On Tuesday, I was making some lasagna. Being the gourmet chef that I am, I was using plenty of canned goods for this lasagna, including some tomato paste. Now, my parents taught me from a plenty young age that you aren’t supposed to play with the lid of a can you just opened, because it often is quite sharp. After twenty-some years of knowing this and handling canned food, I had always thought I believed this sage advice. However, this particular Tuesday, the can opener had not severed the lid from the can completely, and I decided to try to pry it off with my bare hands. (Because sometimes I’m smart like that.)
And as you probably have guessed from the title, I cut myself pretty well. It didn’t even hurt much – it was quite the clean cut. But when it started to bleed profusely, I knew I had screwed up. (Don’t worry, I didn’t get any blood in the lasagna.) It wasn’t what I would call a “serious injury” or anything like that, but it was a bit of a nasty cut. It didn’t help that I had no band-aid on at one point and re-injured it, causing it to bleed again.
Romans 10:9 says “…if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (NIV) So, we are supposed to believe, if we are to be saved. That’s kind of a big deal. So what kind of belief are we to have?
Merriam-Webster* defines “believe” these ways:
- to accept as true, genuine, or real; to hold an opinion, to think
- to accept the word or evidence of
- to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of something
- to have a firm religious faith
I think all of the preceding definitions should be part of our belief in God. However, most of them can’t be singled out. The first definition: “to accept as true, genuine, or real; to hold an opinion, to think”, basically means we agree with something. We say “I believe X” and we mean “I think X is true” or “it is my opinion that X is really the case”. This is part of what it means to believe in God – to agree with the statement that God is real, that Jesus really was a man and yet God. However, James 2:19 says “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” So, agreement is not enough.
The second definition: “to accept the word or evidence of” is when we believe (in the first sense) what somebody else says. Someone says/writes something, and we accept it as true, genuine or real.
The third definition: “to have a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of something” is the one that rings truest to me in the bible’s usage. Take good old John 3:16: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” If we replace “believe” with it’s definition: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever has a firm conviction as to the goodness, efficacy, or ability of him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That, however wordy, sounds correct to me. It really sounds like we do more than agree that He’s good, but also trust that he is good.
The fourth definition: “to have a firm religious faith” — I think that’s what I’m trying to describe here.
If I truly believed — in the authentic, biblical, trusting, accepting, firmly convicted way that I’m talking about — that the lid of the can was sharp and that it was dangerous to play with, then I wouldn’t have messed with it. I suppose I could say that I wanted to believe it. Or that I thought it was a good idea to believe it. But I didn’t actually believe it. Because my finger was cut.
The bigger principle I’m getting at here is that I think we act out our beliefs. Period. No matter what. When we lie, we believe at the time that those lying words are the best ones for us to say. When we pay our taxes, it’s because we believe that it’s the best idea to do that. When we punch someone in the mouth, it’s because we believe they needed a punching and we were the best ones at the moment to do it. When we comfort a hurting friend, it’s because we believe that they truly need comfort just then.
What I’m saying then, is that we don’t always believe rightly. And maybe it’s impossible to believe rightly every moment on earth, because we’re all sinners. When I choose my way over God’s way, at the moment of the choice, I believe my way is better than His. If I really believed that His way was better, wouldn’t I choose it?
This means that my actions are a direct indicator for my beliefs, at least at the time of the action. More broadly, it means that general patterns in my actions indicate general patterns in my beliefs. When I see general patterns in my actions that I don’t like, often I just try to change my actions. But that only works for so long. What I really need to change are my beliefs, so that they can change my actions. Or perhaps I just need to firm up my beliefs. Or be reminded of them. Or maybe re-think them. Or it just might be that I need to pray the prayer of the father of the epileptic boy in Mark 9:24: “…I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”