The Growing Uncertainty of Middle-Age (or Why I’m Growing More Content with Knowing Less)

The more you see, the less you know
The less you find out as you go
I knew much more then
Than I do now

U2, “City of Blinding Lights,” How to Dismantle an Atomic Bomb (2004)

Sometimes I very much feel the truth of the above words from U2’s song. I find myself aware of just how much I don’t understand, how much knowledge I do not have, and of how limited my intellectual abilities are. It feels like it’s a function of growing older, a fact which is relative I know, but being in middle age seems to come with a certain recognition that I’m definitely not as smart as I perhaps once thought I was. And most definitely not as smart as some others seem to think I am. Though maybe I’m just fooling myself on that last point.

In addition, I find myself content with knowing less. I’m ok with more uncertainty about a number of things. Like everyone, I receive data and information from the world around me and I try and process it to the best of my ability. Sometimes I really think I am right in my opinion. Though there are surely times–whether I ever realize it or not–when I am very much wrong. I also make choices based on how I have processed this information. But can I be certain that I’ve made the right choice? Not always. Maybe sometimes I can be. Sometimes I may never know for sure.

What do I really need to know, anyway? My place or role in this world is relatively limited. I am a husband, a father of three kids, and a pastor of a small, but loving congregation. Much of what I need to know consists in how to live wisely and well in these relationships. Truthfully, I don’t even always do that. Hopefully, however, I am at least making incremental improvements. Of course, living well and wisely in our relationships doesn’t mean always knowing what to do or what to say or how to respond to others. At the risk of sounding trite, I at least try to do my best.

Besides, I do feel as though I am more certain about the core, fundamental, elemental matters. As a person of faith, the roots of my beliefs are quite deep down at this point. I am convinced, for example, in the truths encapsulated in historic statements of Christian doctrine like the Apostles’ Creed and in the Nicene Creed. I am convinced that Jesus is the Son of God, the Word made flesh, the one who calls us to and who gives us eternal and abundant life.

But even when it comes to my Christian faith, there are other aspects that I am less certain about or about which I am fine having less certainty about. There are areas of theological debate amongst Christians that I find interesting but which are not hills I am prepared to die on. For instance, I really don’t care about the end-times timeline. I don’t believe that the Scriptures teach a rapture which precedes Christ’s final Second Coming. I don’t know for sure whether the 1,000 reign of Christ is literal or metaphorical. Yet I do believe Jesus will return to judge the living and the dead, that we will be judged on the basis of whether we have trusted in him and in his good news, and that God will usher in a new heavens and new earth where he will dwell forever with the redeemed. And isn’t that the most important part?

I also don’t know for sure whether the young earth creationists or the old earth creationists are correct. Now, I have my thoughts. I also understand that there are those for whom these issues are near or at the center of the gospel. I’m simply not persuaded that they are right in thinking this. What I do know is that God created the heavens and the earth and that the creation declares the glory of God through its design and beauty. That, I believe, is the salient point.

Maybe age brings with it a greater willingness to let some things go, while holding on to what for me are the most important things with an even firmer grip. I’m not going to say age brings humility; it’s not up to me to decide whether that is a quality I have. Perhaps additional years will help me. Honestly, there are moments when accepting that I will not understand for sure about specific things is frustrating or disappointing–especially when I feel like I have to make choices based on what I know about those things. We all make choices with limited information. However, I also find that realizing my limits in this respect can be freeing at times. I am not responsible for everything. I don’t have to have everything figured out to live or make decisions. That is, in part, where faith comes in. Because God knows. He understands completely. He is, after all, omniscient. What I don’t and won’t understand I can leave in his hands. Though there are moments, I confess, when I try to snatch those things back. As time continues to pass, I hope and pray this happens less and less.

Faith, Fear, and the Illusion of Control

Fear. We’ve all felt it. We all know the experience of being afraid of something.

