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chaplainWant to hear stories about having a clear and certain faith shattered? Talk to Army chaplains and soldiers with PTSD.

In a recent article in The Washington Post, Michelle Boorstein lets us in on “What happens when the military chaplain is shaken by war?” 

The article struck me as giving voice to a common phenomenon among the faithful, and that I also discuss in The Sin of Certainty: life happens—particularly some sort of suffering that doesn’t fit into familiar categories—and your faith gets rocked.

Only in this instance, we are looking at the face of war, something most of us don’t get near to. I deeply appreciate the perspective.

Boorstein recounts the experience of Army chaplain Matthew Williams, who as a pre-war ordained pastor thought he had a good handle on suffering: “God allows suffering because this world is temporary.”

But after seeing his friends’ faces blown apart and marriages over which he officiated crumble, his view changed.

I thought I had a handle on suffering. I thought I had a handle on understanding the sovereignty of God. I didn’t know crap. . . . At the end of the day, what I know now is: I’m alive, I believe in God, I have faith, and that’s where it stops. . . . 

It doesn’t get much deeper than that. . . . I don’t think anymore that there is some grand design . . . It just is. . . . 

Now I’m living my faith more. . . Before, I felt I had to stick with the party line. Now, I’m unaffiliated,TSOC but I believe in God and my soldiers. . . . 

Actually, if you ask me, Williams has gotten plenty deep—letting go of thinking we know when we don’t but trusting God instead.

The article is fairly brief and the comments are worth reading, too.

Pete Enns, Ph.D.

Peter Enns (Ph.D., Harvard University) is Abram S. Clemens professor of biblical studies at Eastern University in St. Davids, Pennsylvania. He has written numerous books, including The Bible Tells Me So, The Sin of Certainty, and How the Bible Actually Works. Tweets at @peteenns.

28 Comments

  • Tim says:

    I don’t see where Williams presently expresses doubts in God. Neither does he express as questionable core Christian doctrine, such as God being triune or Jesus’ resurrection. So for being an example of letting go of certainty…I’m not so sure. Then again, perhaps given his journey one can infer he must have, though it’s not spelled out in this piece. I suppose, in that vein, one could even wonder if his beliefs in a God now so far different than what he had expected even resembles the Christian God any longer. Perhaps he is only committed to describing the same “unknowable” higher power that many “nones” still believe in using a Christian lexicon. A not uncommon phenomenon I think.

    • Pete E. says:

      The article doesn’t say he expresses doubt in God. It says the exact opposite, and that his faith in God but has let go of the naive certainty he had before.

  • Derek says:

    I always enjoy reading or listening to the perspective of those who endured or witnessed tremendous suffering. I myself am acquainted with chronic suffering, and known soldiers who have returned from the battlefield. Suffering in general seems to refine some and paralyze others. Some continue to walk by faith, some lose faith altogether, some just don’t care anymore.

    Thanks for sharing, Pete.

  • Derek says:

    I always enjoy reading or listening to the perspective of those who endured or witnessed tremendous suffering. I myself am acquainted with chronic suffering, and known soldiers who have returned from the battlefield. Suffering in general seems to refine some and paralyze others. Some continue to walk by faith, some lose faith altogether, some just don’t care anymore.

    Thanks for sharing, Pete.

  • Beth Demme says:

    About 3 years ago I went through a phase where I doubted the existence of evil (yes, I know this sounds idiotic now). I thought evil was only an extension of our humanity and therefore within our control. Then I happened to visit a church where I heard a sermon by a Chaplain who was assigned to Saddam Hussein as he awaited execution. He assured me that evil is real and that he had met a personification of it. That was when I realized I live in a bubble of goodness (most of the time) and I was allowing my narrow worldview and narrow White American experience to put God in a box that was far, far too small. The Chaplain you reference here seems to have allowed life to greatly expand his God-box, not narrow it. I wonder why for some people the choice is: “God either fits in my box OR God is not real”? Maybe *that* is an extension of our humanity. 🙂

  • Nat Alee says:

    The Bible tells several stories of the absolute worst thing possible happening to people. Think the Flood, slavery in Egypt, Job, the destruction of Samaria, the exile of Judah, and the crucifixion of Christ.

    The Bible doesn’t give perfect (or any) answers to these horrors, but it does offer consolation.

  • Nat Alee says:

    The Bible tells several stories of the absolute worst thing possible happening to people. Think the Flood, slavery in Egypt, Job, the destruction of Samaria, the exile of Judah, and the crucifixion of Christ.

    The Bible doesn’t give perfect (or any) answers to these horrors, but it does offer consolation.

