The Need for Certainty, Structure and a World that Has Meaning
Psalm 40 January 19, 2020
Rev. David J. Clark
We are created in the image of a God who brings order out of chaos. It’s no surprise that psychologists tell us that we are born with an innate need for a certain amount of certainty, and structure. We also need some sense of a large perspective, a worldview or a framework that helps us interpret what is happening around us. We want to know the rules about how life works. Fortunately, faith has a lot to provide us to meet these needs.
Last week we talked about the need for validation and attention and how it’s important to recognize how much of you need and how much those around you may need. There’s a continuum. It’s like our topic today. Some people are mostly free flowing and others need a high degree or structure, order. They plan, they try to think of every contingency and must know what to expect. And when things don’t work out as they were planning, they’ve been known to freak out.
If you have a person in your life with an ultra-high need for control, it’s good to remember that it is often rooted in a need to feel safe, secure, settled, where things are predictable. Realize that for them they may have had something happen that taught them surprise, change, interruptions are unsettling, and this is how they cope to feel safe, secure.
The Need for Order and Structure
Whether you are high or low on the continuum, we all have a certain need for order and structure. We are children of a universe built on laws of physics. These laws give life a certain dependable framework. You put your foot down and the floor supports you–we need things we can count on. Structure makes us feel safe, secure. It gives us space to think and live and relax.
We realize that children need structure to learn and organize their thoughts and guide their behavior. They thrive with structure and languish without it. I feel for parents though. What’s the right amount of structure? Too little, kids don’t grow into their potential, too much they accuse you of being a helicopter parent and ruining their lives. What’s the right balance for learning and getting to explore the world and who you are in it?
A friend of mine was commenting about how you can tell how chaotic her life is by looking at her desk. “Ah, the more chaos, the more cluttered the desk?” I asked.
“You would think,” she said. “Our outer life is a mirror of what’s going on inside us, and all that. But for me, it’s the opposite. When life spins out of control and I feel overwhelmed, it eases me to focus can control. I clean off the piles on my desk. Erase them one by one. It’s my little coping mechanism. Tackle something small first.”
I’m wondering if you do something similar. When our worlds break apart, when there is too much chaos, we instinctively get hyper-involved in some project. Clean something. Fix something. Focus on something we can control. One might alphabetize spice rack in order to avoid thinking about something else, or simply grab the remote control.
Sometimes it happens subconsciously. Eating disorders and a lot of other behavioral disorders begin this way. We feel overwhelmed and feel a loss of control so we engage in things we can control. Often it comes at a time of grief when we lose someone, or something ends that causes a disruption in our normal. With the sense of things out of control we might think, I can control how much food I eat, how much exercise how much I work, how much I drink. It works–until it doesn’t. It becomes a constant to distraction that makes life even more unmanageable. Often, we reach for activities or products that promise to numb us and distract us from the chaos.
The Order and Structure Faith Provide
Our faith recognizes this need for certainty, structure and a world that has meaning. The first lesson we learn about God in the creation story is that God brings order out of chaos. In the beginning, the waters covered the earth. In many cultures in the ancient world, the sea did not represent fun and relaxation. It was a symbol of chaos, danger. In Genesis 1, God brings order out of chaos. Creating land. The point of Genesis 1 wasn’t to write a scientific textbook but to make a faith claim that ours is a creating God who brings order out of chaos.
In the New Testament, the disciples are out on a boat and a storm rages and stirs up the sea. The waves threaten to overtake them. And Jesus calms the sea. It happened twice. In one of the episodes, he even walks on the water. The disciples marvel that Jesus is one who can bring peace amid chaos. The point is to trust in the one who has brought us safe thus far.
Use your faith to find that peace that surpasses all understanding. That even when the waves are crashing in on you there is a sense that they won’t overtake you. We ride in the boat of a captain who’s got us.
Rules–guardrails or weapons?
