In a recent episode of Armchair Expert, host Dax Shephard (a professed atheist) asked Christian and Stage IV cancer survivor Kate Bowler how she (as someone who has put her faith in Jesus and the reality of Heaven) could still fear death. Kate’s answer was a compelling one:
“For a lot of people, they confuse faith with certainty. And certainty feels like it’s another [flawed] solution to the problem of pain. [People assume] a certainty about an afterlife makes it somehow always bearable to be a person in the world, and I just have not found that to be true. . . In terms of the biggest story, I’m sure that that’s true, but I am not in that story.”
I can relate to so much in Kate’s answer. I, too, feel frustrated by the assumption that faith implies certainty. On the contrary, faith—by definition—requires an absence of certainty. (Anne Lamott goes so far as to call certainty the exact opposite of faith, noting that, “certainty is missing the point entirely. Faith includes noticing the mess, the emptiness and discomfort, and letting it be there until some light returns.”)
Also like Kate, I haven’t found faith to a be the silver bullet for understanding or combatting pain. I too have a profound faith in God’s sovereignty over the Big Picture story of eternity. . . and I simultaneously struggle to find peace within my own tiny place outside that broader narrative. My faith-bordering-on-certainty in the reality of Heaven does not always guarantee comfort and ease in my earthly existence.
At the same time, I’m not so arrogant as to think that my own failure to understand God’s goodness in the midst of pain is an indicator that He is not good. I trust that He is good and He is sovereign—over the Big Picture of the world, as well as the little one my life. And while trusting in and hoping for pain-free eternity does not always diminish my experience with pain in this present life, a shift towards a Kingdom-minded perspective can help release my deathgrip on my own naive understanding of this world . . . an understanding whose limitations can sometimes make this life seem unbearable
The author of the book of Hebrews encouraged early believers to do just this: shift their focus away from their present trials and towards the broader narrative taking place. Such faith did not require certainty, but even in its flawed existence, this faith served as sufficient evidence for the good that was and is to come. Such evidence enabled the early church to hold onto hope when circumstances felt dire.
In many ways, circumstances in our present age feel pretty dire. These past couple of years have been the hardest most of us have witnessed in our lifetimes, and there seems to be no foreseeable end to our trials, hardships, and division. Perseverance in these trials will require much of us: we must let go of past grievances and a victim mentality (described in Hebrews as “every wound that has pierced us”) and turn away from sinful patterns.
Unencumbered by bitterness, resentment, and sin, we are free to participate in a race to the finish line. This finish line is not Easy Life or Worldly Success or even Perfect Holiness. The end-goal we are encouraged to pursue is a perfected faith—a faith that keeps us committed to our Lord and Savior, that prompts us to act in alignment with His purposes, and that fosters hope when life feels hopeless.
We are joined in this pursuit by a cloud of witnesses—our Biblical predecessors who accomplished great things for the Lord as a result of their own unwavering faith. These pillars of faith acted in obedience, unsure of what lay ahead but confident in God’s instruction. We learn from their example, are inspired by their stories, and are encouraged to consider ourselves part of their “Faith Warrior Tribe.” Jesus Himself is our chief inspiration in this pursuit, and maintaining our focus on Him is our solution to becoming worn down and caving under life’s pressures.
As life continues to feel hard, and solutions remain elusive, I will consider it an honor and a privilege to be running in this difficult race alongside so many inspiring believers as the Lord uses uncertain times to further a perfected faith.