All Saints Sydenham

9th May 2010

The Search for Certainty




Whenever we go through a period of uncertainty, whether as an individual, or collectively as a household, a family, a church or a nation, most of us find ourselves longing to return to that degree of certainty that we enjoyed before it was suddenly snatched away from us.

Let me give you a few examples based on recent experiences which we recently experienced:

The Icelandic Volcano: This resulted in the cancellation of all air flights. Eighteen of us found ourselves stranded in the middle of Italy, with no way of getting home. Some of us had commitments which simply couldn’t be ignored or rescheduled: examinations, taking a funeral for someone who had particularly requested my services, or a business-meeting in Saudi Arabia.

A sudden bereavement: A friend, suddenly dies or meets with a fatal accident. We had no reason whatever to expect this, and yet it happened.

The post brings our Bank Statement, which reveals that we aren’t as well off as we supposed.

Such things happen, thank God, rarely; but they do happen, and when they do they ‘knock the stuffing out of us’, and we don’t know which way to turn. One, or more, of our assumptions (like the assumption that planes will continue to fly, people will stay alive, or that we have no financial worries) is suddenly proved be a false. ‘The bottom has fallen out of my world’ is how people often describe it.

We can’t avoid such things altogether but, as Christians who have experienced God’s Love, we should be better prepared than most people are to cope with such troubles. Unlike the Muslim (for example) who can only shrug his shoulders and say ‘it is Kismet [fate]’, or the person who doesn’t have God at the centre of his life, the Christian, though he cannot avoid such things, has a number of resources to help him climb out of The Valley of Humiliation (as John Bunyan calls it in Pilgrim’s Progress).

Before we begin to list them, here is a word of caution. What ‘works’ for one person may not work for another (and vice-versa). So don’t be dismayed if what someone recommends as having helped them, or one or more of the Suggestions which follow do not ‘work’ for you. Forget them and try something else!

Some Suggestions:

God has so designed the world, and ourselves, to include a degree of uncertainty. We don’t choose our parents or relations; we don’t choose our own school; we don’t choose how tall we shall be, how naturally clever we are, or the hour or the manner of our death, – in fact there are a whole host of things which are laced with uncertainty. But before we start blaming God for His handiwork, just reflect what life would be like if there were no such uncertainty. There would be no surprises, no discoveries, no challenges. We would never feel that satisfaction we enjoy when we overcome difficulties. We should be reduced to shrugging our shoulders and a state of hopeless complacency or resignation depending on how we happen to be feeling at the time.

Given, then, that God has designed the world in this way, the sensible thing is for us to be continually aware that He has issued us with a set of rules (called the Ten Commandments) which are, if you come to think of it, like the instructions on any other manufactured item. ‘For best results follow the Maker’s instructions they say. Of course they don’t cover every single experience in life – that’s what the Bible as a whole sets out to do. But if we apply them carefully, we shan’t find ourselves making too many mistakes.

There are some experiences which happen to all of us sooner or later. Bereavement, disappointment, shortage of money, boredom and loneliness to name just five. For example, half our close friends will die before we do, and the longer we live the higher the proportion will predecease us. Most of us will ‘feel the pinch’ financially at some time or another. And the greatest certainty of all is that we shall ourselves one day die. Now there is no way of avoiding such things, but God has made it possible for us to prepare ourselves for them. We can prepare for our death by making certain that we have made a Will, which by itself will spare our surviving family endless doubts and uncertainties; we can safeguard ourselves from immediate financial difficulty by creating a small Savings Account and adding to it regularly; we can lessen the likelihood of boredom and loneliness (as Samuel Johnson said) by ‘keeping our friendships in good repair’.

As well as these remedies God has given us some specifically spiritual ones to help us.

He has given us His Church. This doesn’t refer to a building, or a particular group of people with whom we associate for worship (although it includes them). If, through Jesus Christ He has ‘overcome death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life’ then there are millions of people, most of whom have already died, who have ‘gone before us’ and whose principal concern is that we should follow them, becoming, as we do by Baptism, part of that company.

He has given us the Sacraments so that, however we may happen to be feeling at any given moment we have the guarantee that we can receive Him and His Grace whenever we allow Him to enter our lives in the form of Bread and Wine.

He has given us Holy Scripture, to learn more about Him and His Plan for us, but also as a guidebook, a map, and a song-sheet (especially the Psalms which address every single experience which we are ever likely to have during our lifetime). Some of us have taken the trouble to learn about twenty or thirty of the shorter psalms off by heart, and we can vouch for the fact that they speak no less to us today than they did to Jesus himself and to those who lived hundreds of years before Him.

He has given us the power of Prayer. As Tennyson famously wrote:

If thou shouldst never see my face again, pray for my soul.
More things are wrought by prayer than this world dreams of.

So there are some ideas to try out. As we recognized earlier, not everyone will find them all equally helpful. But far and away the most important idea to take on board as our starting-point is the fact that we live (by God’s design) an uncertain world in which absolute certainty simply does not exist (outside God Himself, that is). So there’s no point in endlessly searching for it. Like the rainbow’s end, it’s an ever-receding phantom. We shall be much more successful if we learn to appreciate the relative certainties which God has given us, and spend the rest of our life on this Earth trying to learn more about them, and how to apply them to ourselves.

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