One of the greatest frustrations in my spiritual life has been caused by a passion for certainty. You might call it a need to know, a need to know what God is doing in my life, a need to have some explanation for or feeling for why my life is the way it is right now. When I don’t know—or when I don’t have some explanation that I can tell myself is the reason why things are happening to me and around me the way they are happening—if I don’t have something I can say to myself that gives reason and explanation to the pain and apparent arbitrariness of my experience, then because I don’t know, I have a great deal of inner turmoil. And it often happens that the inner turmoil of not knowing—or not thinking that I know—why things are the way they are or what God is doing in my life and in the lives of those around me through the painful, unfair and unbearable circumstances I or we are experiencing, the pain of this not knowing is more tormenting than the actual suffering I experience from the circumstance.
When I was a young man, my wife and I went on several really quite crazy mission trips. We smuggled bibles into communist Eastern Europe, we took several disorganized, “faith-based” trips for the purpose of evangelism into some of the poorest places in Mexico (knowing only a few words in Spanish!). We did quite a bit of street evangelism among the male prostitutes of Hollywood and San Francisco, finding ourselves in the midst of knife fights and drug deals. We went places we didn’t belong and put ourselves in very dangerous predicaments. But in all of the danger and confusion—there was a lot of “just trusting God,” code for we didn’t know what we were doing—in all of the craziness, we had a sense of purpose, a sense of excitement because we thought we knew what we were about. We had a sense that we were doing God’s work and that God would guide and protect us. We believed that whatever suffering we experienced or roadblocks we encountered, it was all for the glory of God, it was because God had a purpose in it.
Now, thirty or so years later, I wonder how much of that confidence in God wasn’t just youthful zeal and excitement in an adventure. Certainly God was at work in all of it. God is always at work in our lives, even in the lives of reckless young people who perhaps can’t tell the difference between the desire to follow Christ and the desire to experience excitement and adventure, the desire to feel like you are actually doing something important for Christ. And “feel” is the key word. You see, here’s the problem I encountered after those early missionary experiences. What do you do when the children start to come along and the 8 to 5 grind starts to wear you out? What do you do when petty office politics drive you crazy and the pastor at church is tapping you to volunteer for yet another committee or to supervise yet another youth activity? What do you do when your spiritual life becomes a matter of mere daily discipline, making yourself say prayers with your family, making yourself get up early to keep your rule, making yourself go to church when you find the people there shallow and the pastor’s sermons contrived and manipulative? What do you do when you don’t feel like anything at all is happening, when on a good day you feel that you are merely treading water (spiritually speaking), and there aren’t many good days—what do you do?
It is sometimes hard to believe that here too, here in the everyday grind of making a living and doing our best to be faithful, to be faithful not to commit adultery with our bodies or our eyes or our hearts; faithful not to covet our neighbour’s job or car or swimming pool; faithful to love, encourage and support our children who increasingly have minds and opinions and desires of their own; faithful to say our prayers, read our bible, to tithe and to go to Church faithfully: it’s hard to believe that here too we are serving Christ, here too Christ is at work in us transforming us into His likeness. And Christ is not only transforming us, Christ is at work saving the world around us. Yes, even without the excitement, Christ is at work.
A friend of mine once was struggling with the apparent meaninglessness of the circumstances of his life. Why has God got him where he is, in the same middle-management job for twenty-five years, pretty much at a dead end professionally, embroiled daily in a tangle of office politics, not knowing what he “should” do. He is frustrated because he doesn’t know what God is doing in his life. And although he would never say this (we think it is too impious to say such things), it feels to him that God is teasing him. He feels that he is not where he is supposed to be, but God will not open a door or in some way show him what to do. On a good day, the thought occurs to him that maybe God has abandoned him to the backwater of a life in God because of various mistakes he has made in his life (although he is not sure which ones). On a bad day, the thought comes to him that maybe God is just tormenting him like a cat torments a mouse. Of course he rejects such thoughts for he knows theologically that they are not true (thank God for good theology), but still the thoughts occur to him.
A sort of breakthrough occurred in this person’s life in the context of a conversation with his spiritual father. The spiritual father was encouraging him to continue in peace, not seeking the kind of understanding that gives him the impression that he has figured things out or knows what is going on. Rather, in peace, he should seek for consolation in God, continuing faithfully in the work that is before him, knowing that if God wants him somewhere else doing something else, God is able to make that abundantly clear to him. In response, and not without a smidgen of cynicism he said, “so I should just do my best to continue in happy ignorance?” The response of the spiritual father surprised him. He said, “Happy ignorance with peace is often what knowledge of God feels like.” Wow. That is amazing. “Happy ignorance with peace is often what knowledge of God feels like.”
There are various ways we feel confident. Confidence can come from a sense of zeal, a feeling that we are doing something important—even if we don’t exactly know what we are doing. Confidence can come from the thought that you know what God is doing in your life or in the lives of those around you. It is a kind of figuring it out, a reduction to principles that can be applied to any situation. This kind of knowledge, I think, is akin to the knowledge that St. Paul talks about in 1 Corinthians chapter 8, the knowledge that puffs up, as opposed to the love that builds up. Confidence can also come from a sense that we are right, that we know what is right to do and we are doing it. This, in my experience, is the most deceptive kind of confidence. Feeling right is a dangerous feeling, for our right-ness (i.e. our “righteousness”) quickly becomes a idol with clay feet. And feeling that we are right and being zealous at the same time is the most dangerous kind of confidence—it is the confidence with which one blows up abortion clinics or cuts off the heads of infidels or shuns those who have failed to be the good person they were supposed to be, calling hatred, love and love, hatred.
And so then we appropriately ask, where should our confidence come from? Should we experience confidence at all? I think that as we grow as human beings, we pass through various stages, learning through experience the inadequacy and danger of the various ways we find confidence. And in the end, when we come to the end of ourselves, we find that confidence must be found in the knowledge of God alone. And it is the “alone” part that is the hardest. Learning to have confidence in the knowledge of God alone seems to require that all of the false sources of confidence be taken away from us, it seems to require that we enter into a kind of profound ignorance, a not knowing. And in this not knowing (not knowing what or how or why) we can come to know the God who is so, so far beyond that kind of knowledge that we have been so used to depending on. It seems that as long as we depend on it, on the knowledge of what and how and why, as long as we depend on that kind of knowledge, we just can’t know God very well at all. Our box was just too small for God to fit into.
But if we can learn to feel safe and at peace in “happy ignorance,” if we can be okay with not knowing, as young children who trust their parents, then we can begin to know as we have never known before. This kind of knowledge, this knowledge of God, this deep peace in the midst of the storm of not knowing, this can then be the source of our confidence. And then as we learn to be like young children, to trust our heavenly Father in happy ignorance, then we can have the confidence to put one foot in front of the other wherever we are. Then we can look for God in the little things, look for God in the little miracles that He grants for our joy and encouragement. Then, whether or not we ever do or go or be anything that seems significant, significant according to the knowledge of what or how or why, then we can be at peace knowing God and knowing that we are in His hands, where He wants us to be, doing what He has given us to do. Here transformation can take place. And if in the eyes of others I ever am involved with anything that appears significant to those who are experts in the what and how and why, if such a thing every happens, then perhaps in God’s mercy it will not appear that way to me. Perhaps, if such a thing should ever happen, I will see it as just another small thing. Just another of the many small miracles God does in secret, just a continuation of the same thing, of a life lived one day at at time in God.
This life we are called to live with Christ is excruciatingly painful. This blog was very timely for me. It put to words things that I have been trying to identify in myself.
Saved for tears, indeed.
“…this deep peace in the midst of the storm of not knowing, this can then be the source of our confidence…” – yes. God grant it.
Wow, I so appreciate these blogs. It is helpful to have someone know and understand the struggle to know and understand, as you do! Thanks.
While i think that i agree with you, this guidance could only be given to someone Orthodox. Anyone else, no matter where they, are not where they should be. But then again, none of us are where we should be. We all need to work out our salvation with fear and trembling, and i believe understanding is part of that.
“The small miracles God does in secret” are the things that keep me going and give me hope. Thank you, Fr. Michael, for these insightful words.