Certainty & Conviction

I tend to think a lot about certainty and the ways it influences our faith – and in particular, the conversations at the intersection of faith and sexuality. I also think a lot about conviction and the role it plays in how we express our faith. In this post I want to look at how these two interact in the way we process our thoughts and feelings about how a sexual minority might pursue faithful Christian discipleship. My purpose in this post is not to try to change what people believe. I think that is the Holy Spirit’s territory. But I do think a lot about what is behind what we believe and know that there are times we all need to be stretched to examine the driving energy behind the expression of our beliefs. I grew up understanding that a sense of certainty in one’s beliefs was an expression of strong faith. It wasn’t that we weren’t encouraged to ask questions or to think deeply about what we believed – but such questions were, I assumed, viewed as the process to lead to clear and strong convictions. And it was expected that clear and strong convictions would be expressed with great certainty – otherwise how could they communicate the strength of the conviction? There seemed to be an internal tension between the value of intellectual pursuit and thoughtful questioning and the pull and tug towards clarity, resolution and certainty in beliefs. At some point, it would seem that many abandon the journey of questions somehow feeling that it’s time to simply accept by faith what influential leaders were saying was the truth. To continue to question perhaps felt rebellious or too unsettling or made the questioner too vulnerable to accusations of weak faith, selfish faith, or some other similarly shame-based attempt to quench the quest. And so we hear people saying such things as, “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” with a sense of certain conviction. But being the sort who perniciously needs to question, I’ve had to wonder what is behind that sort of statement. It seems to me to be a blind sort of faith that doesn’t actually honour the inquisitive intellect that God has given his Image-bearers. Now, don’t misunderstand me. I think there are times when our questions cannot be fully answered this side of heaven – and we are called to relinquish our demanding need to know the “why” and choose by an act of our will through grace by which we have faith to rest in the trust that God knows, that God loves us, and that He will make all things right in the end. But I can’t help but wonder if we give up too soon when our questions begin to invade the scary territory of challenging our assumptions and certainties. And I certainly can’t help but wonder if that is true for many in the conversations around faith and sexuality. If I had a quarter for every time I hear, “The Bible is clear” when the question of homosexuality comes up – I wouldn’t be fabulously wealthy – but I’d probably have a decent amount to reinvest in micro-finance for women in the developing world. When it comes right down to it, I have to wonder if a lot of folks who most loudly shout that the Bible is clear have somewhat low levels of Biblical literacy beyond proof-texting. When asked about the full and progressive scope of God’s story revealed through Scripture as it navigates the history of God’s people through varying cultures and contexts, there can seem to be an automatic shut-off valve. It can seem to launch a pre-recorded voice that presumes that such a question is simply setting the stage for a faith-weakening revision of the true word of God. In the many back-and-forth arguments between traditionalists and progressives, the assumptions that zing back and forth often prevent either from actually hearing the other. Defenses are on the ready. Guarding one’s heart from deception or prejudice or agendas seems to be the number one priority. If we listen to an lgbt person’s story there can quickly be the assertion of theology from the bottom up where experience has too much weight. If we listen to a story of transformation as told by someone now in a life-giving (mixed-orientation) marriage there is query as to the authenticity of the self-reported degree of change. If we listen to the testimony of partnered gay Christians and the ways they experience and grow in their faith, there will be those who question whether this is genuine faith at all. If we listen to the life journey of someone committed to celibacy, there is both respect and the question if this is a seemingly arbitrary command for all same-sex attracted people. If we explore historical and cultural context there is argument over the weight that ought to be given. If we raise hermeneutical discrepancies tribal superiorities are articulated with sharp precision. If we raise exegetical differences sides are drawn as though salvation itself depended on our particular side being correct. However, the last time I checked, salvation was only and solely the gift of God through the gracious gift of faith in Jesus Christ. Now, there are plenty of folks across the spectrum who are thoughtful, who have diligently and with openness listened to diverse voices, those who hold their convictions deeply but with a calm and measured ability to dialogue. I am not trying to paint an all-inclusive caricature here. But many of us engaged in this conversation are familiar with those who do not seem to want to really engage the complexity, the very legitimate questions that arise in the exploration of the Biblical text and the faith journey of sexual minorities – and that is on both sides. The truth is there are deeply held commitments to Scripture and even more deeply meaningful relationships with Jesus Christ to be found across the spectrum of theological perspective on the appropriateness of covenanted same-sex unions. Unless you are willing to sit in the seat of judgment and proclaim that anyone who disagrees with you really doesn’t know Jesus and really doesn’t care about the Scriptures, it would seem wise to adopt a posture that presents one’s deepest convictions with an attitude of humility, generosity, and graciousness. Does that mean I don’t think that people should state with certainty that the Bible is clear on the question of same-sex intimate relationships? I think anyone who has been willing to enter the complexity of exegetical disagreements among scholars, who has studied the variety of hermeneutical methods within the Christian community, who has considered the particularities of history and culture on textual context, has sat face-to-face with gay, same-sex attracted, and ex-gay Christians for long haul conversations over years of friendship, and has wrestled to apply their understanding and knowledge of God’s character to this deeply human question of the application of grace for this particular situation in our broken world will avoid black and white simplistic and reductionistic answers like “the Bible is clear”. I think anyone who has done this kind of homework with an open heart and spirit, who may indeed have their own deep convictions about God’s best way forward for a same-sex attracted disciple, will also have a capacity to say that they could be wrong. I used to be convinced that anyone who landed in a different place than I did was simply twisting Scripture to suit their own needs. I trivialized their journey to search out God’s will because it was too threatening for me to consider that I could be wrong. My certainty was a defense. It was not an expression of robust faith. It was a fear of my entire system of faith coming crashing down. And this fear was no light or easy matter – it was not easy to face or to admit. It was scary to consider that my certainties had become their own kind of idolatry…. And so I hid behind words of radical obedience and holiness. I acted as though I had some special key to a particularly deep and intimate understanding of God’s call to holiness that others were simply too selfish or lazy to experience. And the system I was in supported me in this unconscious but profoundly arrogant stance. We gave each other those knowing looks that relegated fellow brothers and sisters in Christ to a lesser class of commitment and discipleship. We nursed a patronizing pity and self-righteous anger towards those who were misleading others, watering down the Word of God, who were not concerned for God’s justice and truth as we saw it. And when it hit too close to home, when there was any sense of certainty crumbling at the edges, we spoke in passionate tones about truth as if to talk ourselves out of the compassion we might feel in the face of profound questions of love, loneliness, belonging, and authenticity. I am grateful that God was persistent in calling me to face the cost of my certainty. And the cost, in this case, was the diminishment of my heart. It was a price I was no longer willing to pay. It was a price that seemed completely inconsistent with the heart of Jesus. It was a price that no longer seemed to represent the good news of the gospel. I know people who deeply love Jesus and deeply care about the Scriptures who come to different conclusions on the question of covenanted same-sex relationships – both those who are gay themselves and those who are straight. Where I see the most graciousness of character, maturity of humility, and development of generosity is in those who can both hold their convictions with courage and extend the benefit of the doubt to their brothers and sisters in Christ with whom they disagree. This is a different kind of cost. And in my experience, it is a price that seems much more consistent with the heart of Christ. Having risked releasing my certainty on the Bible’s simplistic clarity on this question has not weakened my faith. It has strengthened my dependence on the Holy Spirit to continue to lead and guide me and those I have the privilege of journeying through friendship and conversation with. And I have found my heart enlarged. And for this I am profoundly grateful.

-WG

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