And especially over the last two years or so of the COVID pandemic and all the debates about the restrictions and guidelines and the vaccines and now the vaccine mandates or passports, people’s fears have surfaced in a variety of ways. It doesn’t help, I don’t think, that government and the media often seem to manipulate people’s fears to achieve political ends. As a result, there are people who are afraid of getting COVID and people who are afraid of getting one of the vaccines.

But there’s more than COVID that causes fear to rise up in us.

Some people are afraid because they’re not sure if they’ll be able to pay their rent and put food on the table.

Some people are afraid because they’ve just been told that they or someone they care about has cancer.

Some people are afraid of trusting someone again because they’ve only known unhealthy, broken relationships.

Some people are afraid because of climate change.

Some people are afraid because their preferred political party is not in power.

But why fear? Why do these things cause fear?

Here’s a wierd fact about me: sometimes when I get anxious, I clean up. I straighten up clutter, clean a counter, do dishes. It’s like I’m distracting myself from what I can’t control with what I can control. You see, I’m the kind of person who likes to feel as though I have at least something of a handle on things–at least things in my little neck of the woods. This means that a lot of the time–whether I am conscious of it or not–I want things to go a certain way. I usually prefer the routine and predictable. And so if something unexpected happens, especially something that threatens my safety or the safety of my family, I may very well get anxious. Fear rises up. All of a sudden, my life isn’t securely in my hands. I’ve lost control and I don’t like that very much.

I think that’s where a lot of our fear comes from–from losing whatever sense of control we thought we had. We like having control over our lives and our circumstances. But sometimes we lose the tight grip we so often try and maintain. Then we become disoriented. We find ourselves without solid footing. There’s nothing, we think, to keep us steady. There’s very little that’s worse than feeling like we’ve lost control. The very idea can easily terrify us.

If I get a cancer diagnosis, my health is out of my control. If I lose my job, my finances are out of my control. If my marriage breaks up, my family life is out of control.

And we want to be in control. Because we want to be safe.

But here’s the thing: control is an illusion.

Whatever sense of control I’ve had is just that: a sense of control, not actual control.

And because the world frequently feels like a dangerous place, we’ll do almost anything to give ourselves a sense of control.

In his book What’s Wrong With Religion? 9 Things No One Told You About Faith, Skye Jethani puts it this way: “To ease our fears, we all strive to control the people and circumstances around us.”

And of course the biggest fear is undoubtedly the fear of death. I think the last couple of years have demonstrated that unequivocally.

We want to control our lives so we can put off dealing with the reality of death as much as possible. Because it’s the reality of death–which none of us can in the end avoid–that leaves us feeling like we have no control. And that’s what really scares us.

In the Epistle to the Hebrews (2:14–15), the author says this about what it means that Jesus went to the cross: through his death he might destroy the one holding the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

Did you catch that? One of the reasons Christ died on the cross was so that he could free those who were held in slavery all their lives by the fear of death.

People are slaves, Scripture says, to the fear of death.

That is perhaps one of the most profound verses in the Bible I think there is. I think that’s because I see evidence of this all around me. I think it describes human history and human nature. I think it explains much of what I see when I watch the news. And when I see people react in very different ways to what’s going on in the world and in their lives. Fear emerges in various ways: in anger, in political divisions, and, yes, in attempts at control, whether individually or collectively.

It also explains me, when I catch myself falling prey to my own fears, despite all of the theology I have in my head.

One of the most common refrains in Scripture is this: Don’t be afraid. Fear Not.

Deuteronomy 31:6 says: Be strong and courageous; don’t be terrified or afraid of them. For the Lord your God is the one who will go with you; he will not leave you or abandon you.

And when Deuteronomy says don’t be terrified or afraid of them, I think we can rightly substitute our own fears for them. Fear of sickness, fear of loss, fear of death. The same remains true of God: he will not leave you or abandon you.

In the gospels, when the disciples see Jesus walking on the water, Jesus says this: Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid.

