The Scriptures teach us that we are saved by faith. All it takes is true belief, but what is belief? I heard about Jesus → I believed in Jesus → I’m a Christian. Simple concept, right? Over my relatively short Christian life, I’ve been wrestling with what faith really is, and where it truly comes from, or why it develops. In my reflections I continually challenge myself with two questions. These questions are reality checks, and they’re not easy to answer. People answer them in different ways. Meditating on these questions is a necessary battle for the Christian (and the reverse of these may be even more important for the unbeliever). These questions are difficult because they seek to answer that which we cannot see with our eyes and require intense spiritual reflection. I’ve experienced that deep reflection on the nature of my belief has humbled me, corrected me, and intensified my awe in God. The questions are:
Why do I really believe? Why don’t others believe?
Are you a Christian? Why do you believe in Jesus? Is it because someone told you about hell and scared you into it? Is it because you grew up in a Christian family? Are you pressured to stay in it? Do you just prefer the morality of the Christian faith and hold on to it for that reason? Are you biased towards it? Have you seen some sort of miracle? Would you be a Christian if you were the only one in the world? What is it inside you that motivates you to hold on to such an identity? Why do you believe?
As a Christian, have you ever wondered why others don’t believe? Are they just uninformed? Are they biased the other way? Are they products of mainstream culture? Did their upbringing pressure them away from Christian faith? Are they too educated? Are they not educated enough? Are they closed-minded? Are they stubborn?
Perspectives on Belief
As I’ve thought about it, I figure the simplest way to understand the nature of belief is to separate it into levels. There are a multitude of perspectives held by believers and unbelievers alike.
If you ask an unbeliever why Christians believe the things they believe, you might get a variety of answers. They’d probably say something like, “It gives them emotional comfort to believe in a God or a heaven” or “they were force-fed it from youth and have trouble leaving it.” Faith is primarily seen as an arbitrary attachment brought about by less than ideal circumstances.
If you ask a Christian why they believe the things that they believe, you also might get a variety of answers. Most of them are a mixture of external influence, emotional experience, and intellectual reasoning. Personally, the first and third factors were (I used to think) the biggest reasons for why I was a Christian. Seeing Christians live life around me reinforced in my mind that “this was the right way.” For most of my childhood and teen years, I was really big into Christian apologetics, the rational defense of belief in Jesus. I still am. Because of this, I figured that true reason and perfect logic will inevitably lead to belief in Christ and a life mirrored after God’s morality. I always asked myself those two previous questions, and reason was the answer, until it wasn’t.
Saved by Reason?
I thought intellectual reasoning was the ultimate answer for why I believe, and why others should believe. I thought, “if they just studied enough, if they just reflected enough, they would believe too.” After some years, this mental framework I set up completely fell apart. It fell apart for three reasons. (1) I encountered plenty of logical people who didn’t see the Gospel as convincing, such as Biblical experts much smarter than I am. (2) I learned that I am not as rational as I thought I was. (3) And most importantly, the Scriptures point to something else entirely.
Discovering that further study, further education, and further reasoning does not cause people to necessarily believe in Jesus was devastating. I was shell-shocked. I realized I could not prove my faith. Yes, I can point to a multitude of factors that I’d say reinforce it. But I can’t prove it. I can’t prove that God exists. I can’t prove that Jesus was God. And yet, I didn’t need to. At first, this realization crippled me, it humbled me, but then it led me to further reflection on the nature of belief and further study of the BIble, bringing me closer to understanding what belief is.
Also, I realized that I’m not the rational person that I think I am. I learned that in various situations I’m a product of my environment and my feelings, despite having complete intellectual awareness of it all. I learned that people aren’t as rational as they appear to be. As Paul says, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15 ESV). Paul’s own will and actions confused him because he encountered and observed the warring within the core of his will. Only after seeing my own irrationality, I began to see why logic and reasoning is not the ultimate cause of faith. I began to see that there are totally reasonable people who believe and totally reasonable people who don’t. I began to see that there’s something deeper that affects the will.
The Root of Belief
Reasoning isn’t the root of belief. It’s certainly a part of it, from the outside. Just as is emotion and environment. But as I’ve learned none of these things are the root of belief. Think of a Formula One race car. The wind resistance, the aerodynamics of the frame, and the engine itself are all connected to the vehicle’s movement. And yet, it is the driver inside moving and directing the car. It seems to be the same with faith. There are external, emotional, and logical factors seemingly causing the workings of faith, and yet there is something deeper, a driver, that causes the engine to roar and the vehicle to navigate its environment. What then, is the driver, in the belief of a Christian?
Jesus said, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29 ESV). Not long ago, I would have pulled my hair out at this verse. If faith was based only on reason, this verse wouldn’t make sense. What does Jesus mean, “Blessed are you who have not seen and believed?” (Fore more on this see A Beauty Unseen). What kind of reasoning is that? What kind of logic is that? What if the Muslim god said that? Should I believe in him without seeing?
The reason Jesus says this, is because the battle of belief isn’t primarily an intellectual battle. It’s not a matter of choosing between narratives told by secular society or religious sects. It’s a matter of choosing between the self and God. The Bible makes clear, that the root of faith is the condition of the heart. The condition of our heart will move the scale either toward self or God. And it’s a sad reality that without God, we always choose self. In order for us to believe, or for the car to move, the driver of the heart must be the Spirit of God. Paul says, “no one can say ‘Jesus is Lord’ except in the Holy Spirit” (1 Corinthians 12:3 ESV). Obviously Paul doesn’t mean literally saying those words. Anyone can say them. But to say them with true belief is more than speaking, more than intellect, more than decision, more than emotion. It is the workings of the Holy Spirit. I thought I was a Christian because of my reasoning and my background. In reality, it was the Holy Spirit settling in my heart and working alongside these other factors.
When discussing this issue, I fear coming across as arrogant—that somehow I’m a better person than you (unbeliever) because my will chooses God. But I confess to you, openly, my will is broken. My heart is broken. My flesh desires its own good, its own autonomy, its freedom. And it is only by the grace of God that I can see that my heart will destroy me if I leave it unchecked by God. I can’t reason this with you. I can’t prove it to you. As Lewis once wrote, you are in some sense alone with God. Only you know your heart. Only you know the depth of your desires, and whether your life by your autonomy has been satisfying them. Only you know whether your life is being lived as it ought—whether the legacy you’re going to leave is what it should be.
Reflect on your belief or lack of belief. If you feel the slightest hunch that you may be missing out on the greatest purpose of existence, allow yourself to be taught by God’s providence.
Getting back to the question, why do I really believe? If belief revolves around the condition of my heart in relation to God’s word, how do I acquire it? God explains in the Scriptures by giving us images of this process. The Scriptures refer to faith as sight. Sight of God’s glory, of God’s luminance, of God’s brilliance, of God’s light. It’s seeing something with spiritual eyes outside of this physical reality. Seeing God’s heaviness, weightiness, power, majesty, love, wisdom, and his other attributes expressed in some word, thought, emotion, experience, and perhaps even reason. It’s not physical sight. There are characters in the Bible who see Jesus do miracles, but they don’t see his glory. They recognize the supernatural, but reject the implications. I always say, the demons know a lot about Jesus, but they hate what they know. Seeing glory is relational. When you see God’s glory you’re immediately aware of his standing, of yours, and what behavior, thoughts, and words must follow. Jesus says it this ways,
Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:18 ESV)
Jesus says that those who don’t believe are already standing on the path of condemnation. How come though? What if they have good arguments for not believing? What if they haven’t seen any physical evidence? Jesus goes on:
And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. (John 3:19 ESV)
Jesus sees unbelief, and he condemns it. It feels harsh. But Jesus says, it’s not a logic issue. It’s not an emotional issue. It’s not an environmental issue. It’s a heart issue. Time and time again, the Scriptures teach us that it’s a heart issue. In the parable of the rich man and Lazarus (see Luke 16), the rich man asks Abraham to have someone come back from death and warn his brothers about their fate. Abraham replies by telling him that they’ve heard the message of Moses and the prophets, and if that didn’t convince them, neither would a resurrected person. How come? Faith rests on the sight of glory; the words of Moses and the prophets display the same glory that a miracle of God does. Don’t chase miracles. Look for his glory. Do you love darkness? Or do you love light? Do you see his glory? Are you drawn to surrender to it? Or do you cower from it. Do you run to the shade? God’s glory will either melt, or harden you. The same sun that melts wax hardens clay.
What are you made of? As humans, we are unable to change what we’re made of. But we’re able to see our state, and reach out to God to change our nature by showing us his glory.
Why don’t unbelievers believe? Paul says it this way,
In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. (2 Cor 4:4 ESV)
Search the Scriptures. Look for his glory. It’ll open your eyes. It’ll change your heart.
What can you ever really know of other people’s souls—of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. If there is a God, you are, in a sense, alone with Him. You cannot put Him off with speculations about your next door neighbours or memories of what you have read in books. What will all that chatter and hearsay count (will you even be able to remember it?) when the anaesthetic fog which we call “nature” or “the real world” fades away and the Presence in which you have always stood becomes palpable, immediate, and unavoidable? – C.S. Lewis (Mere Christianity)