Monday, April 6, 2009

Certainty and Meaning

The Lord of Hosts is on our side.
The God of Jacob is our refuge.
--Psalm 46

Bill, my boss at school, has a sign in his office, attributed to some really smart person. It says "The need for certainty interferes with the search for meaning" (my paraphrase; I can't remember the exact words).

I have thought a lot about that saying, and I think it contains a lot of truth. Dogma is often the enemy of meaning. We pick through the teachings of Jesus and his followers with a fine comb, analyzing every word and tense, trying to find rules and regulations to impose and/or follow, often where none was intended. In the process, we utterly miss the bigger meaning of the teaching in question. In almost all of Jesus' teaching, the emphasis is on the internal, not the external. But we tend to look for certainty in practice, often at the expense of the true meaning.

This is nothing new, of course: Jesus once accused the religious leaders of his day of "straining out a gnat and swallowing a camel"--what a great mental image.

The problem with Bill's saying, though, is it is only partially true. Certainty is important, too; in fact I don’t think you can have one without the other. Through some extensive research, I have become convinced of the physical reality of Jesus' resurrection and other miracles. Some say it doesn’t matter whether Jesus’ resurrection was physical or just spiritual. But it does to me. Here's why:

I have often struggled with the problem of suffering in this world, especially among innocent children. Twice in my life I have visited pediatric hospitals; in both cases I was a wreck for days afterwards. On a daily basis I come into contact with little kids who have experienced things no little kids should even have to know about. Some of these kids just don’t seem to have a chance. Attempts to find meaning in the mutilation or death of a child come across as hollow at best. More often such attempts are downright insulting.

But that is where certainty becomes important. I am certain that God is powerful, just, and merciful, and that he conquered death through Jesus. And that certainty is enough. I don't have to impose some sort of trite "meaning" on something that really just doesn't make sense. I can seek for a meaning, but in the end I might not find it, and that is alright (if not exactly comfortable). I do not need to articulate what God himself has not articulated. I just need to trust God to be who I know him to be. It is enough that HE is all-knowing. I don't have to be.

Isn’t that what Psalm 46 is getting at? Be still (stop struggling) and know that he is God; trust him even when he is hidden and things are scary. Also Hebrews 11. All those people accomplished great things, but died—often in horrifying ways--without seeing God's greater purpose. They trusted him.

And of course the entire book of Job, especially 38 through 42:6. Job's friends very comfortably found meaning in Job's suffering, explaining it away in a series of well-reasoned arguments. Job, meantime, is not at peace because it doesn’t make sense, and his friends' arguments don't reconcile with what he knows to be true. In the end, confused, conflicted Job was vindicated as the one who was right. But God never did explain himself--he just showed who he was and told Job to trust him.

That's one reason that the certainty of Jesus' resurrection is important to me. It shows, in a very real way, who God is and what he is up to in the world. And being certain of that, I can be OK letting some other things go. In my certainty of God’s goodness, I find true meaning. I can be still, and know that He is God.