The Danger of Assurance

As a general rule we like confident and decisive people. We often respond negatively to the person who is wishy-washy or is afraid to make decisions or to take decisive actions. In American politics, the one charge that one must avoid is the charge of inaction. In fact, it seems we can even change convictions, provided that we state the new convictions forcibly enough. “He sounds like he knows what he’s talking about,” is a standard comment on the person who expresses himself with confidence and assurance.

Recently, I was interviewing a book author (Alden Thompson, Who’s Afraid of the Old Testament God?) and asked him about the word assurance. We were talking specifically about assurance in terms of salvation. He said, “I think assurance is a terribly dangerous thing.” After thinking about it, I agree with him.

I’m not talking about indecision and inability to take necessary actions. Rather, I’m talking about that confidence of success that often makes people forget to complete the necessary work. Those of us who teach see it regularly in our students. A confident student sometimes fails to complete all the work because he or she was so sure he could complete it easily. Arrogant students think they don’t need to study or listen, because they already know the subject better than the teacher.

In the Bible we have a couple of interesting comments on overconfidence. First, Proverbs 9:9:

“Give instruction to the wise, and they will become wiser still; teach the righteous and they will gain in learning.” (NRSV)

And a challenging comment from Paul: (NRSV)

“Anyone who claims to know something does not yet have the necessary knowledge;” (1 Corinthians 8:2 NRSV)

Jesus spoke to those who are arrogant in judgment when he said, “Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?” (Matthew 7:3 NRSV)

What are the characteristics of assurance that are so dangerous? How can we distinguish arrogance from confidence and decisiveness, which are so often useful qualities?

I have a few suggestions.

  1. Confidence presents itself for examination; arrogance expects to be accepted without examination. The arrogant person expects that people will accept any statement simply on authority, without examining the evidence. Often, the arrogant person does not present, and will not present any evidence, arguments, or references. “How can you possibly question me,” he asks. “I have truth.”
  2. Confidence is based on knowledge that has been tested by questioning; arrogance is based on knowledge that is assumed without adequate skepticism. To know a subject well, one must question each and every step of one’s reasoning and ask, “Is this valid? Is it based on a valid foundation?” If one cannot say a confident “yes” to both of those questions, one should match tentative speech with tentative conclusions. God creates by simple command, so His word is certain.
  3. Confidence respects the listener; arrogance tries to overwhelm the listener with the force of personality, not the force of arguments. The confident person engages in dialogue, choosing to present arguments which activate the other person’s thinking process, rather than trying to bully the person and overwhelm their own judgment.
  4. Confidence can handle a change of opinion; arrogance sees being mistaken as a body blow to one’s own assurance. Even when it is painfully obvious that an arrogant person has changed opinions, he or she may forcefully deny it.
  5. Confidence produces an active, but relaxed approach to knowledge; arrogance produces a dangerous lethargy. Thinking that one knows everything there is to know, or that one has attained the final goal, will result in carelessness. There is an assumption that one need not strive for new heights, and one certainly need not truly question past positions. The goal has already been reached.

Because I work as a Bible teacher, I am often questioned on this point. Shouldn’t Christians be confident? Don’t we know we have the truth? Aren’t we sure we’re right with God? What is there to discuss when one is merely presenting the truth? I believe that this is a misunderstanding of our status of Christian believers.

Precisely because we believe we can be confident in our relationship with God, we should find no need of arrogance. Because we believe that God is the creator of all, we should have the ultimate respect for the mental integrity and will of others. If we are leading someone to God, it should be a process of dialogue, not one of mental manipulation or overpowering. We should desire that person’s understand what they are doing when they make a decision to be a Christian, and that the decision was informed, and not forced in any way. Overwhelming a person emotionally is just as wrong as overwhelming that person physically.

But as Christians we should also be very careful of misuse of assurance. I certainly think it is possible to have assurance that God loves us, and that we are in a relationship with God. But what about the absolute assurance of an eternal reward. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven” (Matthew 7:21 NRSV). Paul said, “I want to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and the sharing of his sufferings by becoming like him in his death, if somehow I may attain the resurrection from the dead. Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own” (Philippians 3:10-12 NRSV, emphasis mine). It’s from this statement that my wife and I named our daily devotional radio program: “Running Toward the Goal”.

I think this places our spiritual life in a situation very similar to that of our physical life. If I assume that I have graduated, when I haven’t completed the classwork, I may fail. If I assume that my behavior is ethical, when I haven’t actually thought it through thoroughly, I may be much less well-behaved than I think. If I assume that I have the TRUTH now, I may miss the new truth that is lying just around the corner, whether that new truth is a spiritual idea or a fact about the physical world.

Let’s look for true confidence, avoid arrogance, and always keep on learning!