In War and Peace, Tolstoy describes a certain military advisor named Pfuel, a German expert in military science. He says of Pfuel that he is a “hopelessly, permanently, painfully self-assured man…on the basis of an abstract idea–science, that is, an imaginary knowledge of the perfect truth. [He] is self-assured worst of all, and most firmly of all, and most disgustingly of all, because he imagines that he knows the truth, science, which he has invented himself, but which for him is the absolute truth.”
This sentence struck me not so much because it is an interesting take on the limitations of science, but because of the emphasis on self assuredness. While I was in Saskatoon a couple of weeks ago, I had to spend a few hours in a large bookstore waiting for my daughter. “Had to” is an exaggeration. I spent the first two hours walking up and down all of the aisles just getting a feel for what was there. As I read hundreds of titles and thumbed through a lot of them, I began to wonder why I bother writing at all. All of these books presented perspectives about which the authors were “hopelessly, permanently, painfully self assured.” I felt lost. I looked at title after title, each assuredly offering me the Answer. That some answers are contradictory or mutually exclusive or just plain ridiculous seems not to matter to the book seller. What matters, apparently, is self assurance and an engaging first paragraph.
I don’t think I’m a book writer. I can’t keep focused for more than about a thousand words. But if I wrote a book, I don’t think anyone would buy it. Who wants to read: Ten Things That I Have Found Helpful In My Spiritual Life, But May Not Work Very Well For You.
My assurance is not in my self or my experience (even the bits of it that seem to have worked out fairly well). My assurance is in God’s willingness to take whatever mess we give Him and slowly transform it into something more beautiful than it was. I am confident that God will guide and help anyone, and I am pretty sure that the guidance and help will be somewhat unique to each person. So what has been very helpful in one situation may prove to be even harmful in another. The Church Fathers say something similar. They say that a spiritual father giving guidance is like a doctor giving medicine. Care must be taken: the same medicine that will cure one can kill another.