  • Josh Wallace says:

    Reads like the Book of Job. We suffer for his own glory. God can do with fallen man whatever he wants. “The suffering of this present time isn’t worthy to be compared to the joy which shall be revealed in us…”
    Sometimes this suffering results in being in the belly of a whale, so to speak. Sometimes it means we lose faith for a season, even when we had knowledge or assent to the concept of God’s sovereignty. When Job asked God why. The answer was “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe…”
    That doesn’t mean that we won’t still fall. We shall continue in these things…if God permits…

  • Josh Wallace says:

    Reads like the Book of Job. We suffer for his own glory. God can do with fallen man whatever he wants. “The suffering of this present time isn’t worthy to be compared to the joy which shall be revealed in us…”
    Sometimes this suffering results in being in the belly of a whale, so to speak. Sometimes it means we lose faith for a season, even when we had knowledge or assent to the concept of God’s sovereignty. When Job asked God why. The answer was “Where were you when I laid the foundations of the universe…”
    That doesn’t mean that we won’t still fall. We shall continue in these things…if God permits…

  • charlesburchfield says:

    “God allows suffering because this world is temporary.” is nothing but a guess… I guess.

    From Ash Wednesday T.S. Eliot
    Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
    Teach us to care and not to care
    Teach us to sit still.

  • “God allows suffering because this world is temporary.” is nothing but a guess… I guess.

    From Ash Wednesday T.S. Eliot
    Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
    Teach us to care and not to care
    Teach us to sit still.

  • Dre'as Sanchez says:

    I had a similar journey. One day I’ll publish what I’m writing. Appreciate what I have received from you Pete, it has been tremendous help in my walk. And , I give God the glory

  • Dre'as Sanchez says:

    I had a similar journey. One day I’ll publish what I’m writing. Appreciate what I have received from you Pete, it has been tremendous help in my walk. And , I give God the glory

  • Pete E. says:

    The article doesn’t say he expresses doubt in God. It says the exact opposite, and that his faith in God but has let go of the naive certainty he had before.

    • Tim says:

      OK. So he’s certain in God then? Which means he let go of certainty how? Are there certain types of certainty that are OK, then?

      Certainty in God – ok or not?
      Certainty in Triune God specifically – ok or not?
      Certainty in Jesus’ resurrection – ok or not?
      Certainty in the Bible’s promises…at least in the New Testament – ok or not?

      What are people to let go of in terms of certainty? From my vantage point, it seems more of just a consolidation then or a shuffling of chairs. Doubt isn’t truly being accepted in spirituality. Only the boundaries are being redefined.

      • Pete E. says:

        I don’t think the article is all that complicated, Tim. A pastor was certain about a Christian explanation for suffering. Then life happened and he realized how inadequate those thoughts were, and so now he is content believing (I would say “trusting”) God without feeling the need to “know what he believes.” I don’t see how your line of questioning has to do with that straightforward point. It seems like you searching for something.

        • Tim says:

          Pete,

          I also don’t think the article you referenced was complicated either.

          No, it was your use of this chaplain’s journey as an example of “letting go of certainty” that prompted my questions. And, you are being perceptive here…I am searching for something. I am searching for a better understanding of the framework you recommend.

          So you had said that the chaplain “let go of certainty.” And I am trying to understand what you mean by that.

          Let me try to highlight where the difficulty in that lies. For instance, you said the chaplain was “certain about a Christian explanation for suffering. Then life happened and he realized how inadequate those thoughts were.” So, I hear you that the man had a belief. He was certain in his belief. And then…what. What happened? He maintained that belief but with doubt? He let go of certainty and welcomed uncertainty? It seems that what he did was not let go of certainty, but let go of a belief. He came to the conclusion that something he believed, that this explanation he had in his head for explaining suffering, was wrong. It was simply wrong. He didn’t go on believing it but tolerating some amount of doubt.

          And we find the same holds true in other issues. What do we say of someone who lets go of young-earth creationism to accept evolution? Even if they were “certain” of young-earth creationism before hand? Do we say that they let go of certainty? And embraced something more “unknown” or “unknowable”? Do we say that they welcomed doubt? No. We say that they let go of a belief that they used to think was right but do no longer. They changed their mind. Or say someone has a naive understanding of how God answers prayer, and they stop believing in the equivalent of a Santa Clause in the sky. Again, that’s not “letting go” of certainty, but letting go of a belief. It’s not that they still believe some deity is taking down their wish list and will reward them with goodies if they’re a good boy or girl…but they’ve allowed some “doubt” on the matter. No. They let go of that specific belief. Not certainty.

          So what do you mean when you say we should let go of certainty? To me, this means making an allowance for necessary or unavoidable doubt while still believing something. That’s what I take it as. Am I wrong? Do you mean it in a different way?

          Then there is this. You recommend “letting go of thinking we know when we don’t but trusting God instead.” What does this mean? Does that mean we still maintain belief in what we think we know, but permit doubt? Even serious doubt? And what falls within this? Is thinking we “know” Jesus is God…is this within the set of beliefs we need to “let go of” certainty in? Since “knowledge” of whether such a proposition is true is beyond us? Is it the promises of the Gospels and the writings of the Apostles? Are we to let go of “knowing” these, and permit doubt? Or is it that we only “let go” of incorrect inferences and “wrong” understandings of God and Scripture? In which case, is this not letting go of certainty but rather letting go of certain beliefs?

          So that is where I am unclear on what you mean. Can you explain this?

          • Pete E. says:

            I think my previous comment answers what the post is about. Your issues here go far beyond the post. You are struggling with what Richard Rohr calls “binary thinking.” Maybe what you are searching for require deeper exploration for you than can be hashed out in long comment threads.

          • Gary says:

            As of course, there are binary thinkers and non-binary thinkers. 😉

        • Veritas says:

          How would you summarize the Christian meaning of suffering? I have seen so many different views of its meaning, I’m not sure which would be “standard”

          • Pete E. says:

            I give a few pages to that in THE SIN OF CERTAINTY without suggesting I have solved it. Christian suffering is about participating “in Christ.”

  • Pete E. says:

    I don’t think the article is all that complicated, Tim. A pastor was certain about a Christian explanation for suffering. Then life happened and he realized how inadequate those thoughts were, and so now he is content believing (I would say “trusting”) God without feeling the need to “know what he believes.” I don’t see how your line of questioning has to do with that straightforward point. It seems like you searching for something.

    • Tim says:

      Pete,

      I also don’t think the article you referenced was complicated either.

      No, it was your use of this chaplain’s journey as an example of “letting go of certainty” that prompted my questions. And, you are being perceptive here…I am searching for something. I am searching for a better understanding of the framework you recommend.

      So you had said that the chaplain “let go of certainty.” And I am trying to understand what you mean by that.

      Let me try to highlight where the difficulty in that lies. For instance, you said the chaplain was “certain about a Christian explanation for suffering. Then life happened and he realized how inadequate those thoughts were.” So, I hear you that the man had a belief. He was certain in his belief. And then…what. What happened? He maintained that belief but with doubt? He let go of certainty and welcomed uncertainty? It seems that what he did was not let go of certainty, but let go of a belief. He came to the conclusion that something he believed, that this explanation he had in his head for explaining suffering, was wrong. It was simply wrong. He didn’t go on believing it but tolerating some amount of doubt.

      And we find the same holds true in other issues. What do we say of someone who lets go of young-earth creationism to accept evolution? Even if they were “certain” of young-earth creationism before hand? Do we say that they let go of certainty? And embraced something more “unknown” or “unknowable”? Do we say that they welcomed doubt? No. We say that they let go of a belief that they used to think was right but do no longer. They changed their mind. Or say someone has a naive understanding of how God answers prayer, and they stop believing in the equivalent of a Santa Clause in the sky. Again, that’s not “letting go” of certainty, but letting go of a belief. It’s not that they still believe some deity is taking down their wish list and will reward them with goodies if they’re a good boy or girl…but they’ve allowed some “doubt” on the matter. No. They let go of that specific belief. Not certainty.

      So what do you mean when you say we should let go of certainty? To me, this means making an allowance for necessary or unavoidable doubt while still believing something. That’s what I take it as. Am I wrong? Do you mean it in a different way?

      Then there is this. You recommend “letting go of thinking we know when we don’t but trusting God instead.” What does this mean? Does that mean we still maintain belief in what we think we know, but permit doubt? Even serious doubt? And what falls within this? Is thinking we “know” Jesus is God…is this within the set of beliefs we need to “let go of” certainty in? Since “knowledge” of whether such a proposition is true is beyond us? Is it the promises of the Gospels and the writings of the Apostles? Are we to let go of “knowing” these, and permit doubt? Or is it that we only “let go” of incorrect inferences and “wrong” understandings of God and Scripture? In which case, is this not letting go of certainty but rather letting go of certain beliefs?

      So that is where I am unclear on what you mean. Can you explain this?

      • Pete E. says:

        I think my previous comment answers what the post is about. Your issues here go far beyond the post. You are struggling with what Richard Rohr calls “binary thinking.” Maybe what you are searching for require deeper exploration for you than can be hashed out in long comment threads.

    • Veritas says:

      How would you summarize the Christian meaning of suffering? I have seen so many different views of its meaning, I’m not sure which would be “standard”

      • Pete E. says:

        I give a few pages to that in THE SIN OF CERTAINTY without suggesting I have solved it. Christian suffering is about participating “in Christ.”

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