As DPC enters a summer focusing on the parables of Jesus, Faith in Real Life got a headstart, examining the parable of the wise and foolish builders. Here, Vernon Gramling offers his thoughts on the difference between certainty and conviction, and how our dependence on God forms the foundation on which we build our faith.

Matthew 7:21-29
21 “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. 22 Many will say to me on that day,‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ 23 Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock. 25 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house; yet it did not fall, because it had its foundation on the rock. 26 But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27 The rain came down, the streams rose, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell with a great crash.”

28 When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching,29 because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law.

I have just returned from a two week tour of the grandchildren, counting the Atlanta families, four families in two weeks. I loved seeing them but I am exhausted. Perhaps that explains how I misread the readings for the coming weeks and spent several hours on the passage for last week (above) instead of getting a head start on the passage for this week. Oh well. It can never really be a bad thing to study scripture.

I have no idea what the Faith in Real Life group did with this passage but I’ve had a couple of thoughts I wanted to share them—the first about the differentiation between certainty and conviction and the second about the foundation of dependence and humility that our faith requires.

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”

All kinds of things are done in the name of the Lord. Extremists of every faith act with internal certainty. They are serving God and they are clear about what God wants from them. They are clear, even certain, about what is good. For some, it is justifiable homicide to kill doctors who perform abortions. On a frighteningly regular basis, there are reports of self appointed ‘angels of mercy’ who end the lives of people in hospitals and nursing homes. These people believe with deep conviction that they are doing the Lord’s will. In fact they are willing to be jailed for what they believe in and are often willing to pay the ‘ultimate price’. Some are willing to die for what they believe. But when convictions become certainty—the voice of God— they are used to justify inquisitions and suicide bombers. We admire such conviction when it is used in service of what we believe. But we call the same convictions despicable when they are not. Stephen is a martyr for the Lord. A suicide bomber is a deranged murderer. It depends upon whose ox is being gored.

Believing we are doing God’s will is not the same as doing it. Intensity of belief cannot be the measure of faith. It is all too easy to confuse our sense of rightness with God’s. As believers, we can and should have conviction but we cannot have certainty. And there is a big difference between the two. The moment we claim certainty, we slip into the sin of pride. We claim to know the mind of God.

The paradox is that the only thing we can be sure of is that we cannot be sure. We build our faith on the rock of uncertainty. Such faith requires us to live in regular and constant dependence upon God. Our knowledge, our deepest convictions, our most obvious truths are subject to question and review. We are called into a never ending process of prayer and discernment as we seek to hear what God would require of us. Whether we are discussing the presidency, gay rights, gender roles or parenting, we are called to examine our motives, our personal agendas and our certainties.

In real life, this discernment can be very difficult. A wealthy man wanted to do good. And largely based on his Christian beliefs, wanted to share his wealth with a disadvantaged family at Christmas. He contacted a Family and Children counselling agency, identified a family and spent several hundred dollars for gifts. Once purchased he asked for the opportunity to present his gifts in person to the family.

There is nothing wrong with such a request and certainly nothing wrong with the man’s generosity. But was he doing the work of God? That knowledge would require discerning the man’s heart. On the face of it, it is obvious that giving to help others is good. But what would he learn in prayer? Did he give because of his awareness of the inequities of the world and his desire to share his abundance and/or out of his need to be noticed and thanked? The family would probably benefit in either case but in the first case, his gift demonstrated his gratitude toward God and his regard for the family. In the second, he runs the risk of exploiting the family’s neediness to have his needs met. In the first case, his giving is a reflection of his trust in God. In the second, the same giving is a way to earn favor and worth. In the second he would discover his insecurity, his need to prove himself and his fundamental distrust in God’s care for him.

The ‘will of the father who is in heaven’ is that we live safe in God’s embrace. Though the man did good works, perhaps in the name of the Lord, the foundation of his action makes all the difference. If his actions ‘in the name of the Lord’ are a way to prove himself to God or his fellow man, he can not know God because he does not trust God. If he can trust God, he can bring his whole heart forward—even his distrust and hunger for approval. He can bring the ambiguity of his motivations forward in the confidence that God will receive him.

None of us can be certain of our rightness but all of us can be certain that God will love us. Trying to impress God with our good deeds—”did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ is a sure indication that we missed the point of God’s love. We are trying to take our certainty about what is good and are expecting God to bless us accordingly. It is very humbling to be unsure. But it is also very trusting to put our uncertainty and fallibility into God’s hands.

Stand on the foundation of God’s promises. Let it be so.