Should I Believe This, and If So, How?

God has endowed us with minds and logic.  We look at the assembled evidence concerning a question, and we draw conclusions using them based on the criteria, deep down, of “What’s best for me?”

Evidence

So let’s take a little digression and briefly review the evidence that is widely confirmed/accepted.

  • I think we have convincingly shown that you have effectively 0 possibility of existing without the involvement, at and subsequent to the Big Bang, of a superior mind and force we’re calling God.
    • The Universe hasn’t had nearly enough time to produce even single-celled life by itself.
    • The Universe’s exceptionally fine-tuned parameters that are precisely set to enable the development of life.
    • The Cambrian explosion of large body plan life all within a time period of not more than 5 million years but perhaps as quickly as 500,000 years – a geological ‘instant’. This fact, now widely recognized in the scientific community, has driven the committed atheists within it to grasp for any other natural explanation, including the ‘seeding’ of advanced life on earth by an exceptional intelligence from distant planetary systems, or even galaxies.  However, such an intelligence hasn’t had enough time (by many orders of magnitude) to develop without external assistance.  Thus, the dead-end of evolutionary biology.
  • The Bible claims that God created the Universe out of nothing (i.e. using nothing that preexisted). It is unique in this regard among the texts of all religions.  This is what science has concluded is the case, though they don’t know how, and are scrambling to find some natural explanation, yet in futility.  (The problem is hard when the physics of the Universe that you know is of no value in analyzing things until that Universe existed.)
    • Current arguments that physics supports the creation of “virtual particles” out of nothing, while valid, require the existence of space and time[1], and so cannot be shown to be effective before there was a Universe (i.e. ex nihilo).
  • Jesus claimed that He and God the Father were One, meaning of one essence, expressing the same desires for our well-being in their company.
  • Following Jesus’ death, many of his followers/disciples interacted with Him, and hundreds of others saw Him.
    • That these ‘post-resurrection’ appearances actually happened is attested not only in the Biblical text, but by the Disciples’ willingness to die for their belief in and testimony of Jesus, rather than recant that testimony (by, for example, pledging their worship of Caesar) to save their lives.
    • The apostle Paul is a special case, who encountered the presence of Christ long after His resurrection, but which encounter completely transformed him from a persecutor of the followers of Christ into the most effective champion for Christ in history. He, of course, also died for his faith as a martyr.
  • God in the Bible says repeatedly that He wants us to love Him and have us follow Him – meaning live a life consistent with His plan for us. His Christ laid out the principles of that life in detail, not only in what He taught, but also in how He lived, and ultimately, died.  Jesus extended this invitation[2] to us so that we could experience that life, and have it abundantly[3].
  • Not that it is evidence of the same type as above, but many of us would say that the quality of the lives we lead when we’re apart from God is not particularly peace-giving or enriching or fulfilling, no matter our financial or other resources.
    • In the same vein, many of us have met people that either have told us, or we know from others, are followers of Christ. In them we see something demonstrably different, more sweet, without guile, more joyful and more admirable than we see in ourselves or in others.  Notice that we’re talking about folks who identify as “followers of Christ”, not the more generic “Christian”, a term that, sadly, means little these days.  (The two are often not the same.)  We should use the lens of the Bible to determine if the person we’re interacting with lives their life for Christ, or is simply one who has made an intellectual decision that Jesus is the Son of God.[4]
  • The Bible tells us, and our experience seems to confirm, that we are far from Godly in our thoughts or interactions with others. We want people to approve of us if not ‘love’ us; we want stuff, as much to show other folks that we have it, as to actually use and enjoy it; and sometimes we don’t want the best for somebody else.  S/he may have offended us in some way, upstaged us, or gotten something we thought we should have.  We just want them to, in some way, pay for that.  Or who hasn’t been unresponsive at some point to one we’re close to because at that moment we were consumed with our own issues – worried about how we could work it out, and ‘naturally’ chose to worry about ourselves rather than our dear one.  It’s OK to admit it.  Stuff like this enters everybody’s mind and life at some point; some of us more than we’d care to admit.

This list, obviously, is just a sample.  There is much, much more.  Nevertheless, even at that it is quite compelling.  The question we have to answer is “What do I believe?” or, perhaps more concisely, “Who do I trust with my life?”

The Challenge

Now before going on, we need to revisit the parameters of our own nature.  Because these are very important when considering questions that challenge that very nature.