I don’t know about you, but I need to hear Jesus’ words. I need them to sink deeply into my heart. Ours is a perilous world, one that elicits our worst fears at times. Maybe now more than ever. We don’t always know how to handle life. We don’t always know what choices to make. We aren’t certain about a whole bunch of stuff. But of this we can be certain: if God is on our side, who can be against us?

Living as a person of faith in the face of very real fears is not an easy thing to do. It’s true that sometimes fears get the best of us. The waves that threaten to overwhelm us and capsize our lives seem more real than God. More real than the promises of Christ. Faith is having the actual goodness and greatness of God magnified in our eyes. Not that he becomes bigger, but that we come to see him more and more as he actually is. And he is the one who can calm the storms inside of us when the winds and waves rage outside of us.

Have courage! It is I. Don’t be afraid, Jesus says. I say amen. I say I believe; help my unbelief. And I say, finally, Come, Lord Jesus.

Baptism

Today I stood, clothes soaking wet, taking a look around at the sizeable crowd that had gathered for the occasion.

And I was grateful and full of joy.

Across the Causeway, at Northeast Point people were mingling, chatting, some hugging others who were similarly dampened by the cold water of the Atlantic.

No matter the time of year, it’s always cold. Only the temperature of the air changes. And today it was beautiful, sunny, and warm. Perfect for what we were doing.

We represented a handful of local churches joining together to celebrate as seven people entered their baptismal waters.

For my part, I had the privilege of baptizing a young woman from our church and my twin 12 year old sons. What a gift to be able to do so. It was an honour to baptize them.

Two other pastors led four more into the water to confess their faith in and commitment to the Lord Jesus Christ.

It was beautiful. It was brilliant. It was glorious, absolutely glorious.

You see, it’s on days like this I’m reminded what it means to be a pastor. Because as I watched all of the people there, from a bunch of different churches, talking, mingling, laughing, and, in the case of the kids, playing, I realized just how big and wondrous God and his kingdom and his story of grace are.

What God is up to is so much bigger than me.

But here’s the crazy thing. I get to participate in what he’s doing. So do you.

When I baptize someone, I get to play one small part in their story, in their walk with God. I may baptize someone, but they belong to Christ. And what Christ is doing in their life is not under my control but his.

I felt the same way as I watched all of these people, believers I know from different churches, talking together.

A friend of our sons, who is more or less the same age and had already been baptized, gave each of them a beautiful handwritten letter, congratulating them on their baptism. They have known her since they were five years old. She and her family used to attend our church, but even though they no longer do, they are still friends.

What God is up to is also bigger than any one church.

We can’t control what God does. How he chooses to work in someone else’s life, and in this or that church, is entirely up to him. He is sovereign and he is mighty and he is gracious.

And he is at work—in your life and in the lives of people around you, pursuing, extending grace, inviting each of us to trust in him and to rest in his presence and promises revealed in the good news of Jesus.

Today was a good day. Today I was a witness to how God has drawn people—young and old—to place their faith in him. I was a witness to the ongoing power of God’s grace in our world. Baptism tells the story of God’s grace. It’s a story I never tire of hearing.

The Spiritual Journey Part 4: Belief, (Un)Certainty, and Why Everyone is a Person of Faith

After my three recent posts on construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction, I had a few extra thoughts I thought worth sharing.

To begin, this whole process of construction, deconstruction, and reconstruction is all about going through a time of serious doubts regarding your faith. It’s a period of profound questioning, one many experience. Some find that they lose their faith altogether. All you have to do is Google “Christian deconstruction” and you will find several examples of prominent Christian leaders and celebrities who have recently deconstructed but not reconstucted their faith. They have left Christianity completely. Others who go through such a season reconstruct their faith so that it is more “progressive,” which means reimagining or even jettisoning some traditional Christian beliefs.

But it is possible to go through this process and simply become more resilient and confident in your faith.

It all depends on how you go through the process, the resources you find to help you, and whether or not you are willing to be honest about your questions and are also willing to doubt your doubts. Especially if you’ve been a Christian for a long time, and know a lot of committed believers who are living out their faith with integrity, you should be willing to take your time. You owe yourself (and those who helped you construct your faith) that much.