Faith provides our need for structure in other ways, too. We have commandments. In the Bible, after they escaped from slavery in Egypt, God gave the Hebrew people guidance on how to comport themselves so that they wouldn’t slip into the kind of domination and abuse of power that characterized life under Pharaoh in Egypt who made life miserable for everybody. The commandments say, “Don’t be like that! Be better than that. Be fair. Live right.”
There are many places in scripture that give thanks for this moral guidance, for the law. We have a sense of right and wrong. Boundaries, guardrails on the highway of life.
The wisdom literature found in the middle of the Bible–like in the book of Proverbs is a book of observations about what makes for a meaningful and good life. It’s kind of a list of “Do this, don’t do that” guidance for a well-lived life. Don’t gossip, tell the truth, work hard but don’t forget to take time to enjoy what God has provided, be humble, look for the needs of others. Do these things and most of the time for most people things will go smoothly. It gives order.
With Psalm 40 we can delight in what we have received—the wisdom and guidance. Yet there is also a recognition that the stuff in there can be abused. Instead of guardrails, the law is often weaponized to judge, shame and exclude. It can be applied too rigidly, especially when one group of people use it to condemn another group. Religion also turns abusive and ugly when people use it to try to control every facet of someone else’s life. It suffocates and heads in the opposite direction of its intention.
Jesus saw this and tried to make it liberate. The two great commandments, he said, are to love God and neighbor as self. Everything else hangs on this. If it’s not loving–don’t do it.
Faith gives us a secure spot, something we can return to feel reassured, safe. With this secure place in our lives, we can engage in the rest of the week and live boldly. God has got you. Live life to the fullest, unafraid. God’s got you.
I think that is why we like this sanctuary. It feels safe. Traditional, like it has staying power.
How the Need for Certainty and Structure Can Ruin Everything
The challenge is not to get too comfy in the safe spot, lest it becomes a prison that keeps you from ever doing anything challenging.
Our need for the familiar, for something predictable and safe, can make us feel okay but limit our willingness to try new things or trap us in things that don’t give life. We will stay in a bad relationship or job or situation because it is familiar, we know what to expect, rather than risk the chaos of not knowing. There is that old saying, “The devil you know is better than the one you don’t.”
If your need for certainty and safety and control is too high, you are going to spend much of your life very frustrated. You can’t control everything. If you are inflexible you set up impossible standards and will always feel disappointed and you’ll be a real drag for other people to be around. It’s off-putting to feel like you are always being judged. It’s especially hard one feels that you are trying to control just to make you feel most at ease. Often the easiest path is just to give in because the controller has more emotional attachment to it so you let it go, first one thing then another and so on. If you feel bulldozed by someone it’s important to realize where it is coming from—and set some boundaries where you can both flourish.
If you get too comfy, protect yourself with too much certainty you run the danger of wasting your life. Beds are cozy and comfy, but if you don’t get out and really dare and live you will have wasted it.
Faith is a step into trusting despite the unknown
Although faith provides structure and meaning it’s not certainty. Faith is always a risk, a step into the darkness, the unknown. That’s why it’s called faith. Often our faith calls us to get uncomfortable, to take risks. On this MLK Sunday, we are reminded that the world doesn’t get better on its own, it takes courageous people of faith to stand up for others, to stand for justice. Assurance God’s got you might help you live a better life. What would you do if you relied on God not just trusting in your own control but to say I couldn’t do this without God? What would we do as a church? Do we have the faith to try something that without God it would be impossible? Do we live out of our faith center by daring and risking greatly? That’s where the miracles and wonders of faith happen, the really good stuff when you really rely on God.
Or will we be content to play it safe? Same old, same old. We have a need for certainty, structure, and meaning. There are a lot of ways our faith helps us get what we need without putting us in straitjackets. Quite the opposite. It gives us that calm center from which we can act and be bold because we know we are in the hands of one who brings order out of Chaos.
Let’s end with He’s got the whole world in his hands. The harshest basin of the desert was called by the Spaniards the palm of God’s hand. Whatever hard place you are in or in you. Not alone. We can say with Paul in Romans 8. For I am convinced that neither life nor death…..