For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him
may not perish but may have eternal life.
--John 3:16 NRSV
This past Sunday I preached on John 3:14-21 and afterword several people told me the sermon was very meaningful to them. When I asked why, they said it was because of what I said about the nature of “belief” in John 3:16. What I said about the matter was a rather small point towards the end of the sermon, but this is not the first time the main thrust of one of my sermons turned out not to be the main thing people took away from it. I learned long ago that what people hear in my sermons may have little to do with what I thought I was trying to say. Usually this is because of something lacking on the preacher’s part, but sometimes I hope it has to do with God saying something through me to people and it seems like I had very little to do with the whole process. Perhaps that is what occurred Sunday.
What I said which seemed to provoke a meaningful response in people was more or less that I have learned that a person’s stated beliefs don’t seem to matter much when it comes to the way the believer lives their life. I’ve known atheists who absolutely did not believe in God but whom were more Christlike than the most devout Christians. Likewise, I have known ardent Christians with detailed theologies about God who acted in the most immoral and unloving ways. I’ve learned that beliefs as intellectual concepts count for little in actually transforming who a person is.
When “belief” is understood more as trusting in someone or something, then we get down to brass tacks about who a person is and how they live. What you trust in determines who you are and what you do. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve sat in meetings with people who claimed to be devout Christians but only trusted in the black and white numbers of an income/expense statement. They had no real trust in God to change anything about their situation or anyone involved in it. It’s no wonder churches are dying by the day; most of them are filled with functional atheists who don’t really trust God can or will do anything.
When Jesus says to Nicodemus in John 3, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life,” he is not saying you must give intellectual assent to the concept of Jesus Christ according to a particular denomination, creed or system of theology. Instead, he is saying something like, “whoever believes in/trust in/is willing to bet their life and all that matters on the Son and the God who sent him will have a different kind of life starting right at that moment of trust.” That’s right, the Jesus of John 3 isn’t talking about a ticket out of Hell when you die, but rather a different experience of life starting right now that never ends. Your life and the quality of it depends on whom and/or what you believe in/trust.
I didn’t come up with this way of thinking. Plenty of people smarter and more articulate than I have written as much—below you will find a few of them.
Grace and Peace,
Rev. Chase Peeples
“To have faith does not primarily mean believing something, but rather believing in someone. Faith is trust. It takes courage to trust. The opposite of faith is not disbelief, but distrust, fear. Fear makes us cling to anything within reach. Fear clings even to beliefs… Faith is the courage to respond gratefully to every given situation, out of trust in the Giver.”
–David Steindl-Rast, Gratefulness, the Heart of Prayer
“Think of how different faith as fidelity and trust, as fidelius and fiducia, is from faith as believing a set of statements to be true. The latter can even increase anxiety. . . Have I believed stronglyenough or behaved rightly enough? But faith as faithfulness and trust eliminates that anxiety and frees us for transformation in this life. . . Faith as fiducia is trusting in the buoyancy of God. Soren Kierkegaard. . . said that faith is like floating in seventy thousand fathoms of water. . . If we are fearful and struggle as we float in an immeasurably deep body of water, we sink and drown. But if we trust that the water will keep us up, we float.”
--Marcus Borg, Speaking Christian: Why Christian Words Have Lost Their Meaning and Power—and How They Can Be Restored
“You can believe all the right things and still be in bondage. You can believe all the right things and still be miserable. You can believe all the right things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power."
One can believe in God with a very complete set of arguments, yet not have any faith that makes a difference in living.
PREPOSITIONS CAN BE VERY ELEGANT. A man is "in" architecture or a woman is "in" teaching, we say, meaning that is what they do weekdays and how they make enough money to enjoy themselves the rest of the time. But if we say they are "into" these things, that is another story. "Into" means something more like total immersion. They live and breathe what they do. They take it home with them nights. They can't get enough of it. To be "into" books means that just the sight of a signed first edition of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland sets your heart pounding. To be "in" books means selling them at B. Dalton's.
Along similar lines, New Testament Greek speaks of believing "into" rather than believing "in." In English we can perhaps convey the distinction best by using either "in" or no preposition at all.
Believing in God is an intellectual position. It need have no more effect on your life than believing in Freud's method of interpreting dreams or the theory that Sir Francis Bacon wrote Romeo and Juliet.
Believing God is something else again. It is less a position than a journey, less a realization than a relationship. It doesn't leave you cold like believing the world is round. It stirs your blood like believing the world is a miracle. It affects who you are and what you do with your life like believing your house is on fire or somebody loves you.
We believe in God when for one reason or another we choose to do so. We believe God when somehow we run into God in a way that by and large leaves us no choice to do otherwise.
When Jesus says that whoever believes "into" him shall never die, he does not mean that to be willing to sign your name to the Nicene Creed guarantees eternal life. Eternal life is not the result of believing in. It is the experience of believing.
- Frederick Buechner originally published in Whistling in the Dark and later in Beyond Words
We're Park Hill Christian Church in KC MO. We seek to follow Jesus by praising God, loving those we meet and serving the vulnerable.