Do you feel like you have to keep your questions and doubts about faith a secret?
The mission of The Well is to create a community where thinking, compassionate people can find a spiritual home and cultivate a Jesus-inspired life.
If you really want to follow Jesus, one of the things you might have to unlearn is what you think it means to “believe” in Jesus.
Most churches rightly teach that you need to confess your sins, repent, and believe in Christ in order to be a Christian.
But how many Christians have been taught that to “believe” means they need to give intellectual assent to a list of belief statements on a church website in order to be a real Christian?
So they accept (or pretend to accept) a particular creed, a bullet point list of statements, or their denomination’s preferred theological position, convinced this is what God requires of them.
They also might feel like they have to ignore their honest questions and may feel inwardly torn their entire lives because they’re not sure they believe everything on the list.
The Field Goal Verse
One of the most misunderstood verses about what it means to believe is John 3:16. It’s the verse you see some guy holding up on a poster behind the end zone when a football team kicks a field goal.
In John chapter 3, a very religious man named Nicodemus comes to Jesus secretly at night because he’s afraid of being seen talking to Jesus. Early in the conversation, Jesus tells Nicodemus that he “must be born again.”
Then a few verses later, Jesus says to him, “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son so that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
There it is. All I have to do is “believe” some things about Jesus, and I’m a believer.
In vs. About
In John 3:16, the word “believe” does not mean giving intellectual assent to a statement of beliefs about Jesus.
In John 3:16, the word “believe” means to trust, to believe in a Person. It means to trust someONE, not affirm someTHING. In the New Testament, to “believe” is a relational term, not an academic one.
For example, there is a difference between believing things about your wife and believing in your wife. Imagine a married couple having a serious talk about a wife branching out and making a career move, and she says to her husband, “I would really like to try this, Honey. Do you believe in me?”
Then her supportive husband quickly rattles off a list of objective statements about her:
- You have brown hair.
- You are 5’4″ tall
- You like cereal for breakfast.
- You complain about my snoring.
After staring at her wedding ring and thinking “But he looked so cute down on one knee,” she says “I need you to believe in me as a person and in my ability to do this, not to believe a bullet point list of things about me.
To “believe” in John chapter 3 is relational trust in a Person. It is trusting Jesus that He is telling the truth about how life works, how human beings can flourish, and how to be connected to God and live a whole, spiritual life.
Another example of what it means to believe in God is Abram (God later changed his name to Abraham) in Genesis 15:6. God promised Abram that he would have a child who would be his heir. The only problem was that Abram was 99, and his wife Sarai (later Sarah) was 90 or 91. That Abram was a cradle robber.
When God told Abram he would have a son in Genesis 15:5-6, Abram simply believed God’s promise, and God considered Abram to be righteous.
Abram didn’t believe things about God. He believed God’s promise, and God looked at Abram as righteous. Paul uses Abraham as an example of what faith (trust) really means in his Letter to the Romans.
Billy Graham used to say in almost all of his sermons, “To believe means to trust. You believe God exists, you’ve been baptized, and you go to church, but have you really trusted Christ?” There is an enormous difference between believing things about Jesus and trusting in Jesus.
Oppressive Religion vs. Joyful Spirituality
Believing in Jesus is the difference between mechanical, dried up, oppressive religion and a vibrant, alive, joy-producing spiritual life.
Believing in Jesus is the difference between hypocritically pretending you have no questions and doubts, and being freed to trust Jesus even with your questions and doubts.
Most importantly, believing in Jesus is the difference between being outwardly religious and following Jesus.
So what do you do with your questions and doubts?
In the Gospels, Jesus says “Follow me” almost 40 times. You can do that even while you honestly work through questions about metaphysical realities or events you weren’t there to see. Some beliefs can be held with an open hand, while you hold tightly to following Jesus.
The difference is so profound that if your definition of “believe” is giving assent to a bullet point list, you’re going to have to throw all of that out and start over from scratch. It’s going to be a humbling process, and it’s going to be scary.
As a matter of fact, it might feel like being born all over again.