But I don’t want to give the impression that this is a simple and neat process. It’s not necessarily a straightforward, linear path. Nor do I want to give the impression that once you enter the reconstruction phase that all of your questions and doubts will go away. I think part of the experience of this process is not so much ridding yourself of all questions and doubts, but of learning how to deal with them in a more mature, honest way. That is, I think our doubts and questions as Christians are a part of being on this spiritual journey.

Of course, there are some who want an absolute 100% certainty when it comes to questions about their faith. They want definitive, unassailable proof that God exists, that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that what the Bible says is reliable and true. Beyond the shadow of a doubt.

Here’s the thing: we can’t be that certain about anything. Not in a modern, scientific sense that people often mean. I would even say that it’s even unreasonable to expect that level of certainty. Indeed, I think this is even true of scientific knowledge. Not only that, but proof is not the same as evidence. I would say there is plenty of evidence that God exists, that Jesus was raised from the dead, and that the Bible is reliable and true. But can I 100% prove it? No, I cannot.

But there’s more to it than that. We’re not merely intellectual creatures. It’s not just our rational thoughts that determine how we handle doubts and questions as people of faith. Our experiences, our relationships, our emotions, our temperaments–all of these things bear significantly on how we approach big theological, spiritual, philosophical, and existential questions.

Think of it this way. You might be familiar with the so-called “new atheists,” people like Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and Richard Dawkins. Well, the truth is, there was nothing really new about the intellectual arguments these writers used. In fact, in some cases their arguments were quite poor and demonstrated very little understanding of religious faith and the intellectual case that can be made for faith. What was new was the vitriol with which they wrote and spoke. There was almost an anger, or at the very least a deep disdain for religious faith and belief. This is particularly true of Dawkins. Given this, I have to wonder if there is much more going on than simply intellectual questions and arguments.

Whatever their reasoning is for their atheist stance, there is definitely an emotional, personal dimension to their attacks on religion. Or at least it seems that way to me.

Consider the following words from atheist philosopher Thomas Nagel: “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”

So when it comes to doubt and decontruction, remember that it’s not always about ideas. And I think we know that. We know people–maybe you’re one–who have left faith behind because they’ve been hurt by other Christians. Perhaps a trusted pastor has broken that trust in a profound way. Or maybe something in their church experience has made them question their faith. There are people who go through deconstruction who do so precisely in reaction to a legalistic upbringing or a painful experience.

And a process of deconstruction and reconstruction might very well mean having to come to terms with issues that are personal and emotional rather than theological or intellectual. Because of a poor experience of growing up in the church, what you were taught to believe is guilty by association. This fact speaks powerfully to how the credibility of what we believe depends significantly on how our lives reflect (or fail to reflect) that belief. No wonder Paul tells Timothy to watch his life and doctrine closely (1 Timothy 4:16).

And anyone having a conversation with someone for whom this is their experience needs to proceed with great sensitivity. If someone says they don’t believe in God or that Jesus is true, it’s quite possible that what they are saying is about something else much deeper. This is really about that. About the fact that someone in their church abused them when they were young. About the fact that though they grew up in a Christian home, their parents were strict and cold. About the fact that when they expressed doubts or asked questions, they were told to simply believe or were criticized for having weak faith.

Deconstruction is never only intellectual. Often there is something else going on.

That said, let me add this: being disappointed in a Christian leader doesn’t disprove the resurrection of Jesus. Having had a negative church experience doesn’t mean the Bible isn’t reliable and true. The worst of childhood experiences with respect to church and faith needn’t permanently lead anyone to reject belief in God.

So while we our experiences can have a profound impact on our faith, we cannot base our faith (or lack of it) purely on our experiences. When we find that our experiences fall short of our faith, intellectual, historical, and theological arguments and reasons can genuinely help us to trust God.

