This four part series is meant to be a brief, yet fairly comprehensive, overview into the world of uncertainty for Christians. SUMMARY:
- In Part 1, uncertainty is explored as a human experience- one for which Christians do not escape simply in lieu of being a faithful follower.
- Part 2 addresses what ways people generally handle uncertainty. Broad definitions are given alongside clinical considerations for Intolerance of Uncertainty (IU), finished with a strong exhortation that faith does not equal certainty- faith is more robust than being some fake “feel-good” tool.
- Part 3 provides a framework and evidence for the need to embrace uncertainty, through faith.
- Part 4 launches us into the incredible Good News- and includes a worksheet to help you face uncertainty in your own life.
Christian Intolerance of Uncertainty (Part 2/4)
I have met many Christians who have just as bad (or worse) of a relationship to uncertainty than those who don’t believe in Christ. Brothers and sisters, this need not be so.
What Is IU?
Intolerance of uncertainty (IU) is a prominent concept in research for anxiety disorders, OCD, and now in many other problems, as well (Nestadt, et al., 2018, Boswell et al., 2013, and Mushtaq et. al, 2011).
Perception of the absence of key information, sustained by continued association with uncertainty. This leads to uncomfortable responses (anxiety, disgust, unease), for which the person’s state of mind is geared towards avoiding.
Whew, a mouthful. Two keys here: “perception” and “association.” Do you have any guesses how Cognitive Behavioral Therapy might help with this. If not, check out my article “What is CBT?”. CBT at its best calls into light a person’s thinking, feeling, and behavior at the intersection of their problems- and solutions.
Here’s some examples of not tolerating uncertainty:
- Constantly distracting, staying unduly busy.
- Perfecting to-do lists and/or any list to the point where it gets in the way.
- Excessive reassurance seeking from a friend, spouse, pastor, etc.
- Inability to delegate to others.
- Trying to get things “just right,” like spelling, emails, conversation, or work.
- Procrastination/avoidance: if you can’t experience something in the right way, holding off or avoiding is a common experience.
The Major Manifestations of Intolerance of Uncertainty
While the manifestations of not tolerating uncertainty are potentially limitless in practice, categorically they fit fairly tightly into what are known as (false) safety behaviors. These include the following, taken from “Playing It Safe Can Harm You” (2020):
- Physical items (stove, locks)
- Internal sensations (heart, breathing, health)
- Emotions (Did I feel like I expected to? Should I feel this way?)
- Tasks (Homework, work emails, social media posts)
- Asking questions when you know the answer
- Needing repetitive validation relationally
- Checking with teacher/boss/clergy repeatedly
- Mental Review
- Counting, Praying, Superstitious rituals
- Rescue medications
- Only going somewhere with another person
- Extra water, food
- Activities (trying something new, foods, news, tv shows, songs)
- Bodily sensations (increased heart/breathing rate, exercise)
- Emotions (anger, sadness, fear)
- Memories (unpleasant, challenging)
- Thoughts (intrusive, unwanted)
- Places (being alone, crowded places, negative past experiences)
Sound familiar? If it does, you may have elevated certainty to the status of a “counterfeit god” in your life. Good news- God wants to give you freedom from this!! But we must call it out on the carpet and admit it (James 5:16) if we are to shine the light on this monster.
In Defense of Disease: The Pursuit of Pathological Certainty
Many Christians will defend their intolerance of uncertainty with the following:
- “God calls us to watch and pray; I’m just trying to be vigilant.”
- We are told to “be perfect as He is perfect.”
- “You never can be too careful these days.”
- “These are the end times, you know.”
- And when called to the carpet, in exasperation, some say, “Well, I just can’t wait until Jesus comes back!”
None of these responses are problematic per se, but if they are used to rationalize and excuse fearful behavior and thoughts- or to condone ritualistic and compulsive behaviors rather than living by faith- then yes, they must be called out if we are to mature.
Faith ≠ Certainty
Don’t get it confused. Faith is not the same as what we feel when we possess certainty. That can be wrong. Just ask judges and criminal courts- they’re typically well aware of the many cognitive and social biases we have- and our penchant for error.
Faith is conviction of the unseen and a confidence of that which is hoped for (Hebrews 11:1).
My friend and expert colleague, Dr. Ted Witzig, who is a pastor and psychologist, makes several excellent points in his incredible presentation on Scrupulosity which I will summarize here:
- Faith involves uncertainty.
- Uncertainty will be felt at various points (and days) in a believer’s life- the whole point of faith is to pursue belief, not necessarily feelings or even thoughts per se. Feelings and even thoughts are not facts.
- Uncertainty and doubt are not dangerous.
- The disorder of OCD, specifically, will always bring along another “What if?” that will lead to more uncertainty if it is pursued pathologically (e.g., through rituals).
- There are two choices:
- Pursue the impossible quest of certainty.
- Move through the uncertainty in faith.
A Word of Caution for All-Too-Certain Christians: Don’t Gravitate Towards Something Just Because It Presents Certainty
Those who present as most sure of themselves are often the most extreme and least grounded of all human beings. Clinical psych tells us plenty about traits like narcissism and such. Charming and endearing leaders who have all the answers are massively contagious for this and other reasons- they present certainty and confidence. But just as a contagion can be deadly in the viral world, so can it be for the person who presents as “All-Too-Certain.”
If you are the person who is miserable (or makes others miserable) because you won’t rest until you believe you’ve found the answer to every question, is there room for uncertainty in your life? I’m not talking about an enduring pursuit that is a passion or love. I’m talking about being locked up in fear, disabled by its powerful hold. How do you make space for mystery, and the distinct options that exist when everything doesn’t demand a pinpoint of focus? You don’t have to be so open-minded your brain falls out, but hopefully you can be open enough not to be trapped in your own brain.