We’re naturally self-interested. The one thing Darwin probably got right is that we do what we believe is in our own (or our species’) best interest instinctively, whether that’s picking a partner to mate with, overeating (in case we suddenly face starvation), going to college to get a degree so we can make more money or just be happier, or whatever.  We’re programmed to act in our own ‘best’ interest.  And over a lifetime, we get real used to the habit of decision-making to benefit ourselves.  Do we ever do something sweet or even self-sacrificial on behalf of others?  Of course!  But the fact is our instinctive habit is to act on behalf of our interest, not someone else’s.  Our compassionate actions toward others are generally fairly infrequent, and, commonly, done to, once again, make us look or feel good about ourselves, as much as to truly build up the recipient.  This is just human nature.

Now, one of the things we’re just terrible at is changing.  (Everybody who’s made a New Year’s resolution and broken it by February raise your hand.:( ) This is I believe a defense mechanism (though I’m not a psychologist).  We defend ourselves as ourselves because, well, we’ve done pretty well so far and our egos resist any hint that maybe we aren’t all that after all.

So now, we’re on the edge of seeing why it is that so many people who accept Christ as their Lord are people who are in some kind of extreme pain – psychological, physical, or material.  The intensity of their negative experience, whatever it is, releases the grip of their ego’s defensiveness about their decision-making and allows them to cry out for relief, even if it means a huge life change involving abdication of personal control.

Those who live safely and comfortably, apart from addiction, disease, destructive relationships and other challenges, however, do not have their patterns of self-interested decision-making challenged.  As a result, they are far, far more resistant to accepting that some fundamental change would be beneficial to them.  It’s from this reality that we get Jesus’ famous observation about the difficulty of the ‘rich’ entering the Kingdom of God[5] (not because they’re rich, per se, but because they’re comfortable, self-satisfied, content with the things of the world).

My point is simply that in considering the question “What do I believe?” it’s important to understand that it is completely unnatural for you to simply intellectually decide, if you don’t now believe in and follow Christ, that you’ve been wrong all your life.  Your mind, and everything in your being, does not want to process that thought.

It’s Not You

It’s at this point that the Holy Spirit steps in.  What He does is plant a doubt, a thought that “Maybe this stuff is true.  Maybe I need this.” in your mind, that takes root.  It doesn’t just come and then go, forgotten.  It’s persistent if He has planted it there.  What happens then depends on the individual.  Speaking from personal experience, some of us take a long, long time to work through it all, doing extensive study of the Bible and everything else related that we can get our hands on.  Some folks just go for it, jump in a baptismal tub somewhere and expectantly start their new life.  Some people just let the thought sit there, kind of tugging on them for years before they react one way or the other.  All of these are good things.  If you don’t feel anything, that’s a bit concerning.  But you need to recognize that we don’t schedule the Holy Spirit – He’s got his own timetable.  Not all is necessarily lost, certainly, but perhaps simply delayed.

The truly unfortunate thing in the way this works is that you can’t really glimpse the Kingdom until you have honestly committed and entrusted yourself to its King.  If you could, you would see what is actual reality.  You would see God in everything around you, and in every seemingly unremarkable moment.  From kissing a baby’s toes as he squeals on the changing table, to hearing the laughter or the warm encouragement of one you love, to watching the kindness of one stranger to another, you could experience the reality of life in God.  And it would be irresistible.  Sadly, we cannot perceive these things as of Him until we “know” Him.  I say ‘sadly’ inasmuch as the vast majority of folks, if they could just see and experience what they were missing, would throw away everything for Him and life in His Kingdom in a heartbeat[6].

Imagine

So far we’ve been concerned mainly with you and your life, and rightfully so.  You are the one loved by God.  And, you are the one He has invited to experience the beauty of life as it was meant to be – the real, though hidden, reality.

But perhaps we should take a moment and imagine what life here would look like if not just you and I, but our families, our close friends and their close friends, and so on all chose to take on the vocation of Christ-following.  Imagine every facet of our lives transformed to the core.  Imagine the relationships you now have with your family members.  Maybe there’s a child or spouse or niece or friend with whom you’ve fallen away because of some challenges – perhaps addiction, perhaps some profound hurt or loss in their lives, abusiveness, or possibly simple anger and rebellion.  Imagine if you were irresistibly drawn to help them cope and heal: not in an intrusive, “I know what you need”-kind of way, but humbly, gently, and above all, honestly.  It’s not difficult to imagine that relationship being healed, and perhaps ultimately, also the root-cause problem that separated you in the first place.  Now multiply that relationship by all the relationships you have where there is some insincerity, some lack of true concern for the other, some ‘positioning’ of yourself for yourself.  Imagine all of them reconciled into health and, yes, real love.  Now we’re getting somewhere!

Drawing the circle wider, imagine if the people at your work or school or church suddenly started acting in each other’s best interest, without guile or hidden agendas, without their thumb constantly on the scale of justice, trying to tip it in their favor.  Then widen it further to your town, your state.  Imagine what it would be like to see people running for office that you actually trusted deep down, because you knew Who their lives were committed to.

