by Susan Schneider

“Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1)

“Ask and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened.” (Luke 11:9-10)

These Bible passages make faith sound like something so certain, so unshakable and solid. Certainly in the life of every Christian there are times when we do feel blanketed by trust in God, completely secure that the Lord who loves and cherishes us will direct our every step. But there are also times in our lives when God seems far away, disengaged, and uninterested in us (or maybe it’s vice versa). There are times when we are floundering, unsure of what comes next, unable to determine what ought to come next. Times when we don’t even know what questions to ask or which door to knock on. Why isn’t God helping us find clarity or feel protected and nurtured? What does God think or do when we lie awake wondering, “Will I get that special email/promotion/loan/class/dream house I’ve been wanting? Should I move or stay where I am? Do I want to have a baby or not? How long do I wait before taking a different path?”

Which path?

Sometimes we are uncertain about how to proceed with our lives because of external circumstances. Our next move depends on someone or something else. We are waiting to hear if we will get an interview, or if the test results are favorable, or if our proposal will be accepted. In those moments, there is truly nothing we can do to affect what happens next. Committees and institutions may be discussing us and our lives, but we are not privy to those conversations. Like a family member waiting for a loved one to come out of a risky surgery, it is unbearably hard to be the one who is waiting, hoping, and trying to plan, with no solid ground on which to stand.

The road less traveled

There are other times, however, when the uncertainty we face actually depends on our choices. I could do A), but only if I’m willing to surrender the possibilities offered by B). This is the kind of conundrum Robert Frost writes about in the poem “The Road Not Taken,” when he is forced to choose between two pathways at the fork where they “diverged in a yellow wood.” He can’t just stand there forever, so he chooses the one “less travelled by,” and that choice leads to other choices and so his life is shaped. Yet, sometimes the poet says he occasionally wonders what would have happened if he’d taken the other path, and how that way would have created an entirely different experience.

That’s the thing about uncertainty. It isn’t over when it’s over. Sometimes, even after we’ve made a concrete choice–or someone else has–we are still left wondering, feeling a little off-balance. So I didn’t get that job/promotion/role. Now what? Take another one like it? Stay where I am? Or go back to school and work on an entirely different degree? Or maybe, I said “yes” to a new relationship. Who am I going to be, now that I am no longer making decisions solely for my own benefit, but having to take another person’s well-being into consideration at every turn?

With all the twists and turns of life, it does make one wonder if there is ever a time when we are certain about anything. How do we make good choices? After we’ve made choices, how are we to know if we’ve chosen wisely? Can we ever be sure that God is happy with our choices, or even that God has been with us in the choosing?

I had a friend once who was trying to determine whether she should go back to graduate school or stay home with a troubled child. Both prospects carried good and bad aspects to them. The way she eventually decided would have made Ignatius of Loyola proud. A spiritual leader from the 1500s, Ignatius recommended listening to God, not just intellectually, but in the core of our beings. He encouraged people to pay attention to feelings of consolation or of desolation. Does a specific action leave us feeling more alive, hopeful, encouraged? Or does it make us feel guilty, insecure, less like ourselves? Ignatius suggests that those feelings are ways God communicates with us.

My friend worked through her choices by trying each one on, much like we try on clothes in a shop. One day she acted as if she were leaving home for graduate school. She talked about it, selected classes she’d like to take, and in every way embraced it as her choice. The next day she took the opposite choice, and acted as if she were going to stay home–again, telling people of her plans and conducting herself as if that were a definite course of action. On the third day, she examined how she had felt on the two previous days. Which day had she felt more at ease, more hopeful, more herself? Which day had left her feeling empty, angry, or bereft? Eventually, after a few more experiments to help her clarify her feelings of consolation and desolation, she worked through her uncertainty into a course of action that brought her the most peace.

Sometimes we don’t have dramatic reactions to our different options–we feel adrift. Sometimes when we listen to our deepest yearnings, we know what to do. Sometimes the options are out of our control. The Good News is that nothing we do or fail to do, nothing we choose or experience without choosing it will separate us from God’s love. “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life nor angels nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” (Romans 8:38-39)

Discussion questions:

1. Have you ever tried paying attention to your feelings of consolation and desolation as a way of making a decision? What are the benefits and drawbacks to using this technique?

2. When you are faced with indecision, how do you pray about the matter? What other steps do you take to find clarity?

3. What are some strategies that help you and/or your friends use to patiently cope with uncertainty?

Closing prayer

Gracious God, you love all that you have made, including us, and you want us to have abundant lives. Thanks for responding whenever we knock, even if the answer is not what we expected. When we feel adrift and without a clear course of action, remind us that you are always with us, always seeking to make all things work together for good, no matter what paths we choose. Thank you for remaining faithful and steadfast, even when we feel alone and lost. Help us to pay attention to your guidance, and to trust you to work in and through us in all our choices. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

The Rev. Susan Schneider is the pastor of Trinity Lutheran Church in Madison, Wis.