Another important point to consider is that everyone has faith. None of us believes everything we believe because we have 100% incontrovertible evidence. Being a scientist takes faith, being an atheist takes faith, and being a Christian takes faith. Life requires trust–in someone, in something, in that which is outside of ourselves. Life requires holding beliefs that we cannot prove beyond a shadow of doubt. Living otherwise is sheer nonsense and impossibility. It’s never a question of whether one person has faith while another does not. Instead, it’s a question of where (or in who) you place your faith.

The Christian life always includes questions and doubts. Because none of us who follow Jesus can lay claim to having perfect or comprehensive knowledge of everything–including what we claim to believe. Yet we can still have good evidence. One intellectual position–atheism or Christianity–may be more persuasive to someone for various reasons. I believe Christians can make a persuasive case for their truth claims. For that reason, I also believe that this is the reason we can make it through periods of deconstruction with a robust, defensible worldview. That said, as in deconstruction, more is at work in this process than intellectual arguments. Christians who seek to build up and defend their faith, and persuade others of it, need more than well-thought out theology. We need to trust that God is living and active and will draw those to himself who are open to him. Because, ultimately, faith is not an accomplishment, but a gift of the living God to whom our faith ought to be directed.

The Spiritual Journey Part 3: Reconstruction (Playing LEGO with Your Faith)

My 12 year old son Eli loves LEGO.

Indeed, for the last couple of years we’ve gotten him a large LEGO set either for Christmas or his birthday. He’s got a 12-inch LEGO Yoda, the Avengers quinjet, and the Batman batcave. When he opens a new set, gets out the rather large manual, he patiently and meticulously assembles all the pieces into an impressive whole. And when it comes to the big LEGO sets, once finished he puts them on display.

That’s what we call construction.

Now, there’s one thing we all know about LEGO. It doesn’t take long before a prized creation gets dissembled, its manual misplaced (or ignored), and the pieces mixed in with all the other miscellaneous LEGO pieces you have.

Thus, deconstruction.

Then the fun begins. You get to use those very same pieces to build something new. You take what you’ve been given and make it your own.

In other words, reconstruction.

It’s not a perfect analogy, but it gets us going in the right direction.

During the construction stage, we receive the building blocks of faith. Others we know and trust implicitly pass on their beliefs. Because we trust them, we assume the beliefs they’ve handed on to us are true—that they are trustworthy and reliable.

When we find ourselves going through deconstruction, questions and doubts lead us to rearrange and even get rid of some of these building blocks. While this is happening, we’re not sure what will be left or what it will look like. It can be difficult and disorienting.

But like I said previously, this is a normal process that a lot of people go through.

For some, however, it leads to the abandoning of the Christian faith altogether. All the building blocks of faith end up in the trash can or packed away in a box never to be reopened. Believing nothing from their upbringing is salvageable, they post on Facebook or Instagram that they no longer believe. Sometimes along with a serene image of themselves sitting on a lakeshore under calm blue skies. Shades of Psalm 23’s lead me beside still waters, except without the Good Shepherd anywhere in sight.

But where does this process lead? Where can we expect or hope to end up? That brings us to reconstruction. In his book After Doubt: How to Question Your Faith Without Losing it, A.J. Swoboda describes reconstruction this way: “Having asked, challenged, and prodded, we return a second time to the same faith we were handed . . . after doing the complex and exhausting work of putting it through the fire.”

When it comes to reconstruction, I need to point out that this part of the spiritual journey is only possible when we go through deconstruction honestly. Only if we are asking our questions sincerely and seeking genuine answers will we arrive again where we once began, this time with the roots of our beliefs having penetrated that much more deeply into the soil of our hearts and minds.

The truth is, some jettison their faith not for theological, spiritual, intellectual, or ethical reasons. Instead, they do so because they simply want to live how they want to live, sleep with whomever they want to sleep with, make choices which make them happy, without worrying about what God, the Bible, or the church has to say. This is not healthy deconstruction. This is the rejection of the Christian faith. And they are most decidedly not the same.

All those years ago, when I first began wrestling with what I believed, there were a few things that really helped me. For starters, I began reading the Bible. I took university classes on the Bible. I actually bought my first Bible! Thankfully, my professor was actually a Christian even though I was attending a secular university (Mount Allison). I learned about the history of the Bible, the different literary genres of the Bible, and of course the actual content of the different books of the Bible.

So don’t let your questions about the Bible keep you from reading it. Perhaps you need a fresh way to engage the text of Scripture. Purchase a new study Bible, like the ESV or CSB study Bible. Or pick up a “Reader’s Bible.” This is the kind of Bible that removes all the chapter and verse divisions which are not part of the original manuscripts, allowing you to read it without dissecting it into disconnected bits. Many different translations offer Reader’s Bibles. You can also subscribe to Bible Gateway and you will get access to all kinds of Bible dictionaries, commentaries, devotionals, and atlases. Buy Gordon Fee’s How to Read the Bible for All It’s Worth. It’s a classic book that is accessible and helpful.

In other words, make use of resources that can help you understand the cultural, literary, and historical aspects of the Bible.

On the one hand, the Bible’s basic, foundational story about God and salvation are easy enough for a young child to grasp. On the other hand, how each story, character, and book of the Bible fits into this foundational story isn’t always simple to grasp. We all need help to understand.

Something else that was key for me was community. While going through this process I still went to church. I got involved with Inter-Varsity Christian Fellowship. I spent time with other believers, including people my own age from a variety of church backgrounds. I had other people of faith encouraging me. I didn’t isolate myself or reject the church. Even during the season when I didn’t know what church I could be a part of anymore. This meant that as I was wrestling with my questions, I wasn’t alone.

For some, it might feel strange to go to church when you’re struggling with what you believe. Perhaps seeing other people who don’t have your questions makes you feel awkward. Could be you think that you wouldn’t be welcome if people were aware of your doubts. But while I can understand and imagine some situations when a person might stop going to church for a time, cutting yourself off from your family of faith will leave you spiritually vulnerable. We always need people in our lives who are there to listen to our doubts, ask us tough questions, and to encourage us. Maybe you’ll discover someone else in your church who not only has asked the same questions, but has thought through their answers too. I’m guessing they’d be glad to share.

I’ll also say this. If you find yourself in a period of doubt and wrestling, identify the questions you have. Write them down. Be specific. Try to capture in words as best as you can what is making you uneasy about your faith and what you were taught to believe. Do the work of going after answers to those questions. Is your struggle with the reliability of the Bible? Find resources to help you with that. Is it a particular doctrine? Find out what the Bible and the Christian tradition has historically said on the matter. Is it how Christians deal with certain social and cultural issues, like human sexuality? I can help if you don’t know how to find such resources.

And remember, like Pastor and author Timothy Keller once said, “Doubt your doubts.” In fact, go read this article Keller wrote a few years back. In it he discusses five doubts you can doubt. His books, The Reason for God and Making Sense of God are both fantastic, though the first is much more accessible than the latter.

Know this: God can handle your doubts and questions. They don’t surprise or anger him. In Jude 1:22 it says to have mercy on those who doubt. Surely, if Scripture tells us to have mercy on those who doubt, God’s mercy for those who struggle with doubt and questions must be infinitely vast. Keeping this in mind throughout the process is also very important. You can bring your hard questions to God. You can still pray, even when you’re wrestling with your faith and not entirely sure of everything you believe.

One final thought. Even if you’re not someone who has doubts and questions assaulting your heart and mind, it’s still a good idea to build up your faith and to increase your understanding of the Bible and Christian theology. Don’t wait until you begin struggling with your faith.

Romans 12:2 says Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.

2 Corinthians 10:5 says we are to destroy arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and take every thought captive to obey Christ.

1 Peter 3:15 says in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.

When we learn to do this well and in the midst of Christian community, then we will discover that on the other side of deconstruction not only is our faith intact but stronger and deeper than before.