For I have learned, in whatsoever state I am in, therewith to be content. I know how to be abased and I know how to abound: everywhere and in everything I am instructed both to be full and to be hungry, both to abound and suffer need.
Philippians 4: 11-12
There is scarcely a moment in life when we cannot identify something that needs to change. I don’t imagine that we can consider our lives meaningful if we don’t suffer need, if we don’t know how to identify what we or what society lacks and learn to yearn and work for the things we hope for. Surely no meaningful change in society or in individual lives happens without first a discovery of lack, of a want or a hunger and thirst for what is yet to come, and the concomitant work that will perhaps help to bring it to pass. Of course, the problem is that sometimes, maybe even most times, what we hope for is not in our own hands but is in the hands of others, whether they be our own family members, friends, and other loved ones, or church or civic leaders who wield much more influence than we do, or perhaps even God himself who may be the only one who can change our circumstances.
Christ seems to have insisted that it is better to suffer need than to feel satisfied. The Sermon on the Mount is nothing if not a declaration of how important it is that we understand what we do not yet have. Our spiritual health is found in our weakness, in other words, not our strength. We are not blessed if we believe we already have sufficient faith, for example, or if we believe we have sufficient knowledge or power or capacity. He tells us that we are blessed if we are poor in spirit, if we hunger for righteousness, if we mourn and suffer our losses in sorrow even or especially without answers as to why our losses happen. Weakness, not strength, in Christ’s logic is the true source of power but only if we will allow weakness bring us to him in humility.
This is hard doctrine, one that is nevertheless central to the cross we Christians bear. It is especially hard to square with our culture of self-determination, self-made personhood, and with our great legacy of civil and human rights where individuals and groups have fought long and hard and tirelessly against oppressive and unjust powers. Such rights have been achieved precisely because people refused to believe that it was God’s will that they should simply accept, tolerate, or even embrace their inadequate circumstances. And we are all, to varying degrees, beneficiaries of this work.
This does not mean that it is a categorical virtue, however, to be impatient with life, to demand changes of others or of institutions just because we believe they should. To be a Christian, for Paul, is to understand the wisdom of that strange balancing act of accepting what is and struggling for what should be. Or it is perhaps that double-mindedness of praying as if everything depended on the Lord and acting as if everything depended on you.
Christians should not be dismissive, passive, or resigned in the face of social injustices around us, but biblical wisdom suggests the value in always keeping in sight the limits of our own understanding. I think this means that we should not always assume we always know what is, in fact, for the best. It is always hard to know, as a Christian, what to do when we feel we have identified a change that we feel is necessary. Should we not struggle and fight for what is right and necessary? Should we remain silent in the face of something we perceive to be unjust or wrong, even and especially when it is a problem we perceive within our own families, our own community of faith or among those whom we serve and love as brothers and sisters in the gospel? The gospel requires that we should defend what is right, stand up for what we believe in, but also learn patient waiting on the Lord.
I have always found it curious that when Adam and Eve were in the Garden, they initially got more information from Satan than they did from God. Satan was not interested in withholding information, whereas the Lord seemed intent on creating the conditions for a kind of probation. What Satan wanted was their loyalty, even if it meant he had to reveal God’s secrets. “Ye shall not surely die,” he exclaimed, “ye shall be as gods, knowing good and evil” (Moses 4: 10-11). On its face, this is a perfectly rational and truthful answer to Eve’s somewhat incomplete understanding of what would happen if she ate the fruit. All the Lord had said at that point was that they would die. That wasn’t untrue, but it is fair to ask, Why hadn’t the Lord explained his plan a little more clearly? Why had he not explained that eating of the fruit of the tree of knowledge would open an entire world of learning and experience for them? Would it have hurt his purposes to explain to them that understanding would come soon enough but only in the process of practicing their obedience to the Lord? Apparently it would have. God was intent on teaching the universal truth that we must choose to act and choose our paths in life with, at best, incomplete information. What he wanted was to provide assurances that obedience and faithfulness to his revealed word would provide a pathway through the times of darkness and confusion that such conditions give us. He never promised we would have full understanding, at least not here and now. What he promised was that obedience and faithfulness would bring deeper understandings and trust, goodness and blessings of joy in circumstances that would otherwise makes us miserable. When asked why he performs sacrifices, Adam answers, “I know not save the Lord commanded me.” He would come to understand the purpose of his sacrifice in the practice of it, as an emulation of the sacrifice of the Son of God, but only after careful performance of an act that was required as a sign of his loyalty to the Lord. Mere verbal reassurances of such loyalty would never suffice. It had to be an action and a sacrificial one at that. In contrast to this slow accretion of divinely revealed truth, the knowledge that Satan offers comes free of charge. There is nothing required—no act, no submission, no wager of faith, and consequently no personal growth.
