My assistant Elizabeth was at one time the Public Relations Director at Sea World, prompting me to joke onstage once that it well-prepared her to work for me, since there are doubtlessly many similarities between managing me and managing Shamu. Her husband, Dennis, one of my best friends, told me afterward, “Actually, you and Shamu are nothing alike. There is nothing black and white about you, Pastor.”
It was a truthful observation, and could be a compliment or a criticism, depending on where you sit. Dennis didn’t mean it as a criticism, but if he did, I’d own up to the truth of it all the same. It is true: There is nothing black and white about me. Pastor Tracey says I am the king of nuance. I paint the world in a palette of grays. I think many of the most virtuous saints have a lot of ambiguity and complexity in them, and many of the most notorious sinners have their own kinds of virtues. (This is why Frederick Buechner’s Godric is one of my favorite novels — such a textured, complicated saint, but a saint, no less!) I tend to think that the truth, when it is at its most beautiful or when it’s hardest to behold, is almost always more complicated than we think, that easy labels for people are generally failed attempts to reduce them until they make sense to us.
There is, of course, a general movement in culture right now to capture the gray and embrace the ambiguity of our stories. The trend in television in particular toward shows like Breaking Bad, in which it is almost impossible to sum up anyone entirely as a hero or a villain (as the heroes have their own darkness and the villains have their own moments of humanity), is pervasive. Some would see this as postmodernity fully grown, a deconstruction of any clear ethics. Perhaps in some cases that is true, and there are times and ways where the embrace of ambiguity seems to follow all the way down the line to an anything-goes nihilism. But from where I sit, I tend to just think that ambiguity is most often more truthful.
The interesting thing for me is that I didn’t learn to embrace the ambiguity and complexity from television or contemporary storytelling in any form — I honestly believe I got it from reading the Bible since I was very young. Scripture is as undomesticated as the Spirit who breathed it, and thus is full of tensions that will not and should not be prematurely or easily resolved, if resolved at all. When the story of your faith is mediated through texts that tell of Jacob, Moses, David and Peter, and yet bears witness to the reality of God, you will either gloss over the texts or learn to live with a certain amount of tension. (Note: You can always recognize good systematic theologians by their stubborn refusal to seriously engage critical texts that do not fit their tradition or system.)
There are times when I, too, may long for the simplicity of white hats and black hats. But I would never go back. I’ve seen too much; in myself, in others, in the world. For whatever I might miss about simplistic systems, what I don’t miss is the cardboard god I created within them. That god was a glorified Santa Claus, a referee to enforce karma, the product of my own imagination. He only existed when I felt good about myself; he stopped existing when I felt bad.
The real God revealed to us in Jesus of Nazareth is the God who is real enough to touch us in our own ambiguity. When I’m clear or when I’m cloudy, He is no less real, because He does not exist simply to prop up my own limited understanding of how the world is ordered.
Here’s an example of that God in action. I have a dear friend who had an abortion in her 20s. She is one of the most powerful women of God that I know. She grew up in a family where she suffered severe sexual and psychological abuse. After she became a Christian and married a caring Christian man, she began to experience healing, and eventually would even go into ministry. But a few years into their marriage, she got pregnant and hit a wall. The old hurts and insecurities began to wreak havoc in her mind. She decided she didn’t feel like she could be a good wife, and certainly was not in a place to be a mother. So for a season, she ran away from her new husband, and, without his consent, decided to have an abortion. Weeks later, when she came out of her season of depression, she was overcome with shame.
They stayed together, and ultimately would even have a thriving ministry. But she has a remarkable testimony about that dark season of her life: Just before she was about to be wheeled back for the procedure, she says she had a visitation of the Lord. To this day, she claims it was not a dream, but a physical presence — she says she can still feel His right hand over her heart and His left hand holding hers. Wordlessly, He comforted her. That was all. She did not change her mind; she did not run out of the clinic, screaming.
Looking back, she tells me that if she had not had such a tangible manifestation of God’s presence then, she doesn’t feel like she could have survived the guilt and condemnation she felt later. She didn’t feel like Jesus somehow affirmed her decision. Only that He held the hand of His daughter, and stayed with her when fear drove her to this decision she would later regret so bitterly. That experience did not stop her from having the abortion. But it would ultimately convince her, when the healing began, that she really was seen and known by Jesus, even in her darkest moments, and yet completely loved.
When I told that story in a sermon a few weeks ago, the room fell silent. I don’t think it was because the congregation didn’t recognize that as something God would do, but because they knew it was exactly like God, which makes it all the more interesting. He did not come to condone my friend’s choice. But He did not come to condemn either. He came to enter the ambiguity and awfulness of that season of her life, and assure her that His love for her was real, no matter what choices she made. Doesn’t that just sound like Him?
I would eliminate ambiguity if I could, if not for the fact that I usually find God at work in it.