Faith: Something More Than Belief
As we think about faith today, I want to go to one of the most famous verses in all of Christianity, at least from the perspective of our society. It’s a verse that we see plastered on signs people are holding at sporting events. It’s a verse we put on ballcaps and t-shirts and cards that we send. It’s a verse that is known well simple by citing the name of the book, chapter and verse number. It’s a verse that many people say is their favorite in all the Bible. It’s a verse you probably memorized if you grew up in church.
You’ve probably guessed it by now: John 3:16
For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son that whosoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.
So, my favorite part of this verse is the beginning which tells us how God loved the world so much that God did something for us. But next paret of this verse is what Christianity most focuses on. It’s the believe part. And that is what I want us to think more deeply about today.
What does the word believe mean?
Here are some examples of how people use the word believe (I credit these examples from Marcus Borg in his book Speaking Christian):
- “I believe you” – Believing in this sense is what you do when you think someone is telling you statements that you agree are true.
- “I believe the weather will be nice tomorrow” – Here believing reflects uncertainty and tentativeness: I don’t really know, but I think the weather will be nice.
- “There are some things you can know, and other things you can only believe.” – In this example, knowing and believing are different. Believing is what you turn to when knowledge runs out.
- Marcus Borg says: “I use the word when I’m not sure. Like, if you asked me what the capital of Kansas is, and I can’t remember whether it’s Wichita or Topeka, I might say, ‘I believe it’s Topeka’—but I wouldn’t be sure.” – Here believe is similar to the weather example, but slightly different. This suggests that I cannot remember, but I used to know this, so I am thinking that the probability is good that my answer is correct.
In each of these examples, believing has to do with knowledge (what we know and don’t know) and certainty (how sure we are of what we do and do not know).
But this concept of belief is not the norm in terms of history. In fact, it is a fairly modern invention. One of the big factors that change our western culture’s concept of belief was the Enlightenment.
I like to use Renee Descartes famous axiom to describe the enlightenment: “I think therefore I am.”
The enlightenment was about thinking, knowing, observing, describing, predicting, explaining. It was about understanding truth in terms of observable, predictable, explainable facts. When people began translating this to their understanding of God, they looked at their statement about God and used the enlightenment model of observing, explaining and predicting. Statements about God should be proven to be true or false.
So, faith began to mean believing a set of statements about God, Jesus, and the Bible to be true.
The problem with this is that in the Bible belief and faith are not rooted in statements about God, or what we know or don’t know and how certain we are of that knowledge. Faith and belief, according the the biblical writers, is something different, something more.
What is faith? What is belief? Well, before we answer that we need to talk about something really big and something really small.
First, something big. What is the biggest thing you can think of?
Seriously, think about the biggest thing you can conceive of. If you keep going bigger and bigger, you’ll eventually get to the universe. The universe is the word for the biggest material thing known to humans.
Now, from the cells of our body which are not big enough to see individually with the eye to the immense ness of the universe, things are predictable and explainable. We see, observe, analyze, explain and know. From gravity to magnetism to photosynthesis, from speed to weight to size, from sound to color to texture to aroma, from solid to liquid to gas, from everything we can see and experience around us, it is all knowable, understandable, explainable. If you can think it, prove it, describe it, explain it, then it is real, factual, and true.
But here is what is so interesting: the smaller and smaller you begin to look, the tinier and tinier you begin to explore the world and the universe around us, the more unexplainable and unpredictable it becomes.
Back in the late 1800s, scientists discovered the atom. It was believed that these were the smallest indivisible units of creation. But then scientists discovered that atoms could be split into proton neutrons and electrons. Then they tried to split those protons, neutrons and electrons into smaller particles…and they were successful. Then they tried to split those particles into smaller ones….and they were successful. And they kept on splitting particles into smaller and smaller particles. And today we know about at least 150 subatomic particles.
But here’s the thing: these subatomic particles are mysterious. (I give complete credit to Rob Bell in his book What We Talk About When We Talk About God for these ideas and examples)
- Some exist for milliseconds. Some exists for billions and billions of years.
- A single electron can do forty-seven thousand laps around a four-mile tunnel—in one second. .
- Think about spinning around in a chair 360 degrees. That makes sense, we can explain it and repeat it. But particles have been discovered that don’t return to their original position after being spun 360 degrees; for that to happen you have to spin them twice.
- We have always thought electrons orbited a proton like a solar system. But now that scientists have developed more sophisticated technology to observe atoms, they have discovered that that is not the way it works at all. In fact, electrons appear and disappear around the nucleus at random without having traveled the distance between the place they disappeared and the place they reappeared.
- We call the science which seeks to understand this quantum physics. Pioneers in this field realized that particles are constantly in motion, exploring all of the possible paths from point A to point B at the same time. They’re simultaneously everywhere and nowhere. And it is only when you observe a particular moment in time that you can see any one particular path. (Sounds a bit like God, if you ask me…..present everywhere all at once but you can only see it when you take a snapshot in time to observe what it is doing.)
None of this makes sense. It’s mysterious. It’s unpredictable. It’s unexplainable.
So, what’s the point?
Well, as we have looked smaller and smaller into the very building blocks of the seeable knowable observable world, we are learning that this distinction between the material and immaterial, the knowable and the unknowable, between matter and spirit is not so clear after all.
And physicists such as Jeffrey Kruger when describing the search for these building blocks has said that science is beginning to “[grapple] with something bigger than mere physics, something that defies the mathematical and brushes up—at least fleetingly—against the spiritual.”
So, even scientists are realizing that science leads to spirituality, to God.
Or as author Rob Bell says:
The universe in its smallness presents us with a reality we simply don’t have any frame of reference for.
Our ideas cannot explain it. Our language cannot describe it. Our methods cannot predict it. Our minds cannot comprehend it.
The enlightenment declared that something was true if it could be known, understood and proven. So, does this mean science has exhausted its ability to explain the world because it has found so much that doesn’t make sense, that doesn’t conform to all the laws it has previously established?
Scientists have tended to believe that the material, physical world was true because it was knowable with certainty. It could be trusted. But things of the spirit, things of God, we’re not provable or knowable with absolute certainty. So you had to make a leap in order to trust that. A leap from trusting in something because you could be certain about it to trusting in something even without certainty. This leap began to be identified with faith and belief. You had faith – you believed something – in spite of observable, explainable, describable, predictable facts.
So you can see why today we think what we think about the words faith and belief. But it wasn’t always so…
In the Bible and premodern Christianity, faith and believing are not about affirming the truth of statements. They are not about proof, prediction or explanation based on certain knowledge.
Rather, faith and belief are about commitment, loyalty, and allegiance. Belief is not about commitment to a set of statements, but commitment to God as known especially in Jesus.
Belief is not so much about our ideas, our thinking, our knowledge, our intellect, our certainty or any of that kind. Belief is about a relationship. Christian Belief is about a relationship with Christ. And this is what the world is missing when it comes to faith.
As scholar and author Marcus Borg says,
Perhaps the best single synonym for ‘to believe’ is ‘to be-love.’
Faith as belief is about beloving God through a relationship with Jesus Christ. To have faith is not to believe as we typically think about it. To have faith is to belove. To belove God. To belove Jesus. But not only to belove, but to BE LOVE! To have faith is to be the love of Jesus.
The way we use believe today comes closest to the biblical notion when we talk about believing in one another. When I say I believe in you, it’s not about making a leap from the uncertain. It’s not about accepting truth in spite of evidence. No, when I say I believe in you it’s about trusting you because I have a relationship with you.
Let’s return now to John 3:16. Jesus says this verse in the context of a conversation with nicodemus.
He came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.” (John 3:2)
Nicodemus is rooted in believing statement about Jesus because signx can prove them. His idea of faith and belief appears very close to our modern, but misguided, notions.
Jesus answered him, “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” (John 3:3)
Jesus is taking about a relationship. Being born means having a relationship with the one who birthed you, in this case God. But Nicodemus doesn’t get it. He asks how can a person be born a second time.
So Jesus gets scientific with Nicodemus and says exactly what scientists are now discovering: that the line between the physical and the spiritual isn’t as clear as you think. Specifically Jesus uses water to talk about the physical (material and matter) and Spirit to talk about the spiritual (immaterial). Being born again means being born of both water and spirit. There is no line. They are mysteriously the same and true even if you cannot explain being born of both at the same time when you have already been born of your mother.
Jesus is asking nicodemus to wake up to something more than he can see or explain, to wake up to the God who is present in his life, to the God is is with him, to the God who related to him as Father and Mother, to the god who gave him life, who birth him from his mother’s womb.
To believe in Jesus is not to believe statements or comments or ideas about Jesus. To believe in Jesus means that you trust Jesus out of the depths of a relationship with him knowing that he is the kind of person that can be trusted. You cannot believe in Jesus without first developing a long relationship with Jesus. (Which is why I think those ABC prayers are so silly….most churches ask people to say they believe in Jesus when they are just barely getting to know Jesus! It’s crazy! You must cultivate a relationship with Jesus before you can trust hima and accept him. The relationship is key!)
So I say this: Try listening to Jesus. Try talking to Jesus. To some, cultivating a relationship with some who died and rose to heaven may sound or feel as crazy as an electron disappearing in one place and appearing in another place without traveling the distance between. But science says that is true even though it cannot be explained or make sense. So, if you can trust electrons to keep moving to keep the floor stable beneath your feet and the air flowing into your nostrils and your heart pumping, then perhaps you’ll be willing to take the time to get to know Jesus as well…even if you cannot explain how that relationship works.
After all, even scientist are realizing that the line between physical and spiritual isn’t really a line at all. So, maybe a spiritual relationship with Jesus isn’t altogether different from a physical relationship right here on earth. And maybe you’ll find that your spiritual relationship with Jesus has everything to do with your physical relationships right here, right now. And that is the start of something new, of something more in your life, something more than just belief, something more than the faith you thought you had.
Let me close with this: When you realize that what you have done for the least is what you have done for Jesus, then you begin to see that your relationship with Jesus does have everything to do with your relationships with other people. The way you treat others is the way you treat Jesus. If you speak bad of others, then you have spoken bad of Jesus. If you label, categorize, demonize, talk lowly of any person then you have done so of Jesus. But if you treat others well, then you are treating Jesus well and that is being love, that is beloving Jesus, that is believing in Christ, which as John 3:16 says leads to not perishing, but having eternal life.