When you’re a recovering legalist, there is a phrase that hurts. It hurts to say, to think, to admit. But once it’s said, once you get used to saying it- the freedom it brings is oxygen for your lungs and peace for your soul.
“I don’t know.”
I grew up in close proximity to people who knew. They weren’t heavy-handed or abusive in their certainty, but they had their teachers and their books, their preachers and their pamphlets. And they pointed to them regularly. It all made so much sense.
Until, of course, it didn’t anymore.
It’s not an uncommon story, the little girl who grows up so sure of all she knows and believes until one day things don’t fit anymore. The answers don’t satisfy. The assurances don’t calm the heart and mind. Not anymore.
I can’t tell you how many thousands of hours I’ve spent hunched over books, highlighter in hand, looking for the answers. I want facts, indisputable evidence, logic. But more often than not, the answers just aren’t there. I always thought the answers were there and it was just a great, divine scavenger hunt.
But growing up, having children, surviving doubt, and God knows, this election, have all forced me to look at my stack of half-solved clues and say, I just don’t know.
I don’t get it.
I don’t understand it.
I don’t have a clue.
I can’t imagine why.
I can’t make sense of it.
I don’t know.
For awhile, not knowing and not believing were painfully linked. And that’s the problem, I think. It took a few years of sorting through the anger of not knowing before I could see how close I’d come to losing something I’m not sure I had ever fully experienced, though I desperately wanted to- faith.
I’ve been dabbling in faith for a few years now. And paradoxically, my faith has given me the gift of certainty. The catch is that it only seems to allow me to be certain about a very few things, and none of them are the things I was certain of once upon a time.
My faith makes me certain that God is crazy in love with us humans.
My faith makes me certain that love is what it all comes down to.
My faith makes me certain that I’ll never regret fighting for the underdog.
My faith makes me certain that science isn’t to be feared.
My faith makes me certain that our earth is God’s example of creativity to us.
My faith makes me certain that there is no head but Christ.
My faith makes me certain that I don’t need to understand every dogmatic point.
My faith makes me certain that waking up each day is a gift.
My faith makes me certain that falling asleep each night is a mercy.
It’s getting easier all the time to say I don’t know, but the truth is, there is still a twinge deep inside that pricks when I utter the words. I still want to know the mind of God, the exact meaning of this Greek phrase or that, the correct interpretation of that passage in Romans. I like to know, and more than that, I like for other people to think I know.
So I remind myself that scholars far smarter than me have never agreed on those points, and maybe I just need to let it go.
It’s fine to be curious, it’s great to be curious. But I have to be oh so careful with my curiosity. I have to enjoy the pursuit and not rely too much on the endgame. I have to remember that a frantic need for certainty can strangle the faith that has brought me so much peace.
You can present me with a question, and I’ll read the various arguments, and I’ll probably even form an opinion. But when you shoot me a rebuttal, a 3-point argument, I might just take a deep breath, give a small smile, and say, “I don’t know.”
Sarah Torna Roberts is an essayist and journalist based in California where she lives with husband and four sons. She writes about parenting, women’s issues, faith, human behavior or culture. Her work has been featured in The Washington Post, The Establishment, Scary Mommy, and other wonderful publications.