Now think, for a moment, about our foreign enemies succumbing to the truth of their Creator, laying down not just their weapons but the animosity and hatred that caused them to pick them up in the first place.  As far-fetched as this seems today, imagine a worldwide community of Christ-followers administering the affairs of their brethren with pure hearts and unselfish motives.

Before you entirely dismiss this scenario as the ravings of some six-year-old schoolchild (or the intellectual equivalent), consider that God has already set the stage for exactly this.  Through Christ He enabled us to be reconciled to Him so that He could interact with and guide us.  He then made available the all-sufficient power (in the Holy Spirit) to accomplish all of these ‘ravings’.  My ravings are nothing more than crude examples of the Kingdom of God, “on earth, as it is in the heavens” which Christ inaugurated 2000 years ago.  And, He will complete exactly this scenario in the end, when He returns.  The question you should consider is ‘Wouldn’t it be a good idea to get with the program now so that I am ready for that day?’

The Question

So, what do you believe?  You might be one of those who says, “This is all such a bunch of crap!  I can’t believe I wasted my time reading all this ridiculous stuff!”  If that’s the case, I’m indeed sorry you wasted your time, and I’m sorry I didn’t find a way to make it worth your time.  Keep looking.  Someone else may present something that connects with you.

If you say, “This stuff makes a lot of sense.  I generally buy it.  But, you know what?  I just don’t think I’m ready for any big changes.”  If this is you, you’re in the vast majority.  There are millions of people out there who believe “this stuff makes a lot of sense” and, as a result, call themselves ‘Christians’.  But please do not be confused on this.  As severe as this sounds, they are not Christians, despite how much they give to, or how often they attend, a church, if they have rejected the vocation of, the habitual attention to, following Christ[7].  That is, they are not disciples – students and followers of Christ.  If they were, you would see it in everything they say and do.

Finally, there will be those who say, “I see that Jesus is the Christ; I see why He needed to come to us; and I see that, since He created me, wants the best for me, and is the ultimate intelligence, I need to trust Him for accomplishing everything He wants for me from now on.”  If that’s you, congratulations!  You’ve just started the most difficult, but most enduringly rewarding vocation any human can undertake.  We’ll need to take some time to look at what’s involved.

How to Become a Follower of Christ

First, we have to be clear about what is meant, and not meant, by “following Christ”.  We are not talking here about your salvation.  Salvation is given to you (or not) by God.  Period.  When Paul exhorted us to “work out our salvation”, he was talking about us figuring out how our lives and gifts could be best used in the Kingdom given that we had already been saved from judgement.  You don’t follow Christ to be saved.  If you’re sincerely seeking to follow Him, you are saved.  However, being saved, and becoming what Christ wishes us to be for Him in our lives, are two distinctly different things (a point of misunderstanding and confusion among most professing Christians today).

Following Christ is the vocation of habitually doing those things that build up others.  Its prerequisite is your fervent desire to have the Holy Spirit take over and guide every aspect of your life.  Now it is entirely possible that in the course of performing this vocation, you cooperate with the Holy Spirit in strengthening your own sanctification – the process of becoming more holy, more like the Master you are an apprentice of and increasingly emulating.  This would be the case, for example, as you became more confident over time to the point that you were more willing to stretch yourself into new types of service, new types of interactions with your neighbors, or experienced increasing willingness to help those with whom you were unfamiliar, or even uncomfortable, rather than just friends and family.  However, if you are following Christ in whatever condition of spiritual development, you are, indeed, a disciple.

Nevertheless, generally speaking, following Christ – being his student and disciple – has nothing to do with your salvation status.  It is assumed.  God’s grace takes care of that.

So what do we need to pursue this vocation?  Obviously, the first requirement is the thing that got you to this point: you believed that Jesus was sent here to die for you and give you life.  This act of entrusting yourself to Him has a huge effect on the next change you’ll encounter, which is to experience the humility of knowing that you were designed before the beginning, then made, by the One who authored the Universe – in some way in His ‘image’.  If you want to feel humble, small, this is an excellent thought to keep before your mind, and one that simultaneously elicits huge doses of gratitude.

Such a profound humility is absolutely a hallmark of those who are already disciples.  This perspective of humility affects everything about you from the moment you first call out to Him.  Certainly, you’re more thankful.  As time passes, you may find yourself being thankful for things in your life that before would have sent you off the deep end in fear or anger or hurt.  Once you, in this humility, accept that God uses circumstances in your life to refine and strengthen you, to make you more like Him, things just don’t look the same anymore; either the ‘good’ or the ‘bad’.

This kind of humility also allows you to first accept, and later embrace, that you are not in control.  Before believing, control is one of our gods.  It’s a perfectly natural human condition to devise all manner of mind games, