Unexpected Gifts of the Spirit: The Gift of Uncertainty

Read Romans 8:22-27

We continue our Pentecost sermon series today with a continuation of stories about the birth of the church. And just like our video clip, there were quite a few labor pains happening as this emerging church began to spread throughout the Roman Empire. Our scripture comes from Paul’s letter to the Christians residing in the city of Rome.

Rome was the center of the Empire and was ethnically diverse. In the first century AD it had a population of around one million people in an area less than ten square miles. Of this large population, it is estimated that there were between 40,000 and 50,000 Jews in the city. Of course the city of Rome was predominately populated by Gentiles and so it is expected that the church was comprised of both Jewish and Gentile believers.

It is unclear how the church in Rome originally began. The best explanation is that the Romans who were present at Pentecost eventually made their way back to Rome and started a church in one of the synagogues. The people of Rome were tolerant of most religious expressions. However, that tolerance was limited to religions that were polytheistic -- meaning, the Roman authorities didn't care who you worshiped as long as you also worshiped the emperor and didn't create problems with other religious systems.

That was a problem for both Christians and Jews during the middle of the first century. That's because Christians and Jews were monotheistic; they proclaimed the unpopular doctrine that there is only one God -- and they refused to worship the emperor or acknowledge him as any kind of deity.

For these reasons, Christians and Jews began to experience intense persecution. The Roman Emperor Claudius banished all Jews from the city of Rome in 49 A.D. They returned 5 years later after his death, but began to experience even greater persecution under the rule of the next Emperor. Nero was a brutal and perverted man who harbored an intense dislike for Christians. In fact, near the end of his rule Nero enjoyed capturing Christians and setting them on fire to provide light for his gardens at night. You’ve heard the story of Nero setting fire to Rome. He blamed it on the Christians so that he could persecute them with fury.

The apostle Paul was writing to a church that he had never visited but sent this letter during the early reign of Nero, when Christian persecution was at its height. He wrote the letter to the Romans from the city of Corinth, while he was on his third missionary journey.

In addition to persecution from outside sources, there is evidence that specific groups of Christians within Rome were experiencing conflict. There were several house churches in Rome, and clashes were occurring between Christians of Jewish origin and Christians who were Gentiles. As mentioned before, the earliest Christian converts in Rome were of Jewish origin. And these early Roman churches were led by Jewish disciples of Jesus.

When Claudius expelled all Jews from the city of Rome, however, only the Gentile Christians remained. Therefore, the church grew and expanded as a largely Gentile community. When Emperor Claudius perished and Jews were allowed back in Rome, the returning Jewish Christians came home to find a church that was much different from the one they had left. This resulted in disagreements about how to incorporate the Old Testament law into following Christ, including rituals such as circumcision.

For these reasons, much of Paul's letter to the Romans includes instructions for Jewish and Gentile Christians on how to live in harmony and properly worship God as a new culture -- a new church. In his letter to the Roman churches, Paul offers strong advice on settling disagreements between Jewish and Gentile Christians, such as not eating meat sacrificed to idols and observing the different holy days of the Old Testament law.

So what lessons might we learn from the Church in Rome? Does their experience mirror our experience here at Holy Trinity? Well, we definitely understand the impact of change, right? Do we still experience persecution? Do we debate our own customs and traditions? Do we live with a sense of uncertainty about the present? Do we struggle with conflict? Do we wonder what happened to the old church that we once loved and cherished? Are we concerned about the future? Of course we are! None of us like to live through those places when we wonder what’s coming next. When we look at our current situation and wonder how we might get through it. That’s a part of life. That’s a part of being human. And many folks who come to church DON’T want that to be a part of their spiritual life. They don’t want to have to deal with uncertainty when it comes to church…when it comes to living as a community of faith. We want it to be easy. We want it to be perfect. In other words, we don’t want it to mirror our own personal lives. We get enough of that.

To most people, uncertainty seems more like a curse than a gift. When we cannot see the endpoint of a crisis or conflict, or the path forward is not clearly marked, we grow anxious and impatient. When the assurance that everything will be okay is hidden from us, we tend to dig our heels in...and worry. But the fact of the matter is that life is messy and no amount of doctrine or dogma can change that. Faith that is only built upon certainty falls apart when our foundation shifts...even slightly. However a mature faith is one that embraces life as a mystery to be lived, not a problem to be solved--that accepts uncertainty as a gift, not a curse. As Paul wrote to the Roman Church, "Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? If we hope for what we do not see, we will wait for it with patience."

From the moment you realize that there is more to life than meets the eye, and that you are as much a mystery to yourself as to anyone else, you will long to connect with the mystery of God. And God will take you into those dark places where you have to depend on God to get you through it. All of our biblical heroes in the Bible; Moses, Abraham, King David, Peter, Paul and even Jesus lived in the midst of high uncertainty. Christians in Rome were being lit on fire, for goodness sake. There is no evidence to suggest that their faith exempted them from uncertainty and struggle. In fact, the only people who consider certainty and the absence of struggle to be of high value in the Bible were the villains. From the serpent in the Garden of Eden, to Nebuchadnezzar, to Pontius Pilate, to the Emperor Nero are all portrayed as antithetical to the ways and presence of God.

Paul’s letter to the church in Rome suggests that those who have a high need for certainty are being childish. He understood that love thrives in uncertainty—not the kind that increases chaos, but the kind that develops trust. It is trust developed in uncertainty that allows God to lead us more deeply into the Dark Wood and find our place in the world.

When it comes to change and uncertainty, we may not always be able to control the outcome, but we can control our response to it. And that is trust. Trust gives you the tools to bounce back from tough situations and thrive in the face of challenges. Trust reminds us of God’s presence at work in the situation, and in you. Here are five keys to dealing with uncertainty with Trust:

1. Let Go

The first step to dealing with uncertainty is to accept that we can’t control everything. This is where those deep assumptions we have about the way the world works have to be confronted. If everything were always certain, nothing would ever change. Recognize that there is only so much you can do right now—and that makes you human, not powerless. Things will unfold soon enough. Besides, worrying about the future will not change it.

2. Envision the Best

We often try to spare ourselves disappointment by thinking through how things could go wrong. However, research in cognitive behavioral therapy shows that people tend to overestimate the risks and negative consequences that may result from a situation. That leads to a lot of anxiety, or worse—sets us up for failure. Beginning something by worrying about the outcome can be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Instead, try imagining the best possible scenario. Picture your surroundings and how it will feel. Not only will you feel more confident about where you’re headed, you’ll feel calmer and clearer about where you’re at now, which will help with decision-making and boost your odds of success.

3. Reflect

Remember that you’ve faced uncertainty before. The psychological concept of “hindsight bias” says that we tend to create the illusion that everything in our past was certain, when in reality, it was once uncertain. The fact that you stand here now is proof that you are strong enough to make it through. Take time to think and reflect on what helped you before. Write it down—and then read it when your worrisome thoughts start to take hold.

4. Avoid Avoidance (And Keep Moving!)

A little uncertainty can be healthy. It activates the sympathetic nervous system—our “fight or flight” response—which gives us a jolt of energy and mobilizes us to take action. When this response makes us too anxious, however, it can have the opposite effect and be paralyzing. If you know that you tend to avoid dealing with the future, remind yourself that although dealing with uncertainty is hard, there are consequences for not facing it head on.

5. See the Possibility

A blank slate ahead means that there’s nothing written on it yet. And while that may appear daunting, think of it this way: You are standing on the threshold of possibility. Remember why you made this shift in the first place and be proud of yourself for making a move—no matter how it turns out. Uncertainty invites us to possibility. And when nothing is certain, anything is possible

Elior Moskowitz is an intern at meQuilibrium in the Content department. She’s a recent college grad with a dual major in Psychology and English.

And just like our labor pains video this morning, it may seem unbearable in the moment. You will want to kick and scream. You will not be happy with the level of pain and discomfort that you are exposed to. But I guarantee that when you get through it, you will have come out on the other side by giving birth to new ideas and a new reality…and you will most definitely have more respect for others who have already gone through it. For when nothing is certain, anything is possible.