Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Believing Is Overrated

24“Everyone then who hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. 25The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. 26And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. 27The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!”
28Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, 29for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes.
Matthew 7:24-29

My friend Bill Flug sent me a story from The Times-Picayune about a former pastor telling the convention of the American Humanist Association how he became a nonbeliever.

Jerry DeWitt, the former pastor, said that his doubts grew gradually. First, he had trouble reconciling the concept of hell with the idea of a loving God. Then he began to doubt the reality of miracle healings, and eventually he doubted the literal understanding of the scriptures. The final break came when a friend called and asked him to pray for a family member. DeWitt said that he just couldn’t do it. And he knew that it was over.

Within the Pentecostal fellowship in which he served, those were critical failings. But in the larger context of Christian faith, there are plenty of Christians who do not believe in hell, believe that the truth of the Bible transcends a superficial literalism, and never did believe in a supernatural theism. The prayer piece might seem more problematic, but even there, the Apostle Paul said, “We do not even know how to pray . . . but the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs to deep for words.”

What struck me was the emphasis on Christians as “believers.”

In the closing verses of the Sermon on the Mount quoted above, Jesus tells his disciples about building their houses on rock. A common interpretation is that he is telling them to build their lives on the rock of faith, which is believing in Jesus. But that is not at all what he says. For Jesus, the rock that can withstand the storm is acting on Jesus’ words. The important thing is not believing, but doing. In the context of his teaching, the “storms” represent the difficulty of living in a way that is contrary to the violence and oppression of the Roman Empire.

The transition from “doers” to “believers” begins in the New Testament itself.

In the Gospels, the followers of Jesus are known as disciples, a term that extends beyond the twelve who are named. And they are also known simply as followers. After his crucifixion and resurrection, they are sometimes known as “Followers of the Way” (the “Way” is Torah) and they are eventually called “Christians,” but the most common designation in the Book of Acts is “believers.”

They were called believers because they believed his teachings and were living them out. We can see this in the descriptions of how they lived together and how others reacted to them. In one way or another, they had encountered the Risen Christ, and that encounter convinced them that his teachings were the way of truth. In a way that they could not explain, he had triumphed over the powers of darkness and injustice. This meant that they were called to live as he lived. The significance of their belief was that it called them to action.

Over the intervening centuries the existential commitment to follow Jesus has devolved into an abstract belief about him. Abstract belief was not what the Book of Acts described as “turning the world upside down.” The emphasis on believing allows us to make peace with almost anything.

A closing footnote: I could not read the article about that Louisiana pastor addressing the convention of the American Humanist Association without reflecting on the name of the group and its description. In the newspaper article the convention is described as a gathering of “atheists, agnostics, humanists and other nonbelievers.” I remember my friend Kent Moorehead saying on multiple occasions, “Isn’t every Christian necessarily a humanist?” You can be a humanist without being a Christian, but you cannot be a Christian without being a humanist. 


  1. OK, so what about John 3:16? How does that fit?

  2. Great question!

    The Gospel of John does have an emphasis on belief which is very different from what we see in the synoptics (Matthew, Mark and Luke). One can argue that in the last Gospel the focus shifts from doing to believing. But believing in the biblical sense, even in John’s Gospel, is not an abstract concept. To believe in Jesus, in the biblical sense, is to give one’s heart to him. When we live in him, he lives in us.

    The synoptic are focused on the Kingdom of God (on earth), and John’s Gospel is more focused on eternal life. But it is important to note that eternal life is not something that happens in the future; it is something that happens now, when we live into Jesus’ life. Eternal life is a metaphor for living now in the unending presence of God. In that sense it is analogous to experiencing the Kingdom of God among us.

  3. A different reply to Al: By the time of the Gospel of John the drift away from Jesus of Nazareth (and the compassionate egalitarian Kingdom Life he called followers to live) and toward accommodation to the classist oppression of Rome was well under way in the New Testament and the church it reflected... a drift that has only gained speed and unfaithful direction right up to the prsent day. Today's "believers" are quite likely to hate the poor, the disenfranchised, the hungry and those who are ill, and claim that their situations are merely their own fault - though some will go so far as to claim that such human (and humanly caused) calamity is in fact "God's will" - forgetting, of course, that the disadvantaged are exactly the ones Jesus cared about.

  4. Besides "believing" that this is a great blog, I'd like to thank you very much for the phrase: "(Many Christians) believe that the truth of the Bible transcends a superficial literalism".

    It is very sad to see how often folks hold up 1-2 bible verses in order to condemn others all the while refusing to see their own shortcomings.

    Thanks as always for so eloquently putting into words what many of us wish we could say as sweetly.