I suppose one lesson is that if we are impatient with the incomplete information available to us and we refuse to trust or act in faith, then we will be vulnerable to the temptations of free and easy information, knowledge that we will imagine can fill the gap of our understandings and allow us to make decisions without wagers of faith. We sometimes prefer a God of clear instruction who does not ask us to struggle with meaning but who will provide knowledge cost free. We will pretend, in other words, as so many of us do, that we can act in the world with sufficient and complete knowledge and that we should therefore never be asked or expected to act otherwise. What I mean to suggest is the danger, yes the danger, of assuming we have to have or already have sufficient understanding before we can act rightly, meaningfully, and faithfully in the world. Critics of religion pretend as if there is a world in which we can act without the risk of foolishness. Christianity teaches the paradox that there is wisdom in accepting our foolishness, strength in accepting our weaknesses and limitations, power in accepting our powerlessness. And what it requires above all is not understanding or right thinking but love. And what it gives in response to our faithfulness is transformation of ourselves and of the world.
This logic is intolerable in modern society. It sounds like insanity. Blind obedience, as it is often called. The folly of criticism about blind obedience is that it pretends that we always have opportunities to choose and act in full knowledge. We will always be acting with incomplete information and understanding. All the more reason, then, to understand whom you follow and why. Adam wasn’t blind. He knew perfectly well whom he obeyed. But he certainly didn’t understand all of the reasons, and there were moments when he could have traded his covenants with the Lord for the promise of immediate information. Adam listened to what Satan said, considered it, gave it additional thought but decided to wait for more instruction from the Lord. He didn’t argue with Satan. Satan wasn’t really telling him everything in any case, and it certainly wasn’t unuseful information. Adam’s waiting was a matter of protecting his loyalty to the Lord and to his revealed word. He would not be swayed by promises of riches and would instead sustain his commitment to following the words and instructions of the Lord as they became available to him at the Lord’s will and pleasure. There was always a gap, in other words, between the need to act in relative ignorance, and a more proper, contextualized and retrospective understanding.
The point here is that acting in relative ignorance is the mortal condition. Wendell Berry, for example, writes this about the complex problems of our time: “The question, What can we do? especially when the problem is large, implies the expectation of a large solution. I have no solution to offer. There is, as maybe we all have noticed, a conspicuous shortage of large-scale corrections for problems that have large-scale causes…. The aftermath of a bombing has to be dealt with one corpse, one wound at a time. And so the first temptation to avoid is the call for some sort of revolution. To imagine that destructive power might be made harmless by gathering enough power to destroy it is of course perfectly futile…. Arrogance cannot be cured by greater arrogance, or ignorance by greater ignorance. To counter the ignorant use of knowledge and power we have, I am afraid, only a proper humility” (The Way of Ignorance, 62-3). Obedience to God is not premised on a guarantee of how, exactly, our obedience will lead to justice but is instead an act of trust. We act as we can, but it is when we fear action before proper and full knowledge that we make ourselves vulnerable to the cheap substitutes of full and proper knowledge offered by Satan. What he offers are takings, little portions of power and self-advancement, that, while self-gratifying, are hardly self-fulfilling or socially beneficial.
I am a Mormon because of experiences I have had over the years where I have felt the witness of Christ’s divinity in the words of living prophets. I fully understand that this makes little or no sense to my academic peers and to many people in the world. But I believe I have an obligation of loyalty as a result of these experiences and this loyalty manifests itself by patient waiting on the Lord, a willingness to forgo the sniffing out of error in fallible men and instead a desire to cultivate an understanding of what portion, large or small, of truth I can glean from their words. I do not believe it is unloyal to ask questions. Indeed, precisely because obedience does not require but instead rewards us with understanding, we should be wary of easy or superficially logical explanations that try to make facile sense of things that perhaps do not have or deserve superficiality but instead require time and patience and faithful waiting. We can obey for lots of wrong reasons of our own making, and this, I doubt, is a virtue. For that matter, it may not be a virtue, either, to obey without a desire for understanding, without anticipation of some new understanding to come. I am generally suspicious of claims in my own heart that I think I know what a servant of the Lord should say or what the church should do. I have no interest in seeking to trap a church leader in a logical contradiction. I cannot understand any conception of truth that does not allow for its multifaceted and many-layered qualities nor requires many different voices and personalities to give it fuller expression. I am also suspicious of explanations that are generated just to reduce our own anxieties about what we do not yet understand. I am eager to see the day when church members have finally learned how to ask probing questions and even identify the terms of their disagreement in a true spirit of unity and love and commitment, when loyalty will be understood, not just as a protection of what we have received, but as a collaborative search for greater light and understanding.
I suspect that it matters far more how much love we retain in our hearts for God and for our fellow men and women than what we think or how we reason our way through social and political issues. Ideas matter, but love matters more and love is an action that we render out of trust in what is good about others and about life and about God himself. Love might be the answer, as the saying goes, but it isn’t an answer per se. It is a feeling of trust, a way of waiting, faithfully, with loyalty, a patient suffering that does not despair at having insufficient answers but instead trusts that with or without them, we can with loyalty know in whom we trust. Satan is perfectly willing to give you the truth if you are impatient enough to accept it without love, without sacrifice, just to allow you the privilege of feeling like you are right. He will gladly trade such truths for hatred in your heart, he will happily talk truth all night long if he can get you to stop loving others with forbearance and to start judging them with harshness. What a waste it would be if he can get you to stop waiting faithfully on the Lord for understanding you do not yet possess and for powers of love you cannot naturally summon.