Are You a Believer?
Many Christians use the word believer as a short definition of their way of life and as a way of separating their practices and teachings from non-believers. Without further qualification, the term believer can be just one more in a long list of clichés and “in-house” terminology. After all, a believer might describe someone who believes in UFOs and aliens from outer space. A believer might describe someone who actually believes in the ghosts and goblins of Halloween. So the term believer begs for further definition, doesn’t it? Belief in what or who? The answer may seem to be obvious, but sadly, in many cases it isn’t.
Ponder with me two ways in which people who think they are Christian believers may actually believe in something that opposes, diminishes or undermines the gospel of Jesus Christ. We’ll talk about these pitfalls as “replacement beliefs” because they insidiously replace God.
From time to time I hear people, who call themselves Christians, ask for God to forgive their nation and help them return to God, so that God will once again bless them. What exactly is the focus of belief in such a case? When churches start praying about their nation “returning” to God, I get a little nervous.
The whole idea of such a prayer is based on the premise that their nation was once faithful to God, but now isn’t. According to such a prayer, the nation was once Christian or at least more Christian than it is now. But according to the gospel of Jesus Christ, nations are not Christian. People are Christians, not nations. With apologies to Roman Emperor Constantine, who unilaterally declared the Roman Empire to be Christian, a political nation or federation cannot be identified or categorized as Christian. The spiritual nation of the body of Christ, the universal body of Christ-followers, is Christian, but it is neither organized politically nor is it legally incorporated. That spiritual nation is the kingdom of God, composed of many nationalities and all races—the primary pledge of allegiance of its citizens is to Jesus.
Many who identify themselves as “believers” seem, when one carefully examines their beliefs, to use the name of Jesus but believe in many additional add-on teachings—so that they actually believe in Jesus plus other stuff. In the national and political arena, the message of “my church and my nation plus Jesus” has become enormously popular over the last few decades. Though they would deny such a thing, many who say they are believers actually have their nation and/or church-denomination as their primary focus. Their belief in their nation, their political party and their religious customs and traditions rivals, or at least equals, their belief in God.
Many “believers” thus define and confine Jesus by other beliefs they hold near and dear. Jesus is often seen as more of an American than he is some other nationality or a member of another specific political party. But such “belief in Jesus” waters down the biblical sense or definition of belief—our belief in Jesus is not on a par with the devotion or respect or following we give to our church, our nation or any political party.
All humans believe in something—it may not be Jesus, it may not be a religion, it may not be a political party—for some people their belief may boil down to believing only in themselves. To believe is to be human. In many cases people become, over time, what they believe. That’s certainly true in authentic Christianity. For those of us who believe in and on Jesus, then that belief and faith, which is itself a gift of God, grows and matures over time so that we become, by virtue of more fully yielding to the life Jesus lives in us, more and more like Jesus.
That said, consider two ways in which people who might think they believe in God actually believe in something other than God. Both of these replacement beliefs are insidious—the first replacement belief is belief in laws—laws about methodical, systematized orderly behaviors—rather than the grace of God. By way of introduction to the first category, let me tell you about a story told by Herman Wouk, in his book Inside, Outside.
Wouk tells a story about a young Jewish boy named David who grew up in a strictly observant Jewish family. When David was young, the family of course did not eat pork or shellfish, but David’s mother never served meat and milk at the same meal, for it was against how the rabbis interpreted a law in the book of Leviticus.
Even drinking Coke was outlawed in David’s family because some rabbis said that the glue used to make the cork adhere to the inside of the bottle caps of Coca-Cola bottles could have come from a horse—and horse was an unclean animal. So, just to be sure, really careful and observant and faithful and obedient Jews (who believed in the laws of Judaism) couldn’t drink Cokes because they just might be consuming a little bit of a horse.
As David was growing up they had a rabbi over for a meal. The rabbi watched David’s mother preparing the meal, and told her that she needed different cooking pots and pans—one set to cook meat, and another set to use for any milk or dairy products. So she went out and purchased more pots and pans, so that she and her family could be more observant believers.
Then a year or so later the family had another rabbi over for a meal. This time the rabbi told his mother that it was dangerous to dry the two different sets of pots and pans with the same dish towels—they might contaminate each other and lead the family to break the law. So David’s mother went out and purchased two new dish towels—one with a red stripe and one with a blue stripe, so the pots and pans could be dried separately.
When David left home and went to college, all these rules had a strangle-hold on his life. For David, God seemed to be a legalistic tyrant. One day David was talking about his religion, which was still the same religion he learned from his family, with another student. David was trying to come to a deeper understanding of God and his nature, and as he did he explained all of the traditions and customs his family had to his fellow student, and asked him, “Will God strike me dead if I use the wrong towel? Is that the kind of God he is?”
His friend was also an observant Jew—a fellow believer in rules. He was shocked to hear David challenge their religion. So the friend advised David, “Once you start to compromise, it’s a slippery slope. Your whole religion will collapse. You have to stick with the rules.” Another year went by. David started talking with another student—in this case the student was well aware of the negative impact of religious legalism. He too had grown up in a similar family but he was now reaching out to God apart from all of the restrictions and overbearing rules. When David told him the doubts he was having about religion, this student gave him wise advice—”Get out, David! Get away from that dish towel religion!”
There are many people who think they believe only in Jesus, but in reality believe in a whole host of religious regulations, many of which are anti-Christ—religious customs that deny Christ. Those whose beliefs are restricted and restrained by religious policies and procedures are, like David’s family, not believers in Christ, but believers in a dish towel religion. Devoted followers of dish towel religions either replace God with laws or they primarily define him as a law-giver who demands that his laws be obeyed, or else. Devoted followers of dish towel religions understand God as demanding methodical, systematized orderly behavior, rather than as a God of love. When God’s love is minimized or devalued, then his grace is overlooked or put away in a religious closet. When that happens, believers are not believers in God. They are believers in a dish towel religion.
This is not to say that Christ-centered Christians are careless and disobedient. By definition, Christians obey Jesus Christ and follow him. Neither am I advocating that authentic Christians must be unstructured and undisciplined. However, it’s been my observation that the more people focus on pleasing and appeasing God through some specific system of diligent law keeping, the more they become inflexible, resentful of others, bitter and upset. In the process they miss the fact that our relationship with God is not based on what we do—rather it is based on who we are, in Christ.
When people focus more on their rigid compliance with moral codes than they do the grace of God, they become believers in moral codes—and are certainly not what the Bible describes as believers. Dish towel religion stifles and cripples our relationship with God, whereas a focus on his grace, mercy and love liberates us, in Christ, for a life of joy and contentment.
The second replacement belief is another detour or pitfall that believers in God can encounter and in the process completely change their priorities and perspectives. The second replacement belief is simply this: Many who say that they believe in God believe that the creeds and doctrines and teachings of their church are virtually on a par with their belief in God. Let’s re-read our keynote passage in John 20:
Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.
Notice the emphasis—”that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” I don’t see anything here about the need for Christians to study and study and study so that they can learn and memorize the right creeds—so that they can discover all the answers—so that they can be in the right church, practicing the right beliefs. Nothing here about the need to be right!
When the desire to be right overwhelms a person then they are easy prey for rigid, Christ-less religion. Rigid religion cripples relationship with God, because it places a premium on doctrinal purity and academic understanding. Rigid, legalistic religion values esoteric knowledge and sooner or later a person will come to believe that God loves them more because they believe they know more facts and information and creeds and doctrines.
Religion that exalts knowledge fills its followers (or, better stated, its slaves) with academic pride. In 1 Corinthians 8:1 Paul contrasts knowledge with love. He says that knowledge puffs up but love builds up. God resists and opposes the proud, says the book of James, and gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).
The pride of religious knowledge resists God’s grace. The pride of religious “inside” information often demonizes and lampoons and makes fun of God’s grace and mercy because the pride of religious knowledge is convinced that God is confined to its doctrinal formulations and insights. The pride of religious knowledge creates a religion that values human knowledge and wisdom over relationship with God.
People who find themselves “doing time” in a religious prison, where they are convinced they are right and everyone else is wrong, will often talk about “having the truth” or “having more of the truth.” Inmates confined in religious institutions that place a premium on esoteric religious knowledge and information will often speak of other Christians as being misguided and uninformed, people who, if they actually are Christians, are Christians who haven’t yet been fully enlightened. Judgmental words and terms are used by such exclusivist religious clubs to describe “outsiders” who are not believed to be as biblically intelligent as those who are puffed up by their pseudo-knowledge and diminish God’s grace.
Intellectual pride can lead us to take pride in our own supposed genius and in our own church and its accomplishments, longevity and longstanding commitment to what we believe to be correct doctrinal teachings. But, says Paul, if we are proud of anything we should be proud of God, his love, mercy and grace:
Therefore, as it is written, “let the one who boasts boast in the Lord.”—1 Corinthians 1:31
Of course, there’s nothing wrong with learning more and more about God, but it’s been my experience that the more and more we actually come to know God, in a relational sense, the less and less we value the creeds, dogmas, and doctrinal formulations we know (or better stated, think we know). There’s nothing wrong with thinking and studying—most of us need more of that rather than less. God definitely doesn’t want us to remain in the dark. Jesus is described as the Light of the world. We should value knowledge and understanding, but we must always be on guard lest pride in superior knowledge, doctrines and dogmas eclipses our belief in God.
The more and more we know God, the more and more uncertain we are about many of the speculative matters that consume huge amounts of time for many Christians. The more and more I know God, by his grace, the more and more convinced I am that what we know is not nearly as important as Who we know. The creeds and beliefs and doctrinal truths that I know are not nearly as important as God—and his love, grace and mercy.
So—are you a believer? I am. I am a believer in the great I AM. He is called by many names in the Bible—Lord; Savior; Prince of peace; Lamb of God; Light of the World; Bread of Life; the Resurrection and the Life; the Way, Truth and the Life; Redeemer; Good Shepherd and Living Water. Jesus is the focus of my faith and my belief, for, as John 20:31 says, by believing in him we have life.