When Uncertainty Fosters Hope

Ahhh . . . the clear, Coloradan blue sky.

We recently moved back to Colorado after we concluded that my husband suffers from Seasonal Affect Disorder. In fact, the above photo was taken during one of our visits to Colorado a few years ago, and he kept it on his bulletin board at work to remind him, “Yes, Virginia, the blue sky does exist.”

Notice: No cloudiness. No fog. No haze. No smoke. Only a crystal, clear, blue sky.

If the truth be told, I like clarity. No ambiguity. No uncertainty. Cut and dried. Hard and fast. Black and white. If I had my way, life would be painted with an absence of grays. In fact, I fantasize about my own kitchen and bathrooms being transformed into a color scheme of black and white. Such a perspective results in part from my own upbringing, but as I have aged, grown, and studied, I have learned to embrace other colors (this means that my bathrooms and kitchen contain other hues as well). Yet, if you were to ask those who really know me, they will testify that under stress, I may revert to my old familiar patterns . . . black and white.

Having said that, this week I was sorrowfully taught that there may be occasions where uncertainty has its benefits. A situation that had some confusion—characteristics of cloudiness—abruptly came to an end. I confess I had a desire for clarity, but I did not want an ending. Now, too late I fear, I realize that the presence of uncertainty was accompanied by a presence of hope. In the aftermath of this so-called clarity, I am reeling from this loss. I feel helpless. Powerless. Robbed of my voice. Yes, there is a measure of clarity, but there is also the absence of a hope I once had in the situation.

Yet, this incident is not one of isolation in humanity’s journey in this life. The characters and the circumstances may be different, but the results are similar.

  • If a person hoped for a resolution to an ongoing conflict, a death of the other removes any hope of healing in the relationship.
  • A child may desire respect, affirmation, or approval from a parent, but the parent’s death creates a realization of a loss on top of a loss: this desire will remain unfulfilled.
  • After missing for years, a body is found and identified as being that of the family’s loved one. Such a reality closes the door that the person is still alive.
  • If the marriage has been a constant struggle, then a divorce is a decree that the marriage is over and any semblance of light in the marriage surviving is extinguished.
  • As long as retirement is on the horizon and not a reality, the spouse can keep her head in the sand (by the way, I make a wonderful ostrich); however, once her husband retires, she finds herself wrestling with loss, aging, and anxiety.

Many of us in these types of situations have a longing to turn back the clock as we realize that the uncertainty had a degree of hope attached to it. Now, as we stand in the wake of clarity, we may realize that uncertainty may seem to be better than the ending we now have been dealt.

Unfortunately, when an ending arrives, it may be accompanied by the phrase: Now you can move on.

Frequently, such words are uttered after a person dies from a long illness. Don’t get me wrong: I think we mean well. However, while it may be that the bereaved feels relief, I caution against mistaking this relief for a lack of shock or an absence of the need to mourn. If we were to ask those who have experienced anticipatory grief, many would speak of the shock at the reality of the death. This is particularly illustrated in the first few months of the bereaved repeatedly reviewing the manner in which the person died: the person lying in the bed; the words spoken; the actions taken. The telling and re-telling of the death is how we as humans take our inward grief and make it outward, thereby moving towards healing. Thus, to say, “Now you can move on” fails to provide a safe place to go say “hello” to the death before saying “good-bye” [See Alan Wolfelt’s The Paradoxes of Mourning]. Instead, “Now you can move on” may be pushing the person toward good-bye prior to his being ready. If, however, the bereaved speaks the words herself, “I can move on now,” it is different, and we, as caregivers, may meet the person in that place by inquiring, “What does moving on look like for you?”

I bring this phrase to the fore because in my situation I actually heard, “You can move on now,” which causes me to pause and wonder what this phrase communicates. Is it a telltale sign that we are we uncomfortable with uncertainty as it exposes our own limitations? Are we saying that we believe an ending brings us a measure of control because we feel out of control by the pain? Does the phrase imply that we perceive that the state of uncertainty lacks motion in that we are standing still? But does uncertainty hinder movement, or does it actually generate movement in the form of transformation in the one who is experiencing the uncertainty? Perhaps in our longing for stability and in our eagerness to rid ourselves of uncertainty and pain, we fail to see that the embracing of uncertainty provides movement within our own being.

When I link these thoughts with theology, I begin to see more clearly the benefits of uncertainty when combined with the concept of faith. There is a little phrase in my tradition that I have heard, and admittedly have used, that says: I know that I know that I know. When I have spoken this phrase, I have been attempting to capture in my words an intensity of an experience of knowing. Such knowing is not only with my mind, but it is also deeply sensed within my body. It is as if I am saying that my experience is so real to me that I have moved from the realm of faith, which is mixed with doubt, to a certainty that envelops my whole being. The experience becomes one of truth for me so that all hint of doubt is cast away. It is a way of knowing . . . an epistemology that seems to defy modernity’s upholding of only logical reasoning and head knowledge. It says, “I no longer need to be convinced. I simply know in my knower.” This epistemology flows not merely from my mind but my feelings as well, encompassing my whole body. As James A. Smith notes, this is an “affective knowledge” that is a type of “countermodernity” [see James A. Smith, Thinking in Tongues: Pentecostal Contributions to Christian Philosophy].

While I revel in the handful of occasions that I have had such an experience, I attempt to resist the urge to lift them up as the norm for the Christ-follower. For me, my experiences of I know that I know fall into the realm of specific revelation, the domain of miracles, which are intense instances of God’s Spirit interacting in the world [see Smith, Thinking in Tongues]. While Pentecostals are known to stress this type of intense divine participation in creation, they also speak of (albeit in my experience to a lesser, and maybe implicit, degree) general revelation, of Jesus Christ sustaining God’s creation. In this way, as Smith points out, God is continuously active in the world for a Pentecostal. Yet, it is this latter understanding for me where I locate myself when I am experiencing uncertainty in my walk of faith.

I have frequently heard it spoken in Pentecostal circles that the type of faith that is necessary for a miracle is that which has no doubt. In light of the above discussion, could it be that our push to expel doubt from being mixed with faith reveals our own discomfort with uncertainty? It is my belief that if there is an absence of doubt, this is not faith but certainty. And certainty sounds an awful lot like my Pentecostal experience of I know that I know that I know. For me, while Pentecostalism frequently underscores a definition of faith that departs from the realm of uncertainty into certainty, I hold that faith exists in uncertainty alongside doubt. This type of faith says, “It is just as much of a miracle that God instantly heals me as God sustains me, and I believe that God is sustaining me because I awoke this morning to find that the earth is still rotating around the sun.” Note the absence of I know that I know. Instead, there is an embracing of an underlying uncertainty that lives out an embodied faith. Herein lies the hope. I cannot see Christ upholding creation, and I will be honest, I have not had the I-know-that-I know experience concerning Christ’s sustaining of me. Thus, there is uncertainty. Yet, there remains hope, a living out my faith that combines with uncertainty to bring hope (Heb 11:1). I cannot see Christ sustaining all of creation or sense it in my knower, but I have a faith combined with this uncertainty which produces a hope simply because I opened my eyes this morning. It is the embracing of this uncertainty that generates growth, movement if you will, so that I may become more genuinely human as God intended.

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