The Way We Believe, Part 1: Certainty and Fear


A huge ‘thank you’ to my friend Carla Ewert who edited this post and helped me think through a couple of ideas that were not working at all. Carla is an amazing writer and editor, and an absolutely brilliant human being. You can check out her writing company, Jot, here.

Have you ever thought about your beliefs? In some ways, we think about them on a daily basis. We make choices based on our worldview, which is shaped by beliefs and convictions about how the world should be and how we should be in it. But have you ever thought about why? Maybe more important even than why is how. How do you hold these particular beliefs/ideas/understandings of reality/people/God/Jesus/the Bible, etc?

What we believe matters. Our beliefs shape our worldview, our character, and our way of being in the world. So, of course, what we believe is absolutely important to who we become. Yet we too often think about the content of the beliefs we hold rather than the attitude with which we hold them. How we believe is just as vital as what we believe. 

For example, it’s one thing to believe that something powerful and history changing happened through the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I think most Christians would totally affirm the significance of Jesus, right? However, how we believe that to be true matters. In our holding of this belief, are we hostile toward people who don’t share it with us? Do we seek to be shaped by the teaching and example of Jesus, especially in the difficult tasks of loving our enemies, forgiving those who wrong us, and creating space for those who see the world differently than we do? Or are we defending what we believe about Jesus with little concern for what Jesus asked us to believe about the world.

Perhaps how we believe is actually telling us (and others!) what we really do believe. To believe in Jesus, and then to be hostile, excluding, and vengeful toward others doesn’t align with Jesus’ teaching—doesn’t believe Jesus. Jesus tells a story about two builders (Matthew 7/Luke 6). One builds on sand, the other on rock. Then the flood comes. The house built on sand collapses, while the house on the rock stands. It’s interesting how Jesus chooses to introduce this story. He says to his listeners, “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and don’t do what I say?” Essentially, Jesus says that believing cannot be separated from being. What we believe comes out most clearly in the way we actually live.

We have created religious systems that seek to offer two things to us: certainty and fear. But is certainty something we can have?  Does it exist? Certainty means there’s no possible chance we could be wrong about something, that we have some sort of perspective that is untainted by the lenses through which we see the world–our culture, our worldview, our upbringing–and we can make pronouncements about “how things really are.” 

Belief is not the same as certainty. All beliefs are made in faith. Faith, not certainty, is what we have.  So staunch Atheists and deeply committed Christians both are making claims based on faith, not certainty. Faith means trust or confidence. That’s what we can have. We may hold our faith with conviction, as we should, but we must also hold it with humility. 

Having faith without conviction is pointless, but having faith without humility is destructive to our own journey and the journeys of others. 

There was a time when I was not only convicted, but I felt certain that my beliefs were totally in line with reality, with how things actually are. I remember once saying to a friend, “I have taken the speck out of my eye, and I’m coming for the beam in yours!” (To understand how badly I twisted this text, see what Jesus actually says in Matthew 7.)

This sort of conceited, arrogant, and brash behavior came from my understanding that everything I believed was certain, correct. Now I understand how wrong I was. 

We crave certainty because we are afraid. 
We are afraid that we are going to get something wrong, some finer point of doctrine won’t be correct, and God is going to punish us for it. Fear is a bad motivator. It causes us to be stingy with grace toward others and ourselves. 

I have faith that God isn’t like that. I believe God’s grace can handle our doctrinal error, our doubts, our questions, and even our failures. There’s nothing to fear. There’s only grace. Generous, compassionate, kind grace. 

Even in the Christian tradition, among the (some estimate) 30-40,000 different denominations, there isn’t consensus on all theological issues. That’s always been true, by the way. The book of Acts shows that between individuals (Paul and Barnabas) and communities (Antioch and Jerusalem) there were differences in beliefs.

The fact is, you and I hold different beliefs about the same issues, and both of us are probably right about some things, and at the same time, wrong about some things (or maybe we are both right at times?). And both of those, our rightness and wrongness, are held in the grace of God.

What if we stopped pursuing correctness, and started pursuing transformation? What might be possible in our lives, in the world, if we chose to engage in that process of transformation in which we’ve been invited to participate?

My beliefs are formed in faith, and so are yours. 
So, let’s hold them, and our posture toward one another, in humility. 

Tomorrow: The Way We Believe Part 2: Pencils and Sharpies 

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