I was talking with a friend the other day who said she feels silly when she thinks about Jesus being God. She just can’t believe it. I’m probably alone in this, but sometimes I don’t think of the right thing to say in the moment. If I could go back I might ask her what she means by believe.
I’m a pastor, and I spend a significant amount of time every week building relationships with people who will never walk through the door of my church. It’s something I do because it reminds me that I don’t work for a church. My purpose is to serve God and my fellow humans whenever I have an opportunity. I also find that once people know you aren’t just there to recruit them, they open up about what it is really like to live as humans in this crazy, broken, beautiful, baffling place called earth.
Belief is a tricky thing, at least in our modern understanding. We tend to look through post-enlightenment lenses at words and concepts formed in a first-century context very different from our own. What did it mean when Paul said, “If you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord, and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved,” and how do we lay aside our cultural biases to find out?
For some in the church, belief points to certainty and doubt is the end of faith.
I grew up in a strange mix of Evangelical subculture nested within the tradition of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). On one hand, we were listening for God’s present teaching. On the other hand, we were holding tightly to inerrancy and a closed canon. There’s a cognitive dissonance there that I may explore in another post sometime, but what it means to this discussion is that I accepted rhetoric equating belief with certainty.
Beyond intellectual assent, certainty requires that you do not doubt at all. Losing faith literally means losing one’s salvation. Yet, it opens the door to a distorted version of faith that requires no trust. Everything is proven—and provable—beyond a shadow of a doubt.
Practically that meant I expected all of my questions to be answered directly from the Bible. It was a manual I could consult and find THE solutions to any problem I was facing. It is the real life application of the caricature of Evangelical faith we see in pop culture. I was that girl.
Life didn’t leave me in that space. I have grown. God has been present with me in devastating moments of pain in which I felt and expressed everything condemned by those who declare that doubt is slander against a good God. I doubted. I slandered. God was good and present and grace-filled, like always. In my doubt, God’s faithfulness became the foundation of my faith.
When a friend says, “I can’t believe that,” it is vital for me to ask what she means by belief. There is more than my childhood understanding of certain faith. Belief can be finding beauty in a tradition and a story, and whether you can accept the accounts as factual beyond all doubt or not, choosing to place your trust in that tradition. Perhaps it is more about walking a certain path, doubts and questions in tow, hoping that the God of the universe can meet you on your journey. Quite possibly, belief most simply can go hand in hand with a desire to believe and a prayer that God will help your unbelief.
Whatever belief may entail, here are some things we should avoid communicating to ourselves and the world:
Belief is understanding. I don’t know how God created the universe, to grasp that would be to have the power of creation myself. I also don’t understand how electricity works, but I frequently flip on light switches.
Belief is never doubting. Even Jesus felt abandoned on the cross. Enough that he prayed words from a Psalm expressing his pain, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” It wasn’t a reflection of his reality–God was present in that very moment, but it was what he was feeling. No one in the Bible is ever struck down for honest expression of their questions, and God often answers requests for proof. Gideon, John the Baptist’s father Zechariah, the religious leaders questioning Jesus’s ability to forgive sins all received miraculous signs to quell their doubts.
Belief is unchanging. If we look at the biblical text, we often find people whose beliefs shift and change over the course of their story. In my own life, belief has changed with my understanding of my circumstances, and as I learn more about the Bible and Church history. A change in belief does not indicate that belief was not there before, or that belief is somehow gone, many times it has merely grown up.
I hope I have another shot at that belief conversation with my friend. It would be great to talk about what belief means to her, and whether a shift in her definition might open the door for her to explore in a different way what it means to be a disciple of Jesus.