Issues of certainty, assurance, and conviction are hot theological topics today. Indeed, they seem to be polarizing the church into two extremes. On the one hand, from a theological standpoint, some people believe that in all our convictions we should have absolute certainty or we don’t really believe them. Others believe that certainty is a past-time archaic dream that has no place in reality.
On an experiential basis, things become even more confusing. How are we to trust God in our troubles? Should we have confidence that since we are His children that He will deliver us? If we don’t, does this mean that we really don’t trust God like we should? If we lack certainty, does this mean we are faithless?
Most all of us know and are inspired by the story of David and Goliath. David, a young man, green in battle, fights a giant who is a celebrated warrior. David brings his case before this warrior standing only on the foundation of his faith. He believed, indeed was absolutely certain, that God would deliver Him from the hand of the giant, thereby vindicating his God and Israel from the scorn of the Philistines. So assured was he that he would win the battle, he did not rely upon helmet or shield to aid him. He took his sling, gathered five stones, and defeated the undefeatable giant.
I often ask myself what gave David such confidence that he would win? Where did such certainty come from? Is this the kind of certainty that I should have in my “Goliath” situations? What if David had not won? I remember the old Richard Gere movie where David misses with the first few stones thereby creating tension. But the text does not mention any misses if it were true. Maybe he took five stones just in case one of them were to miss. Does this show uncertainty? I don’t think so. David told the skeptical Saul as he questioned his certainty, “The LORD who delivered me from the paw of the lion and from the paw of the bear, He will deliver me from the hand of this Philistine” (1 Samuel 17:37). But how did David know this? Well, in the end, David did defeat the giant and thereby vindicated not only Israel and His God, but his faith as well.
We are inspired by this story and are motivated in our own particular “Goliath” situations. We often hear people saying “This is your Goliath, and you must have the faith of David.” It is inspirational to hear this and we want to follow suit, but doubt often fills our mind. I know it does mine. What does it mean to “have the faith of David?” Does that mean that we are to have certainty—absolute certainty—that God will deliver us from our current plight? I know that I would like to have that kind of faith, but I can”t.
People would often tell me before my sister died that I have to have faith that God will heal her. They were often taken aback when I, a pastor, would tell them that I don’t have that kind of faith. Many times the result would be a raised eyebrow with people questioning my faith in general. I could hear their thoughts: Oh, he is losing his faith. The situation is just too hard. Or: when he begins to believe that God will heal her, then He will intervene, but not until then. Other times their expression would give their thoughts away: He is just a young Christian. Someday he will believe God’s power.
I have now been going through the same situation with my mother for the past three years. I sat with her recently, looking at her and mourning her condition and wishing that I had mom back. I said a silent prayer: God, I really do know you can heal her. Would you please? This prayer was filled with doubt.
Do I have faith that God will heal my mother? No, not really. Do I doubt that He will? Yes, for the most part. Here is why: I don’t have access to any information on the matter and therefore I must remain agnostic. You see, God has not told me either way. There is nothing specific in the Bible that deals with my particular situation, including the story of David. Believe me, I have looked. I have no idea. Based upon past experience with my sister, emotionally I am pushed to the negative. Some people who have had better luck in their past “Goliath” situations may be pushed to the positive. But we need to be very careful either way. We just don’t know the particulars of life. We don’t know what God’s plans are. Do I have the faith of David in this “Goliath” situation? Well, it depends on what you mean by faith. If you mean that I believe that God will have victory in general, yes. But the problem is that God’s view of how this victory is brought about may be much different than mine. God does not hot sync to PDAs. God is free to gain victory by my mother’s sickness or health. I have to keep that in perspective. While I don’t know how David knew with such certainty that he would be delivered, I do know that we, for the most part, are rarely blessed with such particular certainty.
I turn now to another story that might seem to be at odds with the story of David. It is the story of three Hebrew slaves who were brought into captivity by Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzar in the fifth-century B.C. Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego were three young men who would not obey the king’s law to worship the gods of Babylon. They would only bow the knee to Yahweh. Surprised by this and frustrated by their faith, king Nebuchadnezzar attempts to strong arm them into submission.
Daniel 3:13-15 13 Then Nebuchadnezzar in rage and anger gave orders to bring Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego; then these men were brought before the king. 14 Nebuchadnezzar responded and said to them, “Is it true, Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego, that you do not serve my gods or worship the golden image that I have set up? 15 “Now if you are ready, at the moment you hear the sound of the horn, flute, lyre, trigon, psaltery and bagpipe and all kinds of music, to fall down and worship the image that I have made, very well. But if you do not worship, you will immediately be cast into the midst of a furnace of blazing fire; and what god is there who can deliver you out of my hands?”
The boys responded.
Daniel 3:16-18 16 Shadrach, Meshach and Abed-nego replied to the king, “O Nebuchadnezzar, we do not need to give you an answer concerning this matter. “If it be so, our God whom we serve is able to deliver us from the furnace of blazing fire; and He will deliver us out of your hand, O king. “But even if He does not, let it be known to you, O king, that we are not going to serve your gods or worship the golden image that you have set up.” (emphasis mine)
“If it be so”? “But even if He does not”? What kind of faith is that? They would most certainly suffer the same treatment that I described earlier for that type of doubt, right? It does not sound like the same confidence that David had. Didn’t they know the story of David and Goliath? Sure they did. It had been in circulation for five hundred years. They were in a life or death situation just like David, standing up for their God just like David and they essentially said that they were not certain what God was going to do.
Why didn’t they express the same confidence, the same certainty, that David did? Was their faith weak? No, not at all. The reason why they did not express that same confidence as David is because of the simple fact that they did not know what God was going to do. They could not place their faith in something about which they had no information. All they knew was that God was God and the others were not. They knew He could save them and He might save them, but were not sure. Either way, they were not going to bow a knee to the false idol of unbelief. They were a lot like me and probably, unless God has been giving you immediate revelation about your particular situation, a lot like you.
From my experience, I find that most of life is filled with more “if it be so’s” and “but even if He does not’s.” Life is filled with a lot of uncertainty. I believe that this is a more honest and responsible attitude to have. It will also keep us from much unnecessary disillusionment and pain. We have all seen false “prophets of hope” who do their best, with good intentions, to bring joy to a situation by expressing their certainty. “I just know that God is going to heal you.” Or “God won’t let that happen, I know it.” When that which they were so certain of does not come to pass, the cup of joy that was so easy to drink becomes a cup of bitterness.
I don’t want to be unduly pessimistic about any issue knowing that God can and does intervene and deliver people from their “Goliaths.” But I also want to be realistic and trust God no matter what the prospects are for the outcome of any “Goliath” situation. I believe that this attitude expresses just as much faith, even if it lacks certainty.
Remember, God has made a lot of promises, but there are also a lot of promises that he has not made. Don’t read promises into Scripture. Try saying this next time Goliath is at your door, “If it be so, God can deliver me, but even if you strike me dead, I will not abandon my faith because I will not place my faith in something God has not promised. You may raise some eyebrows, but you will be representing truth much more faithfully.
In the end, I don’t trust God for promises he has not made.