Does absolute certainty about the truth of the gospel mean that one is arrogant and lacks humility? Can people know for certain that they are God’s beloved children?
These questions were on my mind after reading a tweet from Donald Miller this morning. And I have been wrestling with his words all day. Here is what he wrote:
Many follow leaders who sell confidence rather than truth. Arrogant people assume they’re right. Humble people understand many perspectives.
This comment has stuck with me today because I think it summarizes how many people today feel about the relationship between truth and certainty and tolerance and humility.
I have no idea what prompted Miller to tweet this, and to be fair, twitter is a very limited platform for nuance. It is entirely possible I will take the rest of this post in a direction that Miller would not disagree with. My purpose is not to slam Miller or even argue with him. He has simply provided stimulus for my further thinking about the ways we think about truth, confidence, arrogance, and humility.
The first sentence of the tweet seems to suggest that leaders should sell truth and not confidence, or that it is bad to sell confidence rather than the truth. I think the most charitable reading of this would be that Miller means that some leaders sell confidence even in the face of the truth, or that they are pushing certainty even if the truth is more complex. If this is correct, I would say that I agree. The goal of a pastor, for example, should not be to peddle certainty. Rather, it should be to introduce people to a relationship with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Certainty can sometimes be a hindrance to this relationship.
So, if my reading is right, there is much that I agree with about this statement.
But, I think there is also a subtext here. And I think the subtext is actually of greater urgency to address. That is, I don’t think there are many people who would defend pushing certainty over and against the truth.
The deeper concern that I have is this: Can Christians be confident of the truth of the gospel, can they assume they are right – can they be absolutely certain that they are right – about who Jesus is and his significance for human flourishing without being arrogant?
I think this question is of deep significance for the current cultural moment in American Christianity. There seems to me to be pretty significant pressure on Christians to hold their truth claims loosely, otherwise they are by definition intolerant, arrogant, and/or closed-minded.
The second sentence in Miller’s tweet states: “Arrogant people assume they’re right.”
While this is a beautifully written sentence, it strikes me as nonsense. Is it assuming that you are right that makes you arrogant? If so, who doesn’t assume they are right? And what is the value of a person who assumes that they are wrong in order to avoid being arrogant? If you think you are wrong about something, you should change your mind so you think rightly about it. And then you should assume you are right until you are convinced otherwise. In other words, I think arrogance is something much different than thinking you are right. Someone who carefully considers an issue and comes to a strong conclusion is not by definition arrogant. If they were, conviction and arrogance or belief and arrogance would be the same thing. Believing something was true would by definition be arrogant.
Charity requires me to assume that this is not what Miller means, particularly because there is still one more sentence to his tweet. (But, though I do not think this is Miller’s position, I do think that many people feel this way when they encounter someone who has strongly held convictions. So, again, I think it is pointing to something deeper going on in our cultural moment.)
The final sentence of Miller’s tweet is: “Humble people understand many perspectives.” So, I think Miller means that arrogant people assume they are right, without understanding opposing points of view (and probably without even considering them). This understanding of arrogance, a sense of superiority that leads one to believe they are right without even weighing the evidence, fits well with my own understanding of arrogance. And I think it should be rejected.
However, again, I think it is absolutely essential to affirm that someone can be humble and confidently affirm that the gospel is true. In other words, a person could understand many perspectives on Jesus and strongly reject all of them as inadequate in favor of a firm conviction that Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. In other words, I think some people would see the conviction that Jesus is the only way to the good life as by definition arrogant. I don’t think it is.
N.T. Wright describes part of what I am trying to get at in his book Simply Christian:
One of the regular tactics the skeptic employs at this point is relativism. I vividly remember a school friend saying to me in exasperation, at the end of a conversation about Christian faith, ‘It’s obviously true for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s true for anybody else.’ Many people today take exactly that line.
Saying ‘it’s true for you’ sounds fine and tolerant. But it only works because it’s twisting the word ‘true’ to mean, not ‘a true revelation of the way things are in the real world,’ but ‘something that is genuinely happening inside you.’ In fact, saying ‘It’s true for you’ in this sense is more or less equivalent to saying ‘It’s not true for you,’ because the ‘it’ in question – the spiritual sense or awareness or experience – is conveying, very powerfully, a message (that there is a loving God) which the challenger is reducing to something else (that you are having strong feelings which you misinterpret in that sense). This goes with several other pressures which have combined to make the notion of ‘truth’ itself highly problematic within our world” (26-27).
But here is the key reason that this tweet got my attention. I believe that one of the most basic things pastors should be doing is teaching that by the power of the Holy Spirit we can know, with certainty, that Jesus is who the church says he is and that we are God’s beloved child. John Wesley described this sense of certainty as assurance. In his sermon “The Witness of the Spirit, I” he expanded on Romans 8:16, “it is that very Spirit bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God.” Wesley described the witness of the Spirit as follows:
The testimony of the Spirit is an inward impression on the soul, whereby the Spirit of God directly ‘witnesses to my spirit that I am a child of God’; that Jesus Christ hath loved me, and given himself for me; that all my sins are blotted out, and I, even I, am reconciled to God…
The Spirit of God does give a believer such a testimony of his adoption that while it is present to the soul he can no more doubt the reality of his sonship than he can doubt of the shining of the sun while he stands in the full blaze of his beams. (274, 276)
This is good news! But, if we separate truth from certainty (within or without the church) we have a problem. I believe the church needs more leaders who help people find deep, abiding confidence in the truth of the gospel. I believe the church needs leaders who can be agents of the Holy Spirit, to help people find certainty in the truth of the resurrection and the whole new way of living that is made possible in the grace soaked world in which we are currently living. The church could use more people who boast in the resurrection and the transforming power of the Holy Spirit.
I’d love to see this tweet in the future:
The church has many leaders who help people embrace passionate faith in Christ. They are certain Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life. And they are desperate for every single person to hear and embrace this news.
But, alas, it isn’t 140 characters.
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