Over the past couple of posts we’ve explored certainty and faith, and the importance of keeping much of what we believe in pencil rather than sharpie. In this entry, I want to talk about Jesus-specifically what is it that Jesus asked his first followers, and in turn those of us who call this tradition home today, to actually do?
Here’s what I mean: When we talk about the Christian faith, we often talk about believing in Jesus. This is such a natural expression for me, and if the Christian tradition has been your home as well, I bet it sounds totally normal to you, too. Yet, this way of talking about faith has its shortcomings (I guess all ways of talking about faith do, but I digress).
Did Jesus ever ask people to believe in him?
Think about the way we use this language with our kids. We talk about believing in Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Tooth Fairy. And believing in these mythical beings serves to modify behavior, right? How many of us, especially in the month of December, use the “Santa Threat” with our kids, just to get them to brush their teeth, feed the cat, or go to bed? Usually, this threat works, too. They want the reward that good behavior brings, so they do what they need to do to just get to Christmas morning.
Is this what Jesus had in mind? That we would believe in him to get a favorable afterlife experience? That we would simply modify our behavior as a means to an end? I don’t think so. The path of Jesus is not about behavior modification, it is about transformation.
It’s about becoming a different person, not keeping our behavior in check.
What if we did more than believe in Jesus-that he existed, that he said and did some things that matter? What if our primary relationship to faith wasn’t based on doctrinal propositions that we are supposed to affirm whether we actually understand them or not?
What if we actually believed Jesus? What if we trusted that Jesus was actually right-about loving our enemies, about God’s love for the world, about nonviolence and compassion?
This isn’t just semantics. This is about the difference between affirming some belief statements and doctrines, or even modifying our behavior to achieve a desired outcome, and being transformed.
We can believe in Jesus and be mean, hateful, exclusive, and judgmental.
We can believe in Jesus and not care about the pain and suffering of the world.
We can believe in Jesus and not care about the poor or the sick.
We can believe in Jesus and demand our religious liberty at the expense of other groups.
But if we believe Jesus, then we will be deeply transformed along the way.
Believing Jesus leads to compassion, kindness, inclusivity, and grace.
Believing Jesus leads to engaging the pain of the world, entering into the ruptures and anguish and finding that God has been there all along.
Believing Jesus leads us to find poverty, isolation, and the fact that so many people in our world are dying of preventable diseases to be unacceptable.
Believing in Jesus leads us to the path of service and surrendering our rights for the benefit of others.
We can believe in Jesus and be unchanged, untransformed.
We can simply put on a religious veneer that gives us the appearance of goodness and propriety, yet deep down we are simply covering up bitterness, bias, hate, and selfishness.
We can believe Jesus.
We can enter into the path of transformation.
We can seek to actually live the difficult teachings of loving God, loving neighbor, loving self, and loving our enemies.
The late Marcus Borg put it like this:
“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 rights things and still be relatively unchanged. Believing a set of claims to be true has very little transforming power.”
Believing Jesus, however, can transform who we are and who we’re becoming.