By Amy Carroll
That’s the kind of word that makes a reforming-perfectionist like me shudder. Routine, predictability and certainty feel like bedrock to me. Uncertainty is the stuff of nightmares.
But the past few years have been a worldwide super-storm of uncertainty. Between the pandemic, political division, church upheaval, and the loud voices around it all, I’ve found myself in a strange new space. Where I once found safety and comfort in certainty, I’m finding that it no longer serves me well. Uncertainty has become my awkward new friend.
Maybe that’s why the words of a meme I read recently stirred up some deep questions for me. It read, “The more certainty you can bring to the table, the greater your value.”(1)
The writer spoke with such authority. She seemed so… well, certain which made my misgivings feel wrong. But is that principle correct? Is our value really based on our level of certainty?
As I pondered certainty and human value, these words from an unknown author sprang to mind. They’re a reminder that certainty shouldn’t be our highest goal. This meme read, “Just because you’re certain doesn’t mean you’re right.” This thought has been shaping the way I’m approaching both interpersonal connections and my Bible study.
Certainty is an obstacle for both.
That’s a strong statement, so before you get squeamish or check out, let me quickly acknowledge that there is a place for certainty in what we believe about God. In John 17:8, Jesus Himself says, “For I gave them the words you gave me and they accepted them. They knew with certainty that I came from you, and they believed that you sent me.” (NIV) Jesus’ divinity is an essential certainty.
But can we agree that some parts of Scripture are unclear and a little confusing? In those places, we need to pursue something other than certainty.
Consider the definition of the word “certain.” The definition includes, “sure, fixed, agreed upon, settled.” Since certainty is immovable, it makes us feel safe. But negatively, because it’s fixed, it keeps us from discovering and learning. Growing and maturing.
Entrenching ourselves in certainty keeps us from:
- Asking questions.
- Seeking other points of view from wise people.
- Embracing the mystery of God.
To avoid those pitfalls, what if we stop fleeing uncertainty and embrace it? Let’s replace a quest for certainty with a journey toward clarity. Clarity implies curiosity, development, and imperfect progress.
Searching for clarity encourages us to:
- Ask questions so that we can grow.
- Seek other points of view from wise people who stretch our understanding.
- Embrace the mystery of the God in a way that brings us into a lifetime of seeking Him.
Here’s my proposal for us as Jesus-followers: To grow closer to God and others, let’s pursue clarity instead of prizing certainty.
In the last two years, as I’ve researched the book of Esther to write a study with my co-author Lynn, we’ve gotten lots of opportunities to lean into uncertainty as a pathway to scriptural clarity. I’ve seen how uncertainty has become a valuable device in my Bible study tool belt.
There are many passages within the book of Esther that are puzzling, but I am particularly fascinated by one. To summarize, Esther has become queen, but her husband, the king, under the influence of an evil enemy, sent out an edict that was a death sentence for her people, the Jews. In Esther 4, the climax of the story, Mordecai, Esther’s uncle challenges her to take the life-threatening step of speaking out against the coming genocide.
Mordecai sends this message to Esther, “Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape. For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?” (Esther 4:13-14 NIV)
Even though the end of Mordecai’s message is the most well-known passage in Esther, commentators disagree as to the specific meaning of his words at the beginning of the passage:
- Some say that he was bullying Esther, threatening to reveal the Jewish identity that he had encouraged her to hide until this point.
- Some think that it’s a veiled warning of God’s divine retribution if she refuses to help.
- Others say that he was just reminding her that God is sovereign and that He would take care of His people with or without her participation.
Those are three very different interpretations. How’s a layperson to be certain about the Bible’s meaning when even the experts see a passage differently?
Over a decade ago, a wise mentor gave me a Bible study tool that has been invaluable as I’ve wrestled with difficult passages like this one. I’ve named it The Clarity Principle. It helps us in spots in the Bible where we feel the discomfort of uncertainty. When we run across a difficult-to-understand passage of Scripture, we don’t rush to interpret it through our human lens or build a wonky theology around it. Instead, we dig into the whole of Scripture, from beginning to end, interpreting the unclear passages with the clear ones, thus The Clarity Principle.(3)
When my friend Lynn had her curiosity piqued by this passage, she applied The Clarity Principle to this passage in a deep dive, reading across the whole of Scripture to understand. Through reading, study and research, she found that the Hebrew in Mordecai’s message echoed another part of Scripture in Numbers 30. Although the English doesn’t translate in the same way, the ancient echo of Mordecai’s words can be summarized, “If you don’t speak up now, Esther, it’s the same as agreeing with this evil edict.”
Using Scripture to interpret Scripture brings clarity.
(1) Sally Hogshead, How to Become the Must-Have Solution for Your Customers and Your Company workbook, 20214, 17.
(2) “certain.” Dictionary.com. 2022. https://www.dictionary.com/browse/certain
(3) Lynn Cowell and Amy Carroll, Esther: Seeing Our Invisible God in an Uncertain World, (Grand Rapids, MI: Haper Collins Christian Resources, 2022), 3.