How to Live with Uncertainty

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

We don’t like living with unanswered questions, do we. At least those of us raised and educated in that part of the world we usually call the west don’t. There was a great Russian/British philosopher/historian named Isaiah Berlin, who Winston Churchill once mistook for Irving Berlin, who I once heard say that our western culture is characterized by three foundational principles, namely, that every question has an answer, that every question has only one correct answer, and it is possible for us to know that answer. I think he’s right about that as a general proposition. We are uncomfortable when we’re faced with a question to which we don’t know the answer. Most of the time when we don’t know the answer to a question we’ll dismiss the question as unimportant, or we’ll keep looking for the answer to the question until we find it. We will resolve our uncertainty about the answer to unanswered questions one way or another. We just aren’t satisfied living with unanswered ones.


For the last two years, however, we’ve been living with a whole lot of uncertainty, haven’t we. We’ve been living with unanswered and often seemingly unanswerable questions about the once-in-a-century pandemic we’re living through. At the beginning we asked how bad it would be, and no one really knew. We asked if there would be a vaccine and if so how long would it take for us to get it, and no one really knew. We went into lockdown, and no one knew how long we’ve to stay in it. Now we’re two years into the pandemic, and we get conflicting advice on isolation and masks. Do we still need them? The answers we get seem uncertain, and we don’t like it much.


We don’t like it much, but our questions about the pandemic have or will have answers. Each of them has or will have only one correct answer, and we will know that answer. There is however a realm in which Berlin’s triad of propositions doesn’t work. That realm is faith. That realm is God, and God, you see, always remains mystery. The great Roman Catholic feminist theologian Elizabeth Johnson has called God “the mystery that surrounds human lives and the universe itself.” If God is truly God, you see, In God’s essence God must remain ultimately unknown to us. God is infinite, we are finite. God is unconditional being, we are conditional beings. The prophet scholars call Second Isaiah understood that God transcends us absolutely. He tells us that God says “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways….For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” Isaiah 55:8-9. God is just so different from us that we can never eliminate all uncertainty about God. We just can’t.


We have an example of how God’s ways are ultimate mystery in our story this morning of the Transfiguration. In that story Jesus takes Peter, James, and John up a mountain. While they are there several incomprehensible things happen. Jesus’ face changes, and his clothes become dazzling white. Moses, long since dead, and Elijah, long since taken from the earth into heaven, appear. Then a cloud appears out of nowhere, and a voice comes from the could though there is no one there to speak. The Transfiguration story is filled with inexplicable mystery. As with all ultimate mystery, we are left with profound uncertainty about how these impossible things happened. We are left with wonder and awe, not with an explanation.


We live surrounded by unanswered questions, don’t we. Some of those questions have answers we just don’t know yet. Others are questions to which we will never have answers. We humans live with an enormous amount of uncertainty. Our existential reality of uncertainty comes from our being created as finite, mortal beings not infinite, eternal ones. And since we can’t avoid living with uncertainty, we really do need to discern how we can live with it. My answer to the question of how we can live with uncertainty is trust. Let me explain.


First, we really have no choice but to trust other human beings in many aspects of our lives. We trust that professionals with whom we interact will perform their profession competently. We, or at least most of us, trust our spouse or other intimate person to be faithful and to seek our good not our harm. In this current, accursed pandemic we have trusted physicians and public health officials to tell us the truth about the COVID-19 virus and how we can minimize our risk of contracting it, not that all of them always have. We trusted pharmaceutical companies to come up with a vaccine, and they came up with it in amazingly short order. In so many ways through the course of our lives we trust people we know and people we don’t know to do what is right.


Our scripture tells us something about trust that sounds like it contradicts the trust we always place in other humans. Psalm 146:3 says: “Do not put your trust in princes, in mortals, in whom there is no help.” I think however that this psalm speaks profound truth when we turn from our ordinary, mundane human questions to more profound questions about ultimate reality and our relationship to it. We have seen that God is and always must be mystery. That mystery of course brings with it a good deal of uncertainty. Sure, people convince themselves of supposed truths that they believe make God certain and fully known all the time. Yet those supposed truths are always in significant ways false. They must be false, because they contradict our human existential reality of being finite, limited creatures while God is infinite and unlimited. The way that is not false to relate to that infinite and unlimited God whom we can never fully know is in trust. See, God is a great paradox. We can never fully know God, but we believe that we know at least something of God. One of the paradoxes of God is that God is the great Known Unknown. We Christians believe that we know something of God in and through Jesus Christ. That is, we trust that we know something of God in and through Jesus Christ. We trust that what we know of God in that way is not false, that our partial knowledge of God does not lead us astray. That trust is in the end all we have, and it is enough. We can live trusting that the known side of the paradox of the Known Unknown is true. We can live trusting that in that known side of the paradox of God there is salvation.


So in the great uncertainty with which we unavoidably must life, trust God. Trust the God we know in and through Jesus Christ. When doubt and uncertainty arise, trust God. Put your trust in the ultimate truth of existence, in God, and trust that God will never fail us, for in Christ Jesus we know that God never will. Trust that in whatever uncertainty you face in life God is there in that uncertainty with you, for we know that in Christ Jesus too. Trust that God is there for you to cling to, to take strength from, to give you the courage to face whatever your uncertainty is. Maybe we can’t fully know God, but we can certainly trust that God is with us and for us no matter what. And it is enough. Amen.

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