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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 have been a compliment or a criticism, depending on where you sat. 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 in which 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 where 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 that she could have survived the guilt and condemnation she felt later. She didn’t feel that 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.

Jonathan Martin is author, speaker, pastor, and church-planter who founded a congregation of liars, misfits, and dreamers called Renovatus in Charlotte, NC. His critically acclaimed-book “Prototype” (2013, Tyndale House) is meditation on what it means to be beloved by God.

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David Buffaloe

commented on Apr 8, 2013

Not sure what to say about this, so I'll go with scripture (of which there is none in this article): Isaiah 2:5 O house of Jacob, come ye, and let us walk in the light of the LORD. 1 John 1:6-10 If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: (7) But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. (8) If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (9) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (10) If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. 1 John 1:6-10 If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: (7) But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin. (8) If we say that we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. (9) If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins, and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. (10) If we say that we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us. No shades of grey are here - just black and white. Nuff said.

Jimmie Don Willingham

commented on Apr 8, 2013

Well, I have preached on David and his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah the Hittite, the sermon being titled, Pay Day Today, a take off on a more famous message by Dr. R.G. Lee, Pay Day Someday. There is no doubt that Daivd paid four fold for his follies, his sins. However, it is also true that he was still a man after God's own heart, and he got a promotion. Peter called David "The Patriarch."(Acts 2:29. God is not only the God of the Black and the White; He is also the God of the greatest degree of ambiguity tolerance as a method of developing His own purposes in our lives and destinies and characters.

Jimmie Don Willingham

commented on Apr 8, 2013

Well, I have preached on David and his adultery with Bathsheba and his murder of Uriah the Hittite, the sermon being titled, Pay Day Today, a take off on a more famous message by Dr. R.G. Lee, Pay Day Someday. There is no doubt that Daivd paid four fold for his follies, his sins. However, it is also true that he was still a man after God's own heart, and he got a promotion. Peter called David "The Patriarch."(Acts 2:29. God is not only the God of the Black and the White; He is also the God of the greatest degree of ambiguity tolerance as a method of developing His own purposes in our lives and destinies and characters.

Sarah Chapman

commented on Apr 8, 2013

Thank you for such a thoughtful article.

Rodney Shanner

commented on Apr 8, 2013

I must agree with David Buffaloe. I do not see Christ comforting someone in their sin-and this act reflects the sin of lawlessness addressed in I John 3. Jesus does sympathize with our weaknesses (the the history of abuse in this case) according to Hebrews 4. But that does not mean lawlessness goes unrebuked.

Bill Williams

commented on Apr 8, 2013

@Robert, you say that you do not see Christ comforting someone in their sin. I find it difficult to believe that you have never come across John 8. True, lawlessness does not go unrebuked. But Christ does not withhold his comfort from us, even when we are in our sin ("Neither do I condemn you"). Remember, the woman had just been caught in the act of adultery. And there is no indication in the text that she was repentant. And still, Jesus gives her tremendous comfort, while at the same time inviting her to live a better life ("Go and sin no more"). Rebuking the sin and comforting the sinner are not mutually exclusive tasks. I have no reason to doubt this woman's testimony that even as she was about to undergo an abortion, she experienced Christ's comfort. And it is certainly consistent with what we find in Scripture.

Benjamin Pine Lampad

commented on Apr 9, 2013

I agree with the author and to Jimmie Don Willingham,perhaps its time for us to accept that we are in the latter days, where in the knowledge increase, no need to elaborate with this,and we should not be too biblistic (legallistic)either yet forgetting the true essence of grace which GOD alone understand,i can identify my self with the woman and with her painful past,yet with hope and faith believing GODs redemption daily in our lives..king Daid and st. Paul is my bible hero not mentioning our LORD JESUS CHRIST our awe due..

Benjamin Pine Lampad

commented on Apr 9, 2013

I agree with the author and to Jimmie Don Willingham,perhaps its time for us to accept that we are in the latter days, where in the knowledge increase, no need to elaborate with this,and we should not be too biblistic (legallistic)either yet forgetting the true essence of grace which GOD alone understand,i can identify my self with the woman and with her painful past,yet with hope and faith believing GODs redemption daily in our lives..king Daid and st. Paul is my bible hero not mentioning our LORD JESUS CHRIST our awe due..

Tony Stephens

commented on Apr 9, 2013

Too much ambiguity in the article. I come away wondering about the Lord I serve. I know He forgives sin, and comforts the sinner, but if that was the Real Jesus He would have encouraged her not to proceed with the procedure! However, I am glad that she has been able to find her way back to Christ through it all.

Mark Pittman

commented on Apr 9, 2013

Jesus always seems to turn up where he shouldn't be, talking to people he shouldn't be with, doing things some thought he shouldn't do (Matthew 9:9-13; Mark 7:1ff; Luke 19:1-10; John 4: 1-42). So, I find no need to defend him here. When I was in trouble, my earthly father came and stood by me, he did not have to say a word. Though I thought I knew then, and I only fully realized later the depth of his broken heart for me. How much more might one tortured broken woman have learned from the Master's touch and gaze? What wonders about forgiveness and grace does she now share? Johnathan, a great insight into following the God who went to a cross. Your friend's life is a wonderful living parable. Jesus is Lord. I see no hint of tolerating sin there, just a reminder that Jesus does not do things the way we think he should. When there is a conflict, I suspect the fault in interpretation is ours.

Bill Williams

commented on Apr 9, 2013

@Tony, the problem with speculating about what the "Real Jesus" would or would not do in a certain situation is that it does not take into account what God said, that his ways are not our ways, and his thoughts are not our thoughts. Read the Gospels again, and you will find on every page Jesus doing things that the people did not expect! Saying that the Real Jesus would've done this or would've done that runs the risk of turning Jesus into OUR image. Sadly, I suspect that THAT is the Jesus most of us worship--one that never surprises us, never offends us (although it certainly offends those who disagree with us, we tend to like THAT part), one that does exactly as we do and thinks exactly as we do. But that is not the Real Jesus, at all. In the situation in question, the proof is in the fruit. The lady returned to Christ, and returned to ministry. And she directly credits the experience of Jesus' comfort, even in the midst of having an abortion, as part of the reason for why she was ultimately healed. Who are we to dispute that that was not the Real Jesus in that experience. In fact, sounds like just the kind of thing the Real Jesus would do!

Charles Ingwe

commented on Apr 13, 2013

Not that I disagree with the case of grace but only that scripture tells us to judge every revealation with scripture. This being the case of avoiding error. My trouble is not in Christ conforting my sister but in Christ conforting her whilst in the act of going ahead with the abortion. The forgiven prostitute was brought to christ after the act and christ taught restoration, but could christ have conforted her to go ahead and do the act of sexual immorality if he had found her about to commit the sin? Is that truthfully what grace is? Is there no danger in what we are trying to justify? I think scripture in itself is sufficient to make us live at peace after confession without trying to make people accept our confessed position by bringing out divine visitations rest we error in positioning when the visitation took place, before or after the sin. When we confess we need not worry about what people may think of us after. I guess my sister although saying she was free and healed was still worrying about the acceptance of that by people around her. We confess heartly and move on in his grace.

Sarah Chapman

commented on Apr 13, 2013

Ok so I'll be the one to look like a jerk but it IS possible that maybe she wasn't about to do something terrible and heinous. Until just about a generation ago, the Biblical position of most educated and spiritual Christians was the life begins at the first breath. In the Levitical code - the MOST restrictive and judgmental part of the Bible - a clear distinction is made between the punishment for murder and the punishment for causing the death of an unborn child. I'm not saying abortion is OK but what I am saying is that perhaps it is not as black and white as we make it out to be and in that ambiguity is where Christ lives.

Bill Williams

commented on Apr 13, 2013

@Charles, I'd like to clarify a few points from the article. You asked if Christ could have comforted the woman of John 8 to go ahead and do the act of sexual immorality if he had found her about to commit the sin? And of course, everyone would agree that the answer is No. But that is not what the lady from the article relates. She did not claim that Christ comforted her to go through the abortion. She simply claimed that his presence was there. He comforted her "wordlessly." Perhaps she was incapable of hearing his voice at that moment. Or perhaps, Christ choose not to say anything because he knew her mind was already made up. Either way, his comforting presence should not be interpreted as approval for her subsequent action, nor do I sense that that is her purpose in relating the story. Although your concern is fair, I don't think she was trying to justify her abortion. And think about it this way: is not Christ present with his children ALWAYS! EVEN when we are engaging in sin? So, it is obvious from Scripture that Jesus truly WAS present with her in that moment. And if she experienced that presence in a real way, and was comforted by it, why is that a bad thing? What would we expect Christ to do at that moment, make himself invisible to her, so that she would not be comforted? Such an idea is hardly consistent with Scripture! The other point I wanted to make was that the lady did not claim to be free and healed at the moment she felt Christ's comforting presence. What she claimed was that it was Christ's comforting presence at that moment that allowed here to be healed eventually, in time. Again, let us look at the fruit: She was eventually reconciled with God and with her family, she is now involved in ministry, and she regrets the decision she made. Why are some so hesitant to credit God with any of this? Just because she did not make the ideal decision in the short term? That's the point of this article. We do not live in an ideal world. Not right now. Yes, there is clear right and clear wrong, but sin has so distorted our spiritual perception that, on this side of God's Kingdom, there will always be some level of ambiguity that we have to struggle with. And it's good to know that God understands that and that he is merciful and patient with us.

Bill Williams

commented on Apr 13, 2013

@Sarah, by no means do you look like a jerk! You are right to point out that there is no unanimous consensus among the Christian church as to when life begins. Although I imagine most commenting on this forum have a more conservative understanding regarding this issue, there are some of us who are willing to hear the perspectives of those who understand the issue differently. So, thank you for your contribution!

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