Professor says uncertainty is a gift

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BYU math education professor Amy Tanner speaks at a devotional on Tuesday, July 9. (Addie Blacker)

BYU math education professor Amy Tanner spoke to students about “the gift of uncertainty” during a devotional on Tuesday, July 9. 

“Perhaps strangely, in a church where from a very young age we learn to say the words, ‘I know,’ the thing I am most certain of in this life is that we do not know all things,” she said. 

Tanner provided five ideas to show that “uncertainty can be every bit as much a gift as knowledge.”

There are different ways of knowing

To expound on this idea, Tanner shared a few simple “I know” statements, including, “I know that two plus three equals five” and, “I know that on a clear day, the sky is blue.”

Tanner explained that while each statement uses the term “I know,” the way she knows each of these things is different.

“If I assume that knowing God is like knowing that two plus three equals five, and then I experience something that conflicts with my understanding, I have to go back to the drawing board with all of arithmetic,” she said. “But if knowing God is more like knowing the color of the sky, apparent conflicts with my current understanding have the potential to expand, rather than shatter, my view.”

Sometimes we are wrong about what we know

Tanner shared a story about her young daughter, who, when asked by Tanner to let their dog inside the house after he barked, responded by saying he wasn’t outside.

Tanner, because she was working on her devotional address about knowledge, asked her daughter if she really knew the dog was not outside. She said she knew he wasn’t outside.

Tanner then got up and let the dog inside, much to her daughter’s surprise. Tanner said that when we know something, we hold onto that knowledge as tightly as we can, even if we are mistaken.

“Accepting that we may not know what we think we know does not mean we need to let go of all certainty or conviction,” she said. “Rather, openness to being wrong can be a humble position of faith where ‘hope for things which are not seen’ can flourish as we allow ourselves to accept that there are things which are not seen to us.”

The God of Lost Things does not answer every question

Tanner said when she was young she believed in “the God of Lost Things,” because several times she lost something she needed and found it after praying for help. Tanner said recently her young son said a simple prayer to help find their keys which had been lost for days, and which they found immediately after.

“A difficulty most of us face as we grow from childhood faith to adult faith is the question of why God would answer a prayer for lost keys, but not answer prayers that are far more consequential — prayers about major life decisions, prayers for answers to perplexing questions, prayers for healing and recovery from terrible illness, prayers for peace in a world beset by tragedy,” she said. 

An answer to prayer about lost keys can be a message of love from our Heavenly Parents, Tanner said.

“This life is not the time for us to receive all answers, nor is it the time for everything to be made right. Sometimes, God will reveal His will to us, but many times we are required to move forward in uncertainty,” she said. 

“Embracing uncertainty is hard, but at some point in our lives it is the only thing we can do,” she said.

God can turn our stones to light

Tanner recounted the story of the Brother of Jared, who followed the Lord’s instructions to make barge. Since no light could enter through the sealed vessels, the Brother of Jared approached the Lord, expecting an answer, but the Lord didn’t tell him exactly what to do. The Brother of Jared decided to collect 16 stones, which the Lord then touched to light the vessels.

“In embracing the uncertainties of life and moving forward in spite of knowing that all might not turn out as we would hope or like, we create our own stones for the Lord to touch and turn to light,” Tanner said.

Tanner said that as a teacher, she spends much time planning, but her best lessons are those that invite “an element of uncertainty,” where she nor her students know what they will say or how they will approach a particular problem.

“It is at the cusp of uncertainty that the real magic happens,” she said. “God, as the master teacher, would certainly allow for that uncertainty in his lesson plans for our lives. And it is as we let go of our need for knowledge and certainty that God can step into our lives in his expansiveness and work true miracles.”

God is bigger than we know, but God knows us

Tanner said when we are willing to make space for uncertainty in our lives, we can draw closer to God.

“To me, it is a beautiful mystery that I can fail to fully comprehend God, but that nevertheless, in my own incomprehension, I can feel that I have some understanding of God’s infinite love for me,” she said. “I also believe that God knows us completely — that in our uncertainty we can accept God’s love for us as certain and constant. We may not know how God will turn our stones to light, but we can have hope that God will turn our stones to light. 

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