncertain, will enable us to continue forward in the life of faith. This is the Biblical path of wisdom and spiritual growth. This, for Enns, is true faith.
My experience with teaching on faith
I can relate to so many of the themes in this book. I have been part of the broader Christian community all of my life. As a young kid, my family went to church 2-3 times a week. I would eventually take ownership of my faith in my mid teens and then again as young adult. This compelled me to get heavily involved in church ministry and leadership roles and continued to do so for many years throughout my twenties and thirties. In all my years serving within the Christian community, teaching on faith has often been presented by pastors, teachers and others in church as having a “sure set of beliefs that you never question.” It has often been said that “although there are a number of peripheral issues of the Christian faith” that Christians disagree on, “we should contend for the non-negotiable spiritual doctrines.” It is further said that holding onto these non-negotiables will make our faith “strong and sure.”
The problem I see with this view is not with having a sense of confidence in one’s beliefs or even sharing those beliefs confidently with others. It’s the arrogance of the assumption that true faith is maintaining unquestioned beliefs. It’s the unwillingness to think through the why of our beliefs, to listen to or consider others’ (perhaps even other Christians) different viewpoints or interpretations on Bible topics, to consider the reasonableness of those viewpoints honestly and respectfully. There is plenty in the Bible that suggests that thinking is a good thing. You would think (pun intended) that Bible-based subjects, doctrines and spiritual practices should be thought through. And even if there was a supposed list of “non-negotiable” Christian beliefs, who is going to decide on those?
The other problem I see about this view of faith is that it’s often accompanied by a poor understanding and appreciation of the human experience in all its beauty, nuances, ups and downs, hopes and discouragements. Life is a bit more complex, a bit more dynamic and interconnected than to assume true faith is maintaining a set of unquestioned beliefs. This to me is both naive and destructive. It’s the kind of assumption cults, yes real cults, are made out of. And yes, Christians are not exempt from cult-like thinking. It happens all the time. To assume that true faith means to stop using our brains, to stop thinking, is crazy.
In order for life to work, we have to think. Without thinking, we can’t learn. Without thinking we can’t grow and mature and change. Thinking is absolutely essential to life.
Why Enns’s book speaks to me
What I gained probably the most from Enns’s message was the honest and often times humorous attempt to talk about faith in everyday language. For starters, the themes of the book pointed toward a way of being Christian that values, honors and appreciates the human experience in all it’s complexities. Life simply is more complex than what so much teaching on faith in many Christian churches claim. The Sin of Certainty gives permission to be honest about what the life of faith means on a day to day basis. In particular, it honors our capacity to experience a wide variety of human emotion. It gives the reader permission to feel and to feel deeply. According to Enns, having and expressing emotion is very much part of what it means to be human. Christians, like all human beings, feel. And this is a good thing (not to be afraid of).
Some of the faith teaching I had learned in my early years had lead me to assume that feeling down or discouraged meant God was mad or disappointed with me because sure and certain faith doesn’t get disappointed ever. Now, while some human emotion can lead us down a path of deep depression and despair, and staying in that place can be unhealthy for long periods of time, and we definitely should seek medical or psychological help during those times (not to mention finding a good support group), this does not mean that all negative feelings are somehow sinful in and of themselves or that we should feel great shame when we have a bad day. Unfortunately, many churches have done this very thing to good-hearted Christians over the years and those people are still picking up the pieces.
Not only this, but being overly concerned with “not living by emotions” can also work the other way in that people who do this don’t truly open themselves up to all that life offers–to the beauty and wonder of life in all its fullness. They are much more inclined to resist the great depths of human capacity toward emotions like joy and love and happiness. Those bound by the religious obligation to “not feel too much” have a difficult time to stop and smell the roses, to see the colorful butterfly sweep by them, to behold a majestic sunrise or sunset, to look at the grand expanse of the stars in the sky and just stand in awe, and to smile when two people kiss because they can relate to feeling in love and having that love reciprocated. Life is full of things that–would, if we were open–ignite in us a deep well of emotions about the goodness of life and the goodness of the Creator of life.
Another thing I gained from this book was Enns’s definition of “faith as trust.” Faith as trust is simply much more palatable to the way that life actually works. In real life, all of us (Christians included) face plenty of uncertainties. Faith as trust does not necessitate that we are always certain about everything. It gives us room to not have to know everything. It’s exhausting and debilitating to keep up theological certainty about the supposed “non-negotiables of the faith” because life simply is much more complex and intricate than that. We can trust God or learn to trust God whether we think we are having a good day or bad day. Whether we “know” something (or think we know) and when we experience more “unknown” and “uncertain” moments or days. Faith as trust simply means we know Who to turn to whether or not we are certain. It also gives us permission to not make an idol of our beliefs so that there is room enough to grow and mature in our understanding of God, the world and our relationships with others. New situations present themselves to us and raise a host of questions. If we grasp onto the certainty of the non-negotiables, we will miss opportunity after opportunity to reconsider what we think and what we “know.” Not only that, but we will miss the opportunity to feel the impact of our lived experiences. Managing our emotions in such a way that we are overly concerned with not living by our emotions has the power to hinder us from actually living and learning and growing into all that we were created for. And in doing so, we will miss what God is doing in our lives.
For these reasons and many more, I highly recommend The Sin of Certainty: Why God desires our trust more than our correct beliefs. You may just find yourself laughing (Enns is pretty funny), crying and perhaps discovering that life is much more than what you currently think or imagine. You just might even begin to trust God with a new and life giving perspective.