Lean Not on Your Own Understanding — Center for Action and Contemplation

By continuing to browse our site you agree to our use of cookies and our Privacy Policy.


See the schedule and event session details for the final CONSPIRE conference (Sep. 24 – 26)

Lean Not on Your Own Understanding


Lean Not on Your Own Understanding
Thursday, February 4, 2021

If you understand it, it is not God. —St. Augustine, Sermon 117 on John 1:1

God is Mystery and not any “thing” we can wrap our little brains around. Brian McLaren shares how he realized this during a time of deep doubt and perplexity in his life:

A verse I had memorized in my childhood came to mind: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and do not lean on your own understanding” [Proverbs 3:5]. For the first time, it dawned on me: there’s a difference between doubting God and doubting my understanding of God, just as there’s a difference between trusting God and trusting my understanding of God. Would I be able to doubt my understanding of God while simultaneously trusting God beyond my understanding? In a strange way, that question for the first time in my life allowed me to see God as a mystery distinct from my concepts of God. [1]

It’s wonderful to be blessed with such a clarifying insight! Yet, it sometimes takes a longer and more painful “dark night of the soul” to free us from our inadequate concepts of God. Author and Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor, another good friend, explains:

[John of the Cross] says that the dark night is God’s best gift to you, intended for your liberation. It is about freeing you from your ideas about God, your fears about God, your attachment to all the benefits you have been promised for believing in God, your devotion to the spiritual practices that are supposed to make you feel closer to God, your dedication to doing and believing all the right things about God, your positive and negative evaluations of yourself as a believer in God, your tactics for manipulating God, and your sure cures for doubting God.

All of these are substitutes for God, John says. They all get in God’s way. . . .

Yet it would be a mistake to attach the promise of more spiritual benefits to a night that is designed to obliterate them. Those who have come through dark nights of their own, not just once but over and over again, often cannot find the words to say why they would not trade those nights for anything. Yes, they were nights of great loss. Yes, the soul suffered from fearful subtraction. Yes, a great emptiness opened up where I had stored all my spiritual treasures, and yet. And yet what? And yet what remained when everything else was gone was more real than anything I could have imagined. I was no longer apart from what I sought; I was part of it, or in it. I’m sorry I can’t say it any better than that. There was no place else I wanted to be. [2] (italics in original)

Richard again: This description of the “dark night” as a gift can be misleading because such times of unknowing are almost always endured more than enjoyed. However, the experience of mystery, paradox, and not-knowing brings to our lives a rich and unexpected grounding.

[1] Brian D. McLaren, Faith After Doubt: Why Your Beliefs Stopped Working and What to Do About It (St. Martin’s Essentials: 2021), 92.

[2] Barbara Brown Taylor, Learning to Walk in the Dark (HarperOne: 2014), 145, 146.

Story from Our Community:
I live in an assisted living facility with my husband. I have been writing a haiku a day during the pandemic. The great unknowing / This 2020 vision. / Seeing with new eyes. —Juliana H.

Image credit: Ladder and Chair (detail), Photograph by Thomas Merton, copyright the Merton Legacy Trust and the Thomas Merton Center at Bellarmine University. Used with Permission.
Image inspiration: How do we look beyond what we think we already know? At first glance the shadow of chair and ladder may be confusing, but shapes and meaning begin to emerge upon a longer contemplation.
Join Our Email Community

Stay up to date on the latest news and happenings from Richard Rohr and the Center for Action and Contemplation.

HTML spacer