What I Would Say
If I ever get the opportunity to speak at a traditional church service, this is the message I will give: I urge you, dear Christians, to believe—all the way to eternal life.
Using other words, I could say (as entertainers and stateswomen have said), “Keep the faith.” “The faith” can also be expressed as “the belief” because one New Testament Greek word, pistis, can be translated as either “faith” or “belief.” Our term “many faiths” refers to there being a lot of different spiritual ideas people believe.
So, at the risk of being redundant, I want you to keep believing THE faith—all the way to the end of this life. That’s a big part of what biblical stories and messages encourage us to do.
But, you may ask, is a lifetime spent just believing good enough to warrant eternal life? Is someone who repeats the mantra, “I believe, I believe,” being simple, like a character from Peter Pan trying to keep fairies from falling down dead? How can such a faith bring about change in our world? Where is my love for others when I focus on making my mind do this “weird” thing? And who really cares what I believe, as long as my actions show that I am kind, merciful, and just?
Whatever believing is, I assert that it is very important. According to the New Testament book of Mark (1:14-15), Jesus started his work by “preaching the gospel of God, and saying, ‘The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe in the gospel.'” Later on, as the Apostle John recorded (6:28-29), a group of Jews asked Jesus, “What must we do, that we may work the works of God?” Jesus answered, “This is the work of God, that you believe in Him whom He has sent.”
The Mark passage above shows Jesus instructing people to believe in the gospel, the good news, of God—namely, that He had sent the Messiah just as He had promised long ago. As the broader context of the passage reveals, however, simply hearing the joyous news of God’s promise fulfilled was not enough to make a person believe, to make him or her accept as true and life-changing the message Jesus proclaimed.
John 6:22-71 shows people having a hard time with Jesus—and not completely without reason. At one point, Jesus tells them they need to “eat His flesh” and “drink His blood.” In the same circumstance, I, too, would react—at the very least with some confusion. The crowds have been looking for Jesus ever since he fed more than five thousand people with five barley loaves and two fish. They are excited. They believe Jesus is the One, their King sent from God. But when they catch up to Him, He reprimands them, saying, “You seek Me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate of the loaves and were filled.”
So much for their expectation of basking in advantage-laden light with the miracle worker.
Jesus continues by instructing, “Do not work for the food which perishes, but for the food which endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man shall give to you, for on Him the Father, even God, has set His seal.” Living at a time and in a culture where finding daily sustenance occupied a lot of most folks’ lives, the people eagerly request this enduring food. Jesus replies by telling them that He is the bread of life, the true sustenance. Before they leave in a huff over his ever-weirder comments, he tells them, “You have seen Me, and yet do not believe.”
Something amid the curious events and odd statements surrounding Jesus ought to have held their attention. But it did not. They “believed” for the merest moment, until what Jesus said disappointed them. If they had been inclined to remain for a while, they might have concluded, as Simon Peter did (6:68), that Jesus alone revealed “the words of eternal life.”
And so I urge you to believe—that is, to keep believing THE faith—all the way to eternal life. I am not advocating a mystical experience. Nor do I mean to promote strenuous exercise of your belief “muscles” until you have somehow built up enough faith to please God. Rather, I am encouraging you to accept as true whatever you find reasonable about the accounts you have heard regarding your Creator. Then, continue believing those accounts while you also seek to understand other things about God that may sound weird to you now. Give God a chance, as you would a friend or a relative, while you diligently search for the truth.
The Old Testament book of Genesis tells us the story of Abraham, a man who gave a god a chance. Abraham likely started out believing there were many deities, as most of the people around him believed. Then, somehow, God spoke to him. At first, Abraham may have thought, “This must be the top god.” He was a man with a lot to learn. I like that.
The New Testament tells us more about Abraham. The Apostle Paul, in Galatians 3:6-9, says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness. Therefore, be sure that it is those who are of faith that are the sons of Abraham.”
So what did Abraham believe, in such a way that God considered him righteous? Genesis 15:1-6 tells us by relating an event that occurred fairly early in the recorded relationship between God and Abraham. God tells Abraham that “his reward shall be very great.” The great desire of childless Abraham’s life has been to have a son of his own to be his heir, but since this reward seems unlikely, he asks God, “What wilt Thou give me?” God answers by promising to give him a son. And Abraham believes what God says. Simple, huh?
Is the trick to having true faith, then, to wait for God to tell you something and then believe it?
Well, no. Unlike Abraham, we have the Scriptures, and therefore more of God’s story is available for us to piece together without a voice from above. And I love how all the pieces fit (so far in my experience, anyway). Though complex, the message satisfies.
Abraham, as well, received more puzzle pieces in the years following God’s first promise to give him his own son. God told Abraham that his old, barren wife, Sarah, would bear the “child of promise” through whose offspring the whole world would be blessed. The boy’s name would be Isaac. This all came to pass.
Abraham kept believing God through all the years before Isaac’s birth. Abraham likely had doubts and fears many times, but he grew to love and trust God, and so he kept believing. Scripture makes this clear when it records the famous test God devised for Abraham.
God gave Abraham the task of climbing a mountain to sacrifice Isaac, the son for whom Abraham had waited so long. Genesis 22 records the bare details. Because the account says nothing of Abraham’s internal struggle or whether he even mentioned to Sarah what God had told him to do, we try to guess the reason for the test. Perhaps God was just bloodthirsty that day; or perhaps He was upset with Abraham, doubting his faith. But what makes the best sense with the rest of Abraham’s story?
We know Abraham obeyed God because the Scripture says, “Abraham stretched out his hand, and took the knife to slay his son.” What must have been going through Abraham’s mind? Hebrews 11 tells us: “He considered that God is able to raise [Isaac] even from the dead; from which he also received him back as a type.”
The test was for Abraham’s benefit and for the benefit of all who would read about it afterwards. God already knew, as Genesis 15:6 records, that Abraham did indeed trust Him and believe His promise to give him his own son, the son through whose offspring all people would be blessed. His faith in what God said never wavered because in Abraham’s experience over many years, God had never wavered. And, what do you know? Abraham’s faith proved correct again. God stopped him from plunging the knife into Isaac and then commended Abraham to every future generation.
I could go on all day about believing—it has come to mean so much to me. I could show you places in epistles by Paul and James where the two writers come at faith from different angles, speaking into different situations but advocating the same belief. God approves this belief, as the Bible shows through its many stories of people who believe.
As Abraham’s story reveals, God knows the validity of an individual’s faith when he or she says, “I do believe,” and means it. Indeed, God creates that belief in the hearts of men and women. Individuals (and their peers) may not know how real their belief is. As we have seen, though, God will test true belief amid real-life experiences. While we will not encounter Jesus making odd public statements or hear God instruct us to sacrifice someone, God will put into our life’s path crucial decisions, agonizing events, and struggles to do what is right for others and for ourselves. Because God is the one who gives us true belief (THE faith expressed in Scripture), He will also make us able to keep believing, to persevere in faith, after many trials and tests have come and gone.
So then, a life spent “just believing” describes a person faced into reality, not fairytales. It describes a person God is changing on the inside so that real changes happen (over time) on the outside. It describes a person who, by the grace of God, is learning (over time) to be truly loving, kind, merciful, and just to others. A life spent believing describes a child of God.
May each of you, dear Christians, be encouraged to believe, even through your doubts and fears. May you continue having faith in the gospel of God, like the disciples of Jesus who did not give up on Him. Like Abraham, may you grow in confidence that God is faithful and loves you and wants you to keep believing—all the way to eternal life.
Copyright March 2007 by McKenzie Study Center, an institute of Gutenberg College.