From “The Sin of Certainty” by Peter Enns
Correct thinking provides a sense of certainty. Without it, we fear that faith is on life support at best, dead and buried at worst. And who wants a dead or dying faith? So this fear of losing a handle on certainty leads to a preoccupation with correct thinking, making sure familiar beliefs are defended and supported at all costs.
How strongly do we hold on to the old ways of thinking? Just recall those history courses where we read about Christians killing other Christians over all sorts of disagreements about doctrines few can even articulate today. Or perhaps just think of a skirmish you’ve had at church over a sermon, Sunday-school lesson, or which candidate to vote into public office.
Preoccupation with correct thinking. That’s the deeper problem. It reduces the life of faith to sentry duty, a 24/7 task of pacing the ramparts and scanning the horizon to fend off incorrect thinking, in ourselves and others, too engrossed to come inside the halls and enjoy the banquet. A faith like that is stressful and tedious to maintain. Moving toward different ways of thinking, even just trying it on for a while to see how it fits, is perceived as a compromise to faith, or as giving up on faith altogether. But nothing could be further from the truth.
Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe and needing to be right in order to maintain a healthy faith, these do not make for a healthy faith in God. In a nutshell, that is the problem. And that is what I mean by the “sin of certainty.”
It is sin because this pattern of thinking sells God short by keeping the Creator captive to what we are able to comprehend, which is the very same problem the Israelites had when they were tempted to make images of God (a.k.a. idols) out of stone, metal, or wood. For ancient people, images made the gods present for the worshippers, something tangible to look at to let them connect with the divine realm. But Israel’s God said no. Any images shaped by human hands limit God by bringing God too far into alignment with ancient conceptions of the divine.
We don’t make physical images of God. But we do make mental ones.
I don’t mean that our thoughts of God are no different than images of wood and stone. The images we read about in the Bible always limit God, because they confuse the Creator with creation. Thoughts about God, on the other hand, are not only often helpful but downright inevitable. When we confuse God with our thoughts about God, however, those thoughts can become idol-like, getting in the way of the real thing, hindering rather than aiding a life of faith.
When we grab hold of “correct” thinking for dear life, when we refuse to let go because we think that doing so means letting go of God, when we dig in our heels and stay firmly planted even when we sense that we need to let go and move on, at that point we are trusting our thoughts rather than God. We have turned away from God’s invitation to trust in order to cling to an idol.
The need for certainty is sin because it works off of fear and limits God to our mental images. And God does not like being boxed in. By definition, God can’t be. I believe we are prone to forget that.