Colloquially, English speakers often use two words to mean “indifference”: ambiguity and ambivalence. But if you consult a dictionary, neither of these words actually means a lack of feeling. Ambivalence means “having mixed feelings” while ambiguity signals a general “lack of clarity.”
Part of the confusion lies in how we often cope with both mixed feelings and uncertainty. In the first case, you can become indifferent as a way to resolve conflicting or paradoxical ideas. In the second, you can become indifferent because you can't identify your precise feeling about something. And when we feel overwhelmed or uncertain, it’s often easiest to simply ignore our feelings altogether.
It seems to me, however, that learning to live with the ambivalence of conflicting feelings and ideas is necessary for spiritual maturity—especially in an era when debates are raging and hot takes are abundant.
I recently reread the book of Lamentations and was struck by the prophet Jeremiah’s ambivalence. Recounting the Babylonian siege of Jerusalem in 586 B.C., the entire book is awash with emotion, gut-wrenching realities, and seemingly disparate truths.
For years, the people of Israel had rebelled against Jehovah, disobeying his commandments and “crush[ing] underfoot all prisoners in the land, to deny people their rights before the Most High, to deprive them of justice” (Lam. 3:34-36). Jerusalem finally succumbs to her enemies in judgment. The siege is so desperate that women are driven to consume their own children (Jer. 19:9) in an attempt to survive (Lam. 2:20).
Throughout the book, Jeremiah voices the agony of the people as well as his own.
He confesses and acknowledges that they have brought this upon themselves—but he also cries out for God’s mercy, claiming that their punishment is more than they can bear. Likening Jerusalem to a promiscuous woman, he sees her enemies as having taken advantage of her. She trusted people who abused and debased her, who inflicted pain and suffering on her.
What’s interesting to me, however, is that if anyone is pure in this situation—if anyone has the right to pronounce God’s judgement on Israel with a righteous, singular vision—it’s Jeremiah.
For years, he had warned his people that destruction was coming—and he was persecuted and imprisoned for it. But what you don’t get from Lamentations is the slightest whiff of triumphalism. There is no, “I told you so.” No, “Look what you’ve done” or “Well, this is what you get when you make certain choices.”
Part of the reason that Jeremiah’s lament is so powerful is because the point is not simply to assign guilt. The point of Lamentations is to confess and beg God for mercy. So rather than pointing his finger at others, Jeremiah counts himself among them, confessing sins that he himself did not commit. The result is a humble, complex, and deeply human response. It is also ambivalent, full of a multitude of conflicting feelings: lament, guilt, shame, repentance, longing, faith, and hope.
Jeremiah’s ability to live in the tension of seemingly disparate realities is one of the key features of a mature mind and spirit. In her book, Surprised by Paradox, Jen Pollock Michel writes,
“Allowing for paradox does not represent a weakened approach to theological understanding. On the contrary, it allows for a robust theology, one that is filled with the sort of awe that not only regards God as unimaginably wondrous but also awakens in us the desire… to see Him as He is.”
I’ve been thinking about all of this in light of the leaked draft of the Dobbs decision—which has the potential to overturn Roe v. Wade, the landmark Supreme Court case that enshrined abortion (including elective abortion) as a constitutional right. Many pro-life advocates are hailing this pending decision as the answer to decades of prayer, advocacy, and political will.
But other responses have been more complicated, and dare I say, ambivalent.
Consider these words, written anonymously, by a pro-life pastor whose daughter became pregnant after rape:
“There are many women, Christian and non-Christian alike, who have made the choice to preserve the life of the baby in the womb of their self-autonomy, who do not feel the euphoria of the political pro-life movement even though many of them strongly believe that the only wise choice is always life. Many even believe in some forms of legislation that shepherd women to the right choice, but they are not in the victory parade with politicians, activists, and moralists who believe a great conquest has happened.”
Pro-life Christians who feel ambivalent about the coming Dobbs decision are not indifferent. They do not see abortion as ambiguous or unclear. In fact, for many of them, things are exceptionally clear. They understand that we must continue to work for just laws and social ecosystems that support life. We must value women and unborn children alike.
But even as they recognize what is clear, they also recognize that clarity is not the same as simplicity. And thus, they inhabit the ambivalence of this moment, embracing a multitude of responses.
Grief over lives lost. Joy over lives saved. Shame over how often we adopted worldly means to reach certain ends. Anger over the misogyny that goes unchecked in both pulpits and the highest offices in the land. Resolve to work for a just society that values all human life from womb to tomb. And yes, even concern that new state laws will not be written carefully enough to protect women’s lives.
Like Jeremiah, we must acknowledge that all these disparate feelings and realities can be true at the same time. We must hold them in tension, refusing to opt for the easy resolution offered by either triumphalism or apathy.
We must also admit that we are part of something larger than ourselves. Because just as was true for the women of Jerusalem, the destruction of children is too often the result of larger, collective sins.
Thankfully, God’s faithfulness is greater than our complicity. While Lamentations models ambivalence, its core message is one of clear-eyed hope.
“My soul is downcast within me,” Jeremiah writes. “Yet this I call to mind and therefore I have hope: Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.” (Lam. 3:20-23)
If Christian public witness depended on our ability to preserve certain moral stances—or even on our ability to abide by them—it would be a very poor witness indeed. Our public witness does not rest on our own steadfast convictions.
Rather, a distinctly Christian public witness consistently points back to the faithfulness of God in spite of our moral failings. And in so doing, it teaches us that we can choose hard, counterintuitive things because of who he is.
The anonymous pastor—whose daughter chose life for her baby despite her rape—went on to describe the power of that decision. “[These women] found deep within themselves a humanity that was God-like, sacrificial, bold, and empowering. They chose to have a baby, to bring into the world a new creation. Out of their void, they would form something new.”
What she describes here is the way of the cross. It is the way of suffering, of laying down one’s life for another. It is the way of Jesus, and it is the way of Jeremiah.
Tradition tells us that Jeremiah suffered with his people. He was not removed or raptured away to safety. He was not even among the remnant carried off to Babylon with the promise that their descendants would return (Jer. 29:10-11). Instead, Jeremiah was imprisoned in Jerusalem, held under siege by the Babylonians, and eventually, forcibly removed to Egypt by his fellow countrymen. And there, we are told, he died.
Jeremiah died in exile without witnessing any clear resolution for the people of Israel. He died as he lived, in ambivalence—recognizing both what had been promised and what had yet to be fulfilled.
But he also died in hope. He died believing,
“The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him
The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord (Lam. 3: 24-26).”
Hannah Anderson is the author of Made for More, All That’s Good, and Humble Roots: How Humility Grounds and Nourishes Your Soul.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.