What Does it Mean to Believe Anyway?

russian orthodox churchFourth Sunday in Lent

Numbers 21:4-9

Ephesians 2:1-10

John 3:14-21

Do you believe? Much of our reading- including John 3:16, maybe the most recognizable Bible verse for Christians- revolves around the word, “believe.” The stakes seem pretty high depending on whether or not we believe. So many people view this passage as a verrrry high stake True or False exam question.

Jesus is the Son of God. True or False?

If you answer true then you get to go to heaven and if you answer false, then you go to hell. Belief in God is very important, but not for fear of eternal punishment from God. There’s more to say about that. But it is important to understanding this passage and to understanding what it means to be a follower of Jesus. So what does it mean to “believe” anyway?

Many people understand “belief” to be a sort of intellectual ascent. One has the right knowledge or they have arrived at the correct answer and so God will reward such people with eternal life. They answered “True” on the Jesus is the Son of God exam question because they understand it to be factually true. But that doesn’t seem to be the whole of what belief is. Maybe a part of it, but not the whole thing. If right knowledge about Jesus constitutes belief, then the many demons of Mark’s Gospel and even the Devil believe in Jesus and are not condemned. In the temptation narratives according to Matthew and Luke, the Devil tempts Jesus to turn stones to bread and to leap from the top of the Temple to be caught by angels. The Devil clearly believes in the presence of Jesus’ divine power, but could you say that he believes in him?

Belief is more than knowing something to be factually true, but it also involves trust. About two weeks ago, Prime Minister of Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu, gave a speech to the U.S. Congress warning the audience of the dangers of Iran, how close they are to attaining a nuclear weapon, and how the U.S. should not engage in diplomatic relations with this country. This event arrived in great controversy and great controversy followed the event. Some people lauded the speech saying that Netanyahu speaks the truth and has good insights. Others pointed out his previous mistakes regarding Iran’s nuclear status and felt that his dismissal of diplomacy is a bad move. But what is really at the heart of this is that some people believe in Netanyahu and others do not. Some people believe that his words are true and that his vision for the future has the best interests of Israel, the U.S., Iran, and the world in mind. Others do not believe in him and either do not believe that his words are true or that his vision for the future does not have the best interests of Israel, the U.S., Iran, and the world in mind.

The same knowledge and trust are present when one believes in Jesus as the Son of God. It may be knowing that certain facts of his life are true, but more than that, it is a matter of trust in our hearts. Belief is about trusting the promises of God to be true. Is God trustworthy when God promises mercy, forgiveness, and unconditional love? When we believe or wholly trust these things to be true, then our whole lives are transformed. It affects our mind, body, and our hearts. In our mind we may hold certain historical facts to be true. In our body, we are inspired by what we know and have experience about God and Jesus and so we go out to share this unconditional love with others. In our hearts, we find strength when we are hurting, lost, or apathetic. When we are weighed down by sin and death, fear and pain, sadness and addiction, we can find strength when we believe or trust in the power and goodness of God to care for us in the midst of that pain and to set wrongs to right.

But we don’t always believe in God or Jesus. Sometimes we believe in the power of sin and death and all those things that sap our hope long before we believe that God cares or will do anything about it. In this way, we have already condemned ourselves or been condemned by our pains and fears. John 3:18 says:

Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God.

Some people worry about God condemning someone because they don’t believe, but the reality is that God doesn’t have to lift a finger to condemn us. Our lack of belief in receiving the goodness of God is condemnation aplenty. We know the hopelessness and loss that comes when one believes in the power of pain and suffering before the power of love and mercy.

Mark 9 is one of my favorite passages of Scripture and it tells a story about the difficulty of trusting God in the midst of great trials. In this story, Jesus is coming down from the mountain where he was transfigured. When he reaches flat land, a father comes running to Jesus. This man begs Jesus to heal his son who is possessed by an evil spirit. The spirit causes the boy to convulse, it tries to throw him into fire, and it tries to drown him in water. Very understandably, the father is desperate and terrified. Jesus hears the man’s prayer and tells him that he can “do all these things” if the father believes. Then, in what is probably my favorite phrase in all of Scripture, he blurts out, “I believe!” and immediately adds, “Help my unbelief!” He makes a paradoxical and contradictory statement, “I believe” and “Help my unbelief.” That statement embodies the life of faith and it is where we find ourselves so often. There are times in our life when we have full confidence in the existence and goodness of God. We believe that God will comfort and love us unconditionally even in the darkest and most painful points of our lives, but there are other times when don’t believe that to be true. We recognize that we don’t want to believe in the power of sin and death. We want to believe that something- perhaps God in Christ, can save us and heal us from the hurts and fears we endure, so we beg God to give us this gift of faith. We beg God to help us believe in mercy and unconditional love long before we believe in sin and death.

God does answer those prayers too. Faith to believe is a gift that God gives us. That is part of why the church gathers regularly. Through the wine, bread, and water of the Sacraments, through the words of Scripture, through the voices of the saints of the past and the present- people sitting next to you in your pew or chairs- through all these things, the Holy Spirit, and more God inspires us to faith again. God gives us the courage to believe again. When we taste or feel the sacraments, when we hear God’s Word, and when we hear the gospel message from a loved one or a stranger, “I love you and God does too,” by God’s grace we believe it to be true.

Do you believe? By the grace and work of God, sometimes we do, but in other times of our life we do not. We believe that the pains, sadness, and hopelessness that we harbor will at last claim us. Even in the midst of this unbelief, God still is providing grace and giving the gift of belief. Even when we’ve lost all hope and can’t trust in anything but the darkness we are currently experiencing, God doesn’t give up on us. God gives us the gift of belief, drawing us to the cross of Jesus who was lifted up high, who gathers all people to him with their sins and their hurts. The power of sin and death die on that cross with Jesus and we are raised up to new life.

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