The Sin of Certainty | Notes & Review

Posted on June 2, 2016


Peter Enns. The Sin of Certainty: Why God Desires our Trust More Than Our “Correct” Beliefs. HarperOne, 2016. (230 pages)

sin of certaintyChapter 1 – I Don’t Know What I Believe Anymore

My soul is full of troubles, and my life draws near to Sheol. – Psalm 88:3

Thanks for Nothing, Walt Disney

I’ve come to accept these uh-oh moments rather than run from them. Precisely because they are unexpected, out of my control, and unsettling, they bear with them a lesson I need to hear: I need to be willing to let go of what I think I know, and trust God regardless. And I have come to trust that God uses these moments. (6)

Can We Just Be Honest for a Second, Please?

When once settled questions suddenly become unsettled, our life narratives are upset–and no one likes that. (8)

Church is too often the most risky place to be spiritually honest. (9)

Okay, I’ll Go First

I wont’ say that my faith is “stronger”–that implies that the uh-ohs have been fixed or conquered, which is the opposite of what I am saying. I mean my faith is more real, more textured, three dimensional, and without the constant fear of being wrong playing in my head or that God is disappointed in me for not acing a multiple-choice theology exam. (11)

What do you really believe, Pete, when no one is telling you what to believe? Who is God to you? Is there a God? How far are you willing to go to accept the challenge of this new journey where you can barely see your own hand in front of your face? What familiar road map are you willing to leave behind? What will you do now that God is no longer a turned back page in a familiar story you can flip to whenever? What will you do now that God is far off, out of sight? And how will you handle the likelihood that things will never be as they were? (14)

Maybe…I need a major shift in my thinking.

Maybe knowing, as I had been taught to know, is overrated.

Knowing like that doesn’t last.

Knowing has its place, definitely, but not at the center of faith.

I can choose to trust God with childlike trust regardless of how certain I might feel. (15)

What’s So Sinful About Certainty?

The key to seeing this unsettling discomfort as a sacred rather than damning task is to decouple our faith in God from our thoughts about God. That way faith doesn’t rest on correct thinking. (16)

In ways we do not even perceive, we all create God in our own image. (16)

Walking the path of faith means trusting God enough to let our uh-oh moments expose how we create God to fit in our thinking. (17)

Aligning faith in God and certainty about what we believe and needing to be right in order to maintain a healthy faith–these do not make for a healthy faith in God. In a nutshell, that is the problem. And that is what I mean by the “sin of certainty.” | It is sin because this pattern of thinking sells God short by keeping the Creator captive to what we are able to comprehend–which is the very same problem the Israelites had when they were tempted to make images of God (aka idols) out of stone, metal, or wood. (17-18)

We don’t make physical images of God. But we do make mental ones. (19)

Thinking Is Good

Let me be abso-posi-lutely clear so we don’t get off on the wrong foot: there’s absolutely nothing wrong with thinking about God or even seeking to think “correctly” about God. (20)

I’m not saying that the life of the mind and working toward forming deeper thoughts about God are all bunk. The life of faith and the life of thought are not opposite ends of the spectrum. (21)

The deeper problem here is the unspoken need for our thinking about God to be right in order to have a joyful, freeing, healing, and meaningful faith. | The problem is trusting our beliefs rather than trusting God. (21)

The preoccupation with holding on to correct thinking with a tightly closed fist is not a sign of strong faith. It hinders the life of faith, because we are simply acting on a deep unnamed human fear of losing the sense of familiarity and predictability that our thoughts about God give us. (21)

A faith that rests on knowing, where you have to “know what you believe” in order to have faith, is disaster upon disaster waiting to happen. It values too highly our mental abilities. All it takes to ruin that kind of faith is a better argument. And there’s always a better argument out there somewhere. (22)

I believe this journey of learning to let go, of moving from the familiar to the unfamiliar, and thus learning truly to trust God is a journey of great courage and humility, and one I believe God wants us all to take, each of us in different ways, different times, different lengths, and for different reasons. (24)

Chapter 2 – How We Got into This Mess

Happy are those who make the LORD their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods. – Psalm 40:4

Know What You Believe (or Else)

Oh Great, We Came from Monkeys

Seriously Weird Stories from Long Ago

The Germans Are Coming (Like We Need This Right Now)

Slavery: Whose Side Is God On?

This is why we see such a preoccupation with the transmission and preservation of knowledge among evangelical and fundamentalist churches in America today–the reason they “do church” the way they do. They have been living in intellectual reactive mode for generations to defend the intellectual certainty that they believe the Bible needs to provide. That is why Bible churches and colleges began popping up around the turn of the twentieth century and continue to thrive. That is why such a premium is placed on Sunday school, long lecture-like sermons, and reading the right books and keeping away from bad ones. (45)

Again with the Germans

The Bible does not have a good track record of promoting unity among those who read it. (49)

Why “Defenders of the Faith” Are Raising White Flags

…we only need to google “churches in my area” to see that this road of getting the Bible right has led, if not to a complete dead end, then at least to an endless traffic circle. (52)

This struggle between fundamentalists and modernists over the Bible has also revealed an odd fact lying just below the surface. Even though these two groups see the Bible in polar opposite ways, they share the same starting point: any book worthy of being called God’s word would need to talk about the past accurately. (52)

In fact, the words “belief” and “faith” in the Bible are just different ways of saying “trust.” And trust works, regardless of where our knowing happens to be. (53)

Chapter 3 – “You Abandoned Me, God; You Lied” (and Other Bible Lessons)

Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for I cry to you. – Psalm 5:2

Parts of the Bible We Don’t Read in Church (but Should)

One of my favorite in-your-face psalms is Psalm 88. (58) Feel free to call this a faith crisis. (59)

Ever wonder why the ancient Israelites not only wrote things like this but kept them…forever…in their sacred book? (59)

God Is a Liar

…”forever” (which in the Old Testament means not literally “never ending” but “so long into the future you don’t have to worry your little heads about it”). (63)

The World Makes Perfect Sense Without God

“Grace grows best in winter.” (Samuel Rutherford). Some pilgrims live in February. (71)

Chapter 4 – Two Miserable People Worth Listening To

I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint; my heart is like wax; it is melted within my breast. – Psalm 22:14

Trust God Anyway

If faith in God makes zero sense to you and reasons for trusting God have fallen off a cliff of despair, you’ve got a friend in the Bible: the book of Ecclesiastes. (74)

When we reach that point where things simply make no sense, when our thinking about God and life no longer line up, when any sense of certainty is gone, and when we can find no reason to trust God but we still do, well, that is what trust looks like at its brightest–when all else is dark. (79)

The book of Ecclesiastes isn’t a drawn-out and sorry tale for weak faith and poor thinking that the truly faithful need to avoid. It is an honest reflection of what people of true faith experience. (79)

Ecclesiastes never says “You gotta know what you believe,” but rather “Trust God even when you don’t know what you believe, even when all before you is absurd.” (80)

Don’t Even Try to Understand What God Is Up To

Yes, sometimes the biblical writers present God’s ways in absolute black and white. But even if you are able to quote chapter and verse, don’t count on these portraits of God to work everywhere and every time. The Bible isn’t a Christian owner’s manual. God remains shrouded in mystery, inaccessible, beyond our mental reach. (87)

When we come to our own Job-like moments, the way forward isn’t to expect God to give us some additional piece of information to make everything fall into place. The answer that people like Job and his friends want–because they’ve got to “know what they believe”–is precisely the answer God keeps hidden. No special bit of knowledge for you.

| Rather, God exposes the limitations of our thinking. Then we can see the inevitability to letting go of the need to know and trust God instead–as best as we can each moment–because God is God.

| Trust like this is an affront to reason, the control our egos crave. Which is precisely the point. Trust does not work because we have captured God in our minds. It works regardless of the fact that, at the end of the day, we finally learn that we can’t. (89)

Chapter 5 – Believing in God: So Easy Even a Demon Can Do It

And those who know your name put their trust in you, for you, O LORD, have not forsaken those who seek you. – Psalm 9:10

Who, Not What

I’m not against creeds or talking about what I believe. But as it’s used in the Bible, believing doesn’t focus on what someone believes in, but in whom one places his or her trust–namely God. | Believing is a “who” word. (93)

So when we see “belief” or “believe” in the Bible, tempting though it may be, we shouldn’t transport our overly intellectualized meaning onto biblical characters. If we replace these words with trust we’ll be closer to what the Bible is getting at. And we may be surprised, and encouraged, at what we see. (94)


We’ve said our peace and put this matter into your hands. Now we trust you with it.  (95)

Faith Isn’t Something in Your Head (or Heart)

Faith describes our whole way of looking at life and how we act on that.

| Faith describes a parent letting go of the fear for his child and handing that child over to Jesus. Faith like that is a conscious decision to trust–and it’s hard to let go of control and do that. Faith is a tough word.

| Faith is not only directed toward God but toward other people. Followers of Jesus are to be pistis (πιστις) toward each other–meaning “faithful” toward each other. (99)

Faith isn’t simply something that happens between God and us. Faith is a community word. (99)

When we are faithful to each other like this, we are more than simply being nice and kind, though there’s that. Far more important, when we are faithful to each other, we are at that moment acting like the faithful God and the faithful Son. | Being like God. That’s the goal. And we are most like God not when we are certain we are right about God, or when we tell others how right we are, but when we are acting toward one another like the faithful Father and Son. (102)

All To Jesus I Surrender”

Our level of insight does not determine our level of trust. In fact, seeking insight rather than trust can get in the way of our walk with God. (104)

The Hebrew says literally, “In all your ways know him,” … (106)

There Goes Jesus Being Jesus Again

…there’s a reason they don’t call it a “belief fall.” (110)

…trusting God is an all-in surrender that covers our egos with a thick tarp. Trusting God is death. And trusting God can be excruciating when we’re yet again waiting for God to show up and then doesn’t. (111)

Trust is not for the weak. It’s the excruciating option, especially if you feel God has let you down. But it’s the option for the life of faith; there’s no getting around it. Trust takes full surrender and courage all at the same time. Another paradox. (111)

The content–the what–has its place. But if the who is not central, if it’s not personal, the what doesn’t count for us, at least not when life turns sour. I believe that God is more interested in the who. And that means walking the walk, not just talking the talk. | Better: it means walking the walk when no words are left. That is trust. (112)

But, But…What About…?

Chapter 6 – Uh-Oh: When Certainty Is Caught Off Guard (and Why That Might Not Be Such a Bad Idea)

Do not be far from me, for trouble is near and there is no one to help – Psalm 22:11

But sir, if the LORD is with us, why then has all this happened to us? And where are all his wonderful deeds that our ancestors recounted to us…? – Judges 6:13

When Life Happens

A faith that promises to provide firm answers and relieve our doubt is a faith that will not hold up to the challenges and tragedies of life. Only deep trust can hold up. (120)

God Did What, Now?

Our Pale Blue Dot

Falling Branches

That’s the monotheist’s dilemma: a schizophrenic God who is all loving and caring one moment and then distant and uncaring the next. (132)

Meeting New People

My faith and the Bible it was supposedly based on looked awfully fragile. I didn’t feel like my faith was being attacked, but relativized–which felt worse. | And that got me thinking: I wonder how much else I was certain about might turn out to be less certain? How naïve and sheltered had I been to think that how I saw things was how they are? And why was I never told any of this? What were they protecting? (139)

When Christians Eat Their Own

But it seems for some the gospel is always at stake. They have mistaken their own thinking about God with the real thing. They have become so enamored of their own self-referential God talk and believe their own propaganda that they can’t tell the difference. (142)

We can’t make Bible difficulties, the modern world, pain and suffering, or contact with other religions go away. But we can stop being mean and ugly. Anytime we want to. If we want to. | And we need to. Jesus says so. And the gospel really is at stake. People’s lives are at stake.

| Preoccupation with correct thinking and holding on with zeal makes us horrible people and those around us miserable. But even here, these can be God moments if we have ears to hear. (142-143)

There’s nothing like being subject to Christians of ill will to expose the dark underbelly of where the preoccupation with correct thinking can get you–and to begin seeing the value of a different kind of faith. Rather than being the end of faith, these moments can introduce us to a faith rooted in trust rather than certainty. (143)

God Is Not My Father

Maybe my little “defending God” speech that I was so sure about would have done more harm to this person that my theology also tells me is made in God’s image and therefore precious and of inestimable worth.

| (I’m not finished. Come back here.) And rather than thinking you are right about God just because you’ve convinced yourself that you are, maybe you don’t have a handle on God like you think you do and you have a few things to learn–like the parts where God actually does love the world and has nurturing patience like a mother and isn’t sitting around to use you to squash others. (146-147)

Along the way I came to see more and more that being right about God and making sure everyone else agreed with what I knew might not be the most important thing I could do in God’s eyes.

| In fact–and here is the real mind bender for a seminary graduate/doctoral student in Bible–maybe I’m not even as right about God as my trickster brain wants me to think. Maybe loving other people, which in this case was simply keeping my trap shut, saying a kind word, and not taking the anger personally, was the truly right thing to do.

| Maybe my purpose on earth isn’t to be the thought police first and love others after all their ideas line up as they should. Maybe my first order of business is to risk my own sense of certainty about God and love others where and how they are no matter how they do on my theology exam. (147)

And here is the risk of love. When we love as Jesus describes, we are changed because we are letting go a little bit of what we were holding to so dearly–in my case, being right and saying so. (149)

When “Uh-Oh” Becomes “Ah-Ha”

1. Thank you, modernity. The challenges of modernity have shaken our sense of certainty and, in doing so, pushed us toward trust. (151)

2. We can’t get our minds around God.

3. Christianity is a setup for letting go of certainty.

4. Adjusting our expectations about what the Bible can deliver. I’ve learned to accept this paradox: a holy book that more often than not doesn’t act very much like you’d expect it, but more like a book written two thousand to three thousand years ago would act. (152)

5. God-moments.

6. God is not a crutch.

7. Struggling with faith is normal. Journey and pilgrimage have become powerful words for me for describing the life of faith. (153)

 Chapter 7 – God Wants You Dead

You have put me in the depths of the Pit, in the regions dark and deep. – Psalm 88:6

The Lie: “It’s All Your Fault”

But doubt is not the enemy of faith, a solely destructive force that rips us away from God, a dark cloud that blocks the bright warm sun of faith. Doubt is only the enemy of faith when we equate faith with certainty in our thinking.

| Doubt is what being cornered by our thinking looks like. Doubt happens when needing to be certain has run its course.

| Doubt can certainly leave us empty and frightened, but that is precisely the benefit of doubt: it exposes the folly that strong faith means you need to “know what you believe,” that the more faith you “have,” the more certain you are.

| Doubt means spiritual relocation is happening. It’s God’s way of saying, “Time to move on.”

| Doubt is powerful. It can do things spiritually that must be done that we would never do on our own. Doubt has a way of forcing our hand and confronting us with the challenge of deeper trust in God, rather than leaning on the ideas we have been holding in our minds about God. Doubt exposes our frail thinking. (157-158)

…what if God isn’t a helicopter parent? (158)

Doubting God is painful and frightening because we think we are leaving God behind, when in fact we are only leaving behind ideas about God that we are used to surrounding ourselves with–the small God, the God within our control, the God who moves in our circles, the God who agrees with us. (158)

The Truth: “God Wants You Dead”

God wants us dead. Or better: God wants us to get used to the need to die, not once, but as a pattern for our lives. (160)

Doubt is sacred. (164)

Down the Mine Shaft

Let’s Bring This Aboveground

One cannot have contentment in the Christian life without the darkness. Dying is the only path to resurrection, and that is the only way of knowing God. There is no shortcut. Jesus himself is our model for this. (172)

Chapter 8 – Cultivating a Habit of Trust

Deep calls to deep…all your waves and your billows have gone over me. – Psalm 42:7

Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, trust also in me. – adapted from John 14:1

Ever Have One of Those Decades?

Live Strong

August 1, 2008

Honoring Your Head Without Living in it

I never noticed this contemplative transrational dimension of the Christian faith because it was never taught. I felt a bit cheated, but I’m not sure if hearing about it years earlier would have helped. Not enough “life” had happened. (191)

I need Sunday morning centered on what is transrational, the fundamental Christian mysteries of incarnation and resurrection, the very heartbeat of Christian faith. Not irrational or unworthy of discussion and debate, but that which, when the intellectual dust has cleared, is ultimately beyond what our minds can grasp. | I need a God bigger than my arguments. (193)

The Long Haul

Being Like Jesus

Suffering is not a sign that something is wrong with us and has to be corrected. Suffering is a key component of what identifies us as children of God. (199)

…when we are in despair or fear and God is as far away from us as the most distant star in the universe, we are at that moment “with” Christ more than we know–and perhaps more than we ever have been–because when we suffer, we share in and complete Christ’s suffering. And we don’t have to understand that to know we should like it.

| I am not glorifying suffering or papering over the pain. But when weariness and hopelessness settle in, at that very moment, our suffering is Christ’s suffering and his is ours. We are more like Christ in these moments than we might realize. (200)

Chapter 9 – Beyond Trust

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts. – Psalm 139:23

No Fear

Go and Sin No More

Trusting God even when we can’t or don’t want to because nothing makes sense–especially then–is freedom, freedom from the pressure of needing to be certain when certainty has left us.

| Choosing to trust the Creator then and there isn’t irrational, but a humble admission that our rational faculties are limited for grasping the eternal and infinite. To call such trust irrational has already put on a pedestal the rationalistic pattern of faith that deeper faith calls us to transcend. (207)

— via —

As I mentioned to my congregation, this is one of the books that I would hand to someone who is just on the cusp of an intellectual or faith crisis, and/or someone who is curious why we started a church. Not only is this book reaching to grasp a better understanding of words like “faith” and “belief,” it does so in a way that disrupts our intellectual idols only to replace them–paradoxically–with a more solid foundation of uncertainty. I find kinship with Enns in this journey, and am deeply thankful for his contribution to the conversation, and recommend this book highly to those who believe, well, anything.

I have two contentions.

The first is that much of what he does here and touches on is essentially epistemology, yet, there is little explanation to the reader on the epistemic realities or implications of his thesis. Propositional knowledge (“I believe that…”) is both taken to task and embraced at the same time. In other words, there is still a propositional approach that undergirds the shift to “trust.” In addition, phenomenological knowledge is elevated and intermingled with skepticism and constructivism; that my experience shapes my doubts, and my doubts and experience together make up what I can “know” to be true. Rather than merely replacing “belief” with “trust,” Enns is also proposing that we embrace a new epistemology, which has far reaching implications. I understand this may be too philosophical, delving deeper into realms of nuance and minutiae that are, frankly, head-shakingly irrelevant to the purpose of Enns’s writing. But, I feel it necessary to mention because epistemology is really the “next-level down,” in this project of “truth.”

Second, no matter how hard pressed we are to shift to trusting even in the midst of an absence of God’s seeming goodness, we are still subtly saying that somewhere, sometime, in some way, God will make a tangible difference in this world, for our lives, and we are trusting that is the case. But for the countless times in which God did not come through, the question still hangs, “Trust God for what?!” For some, this is irrelevant. Some would call these people delusional. For others, this is exactly the point. Some would call these people “unfaithful.” Either way, we’re stuck in the paradox (irrationality?) of trusting in God, in the midst of tragedy, that God is against tragedy.

So, the conversation continues.

Thank you, Dr. Enns, for your work, and your efforts to bring to light that which scholarship and religious dogma often keeps in the dark.

Posted in: Bible, Religion, Reviews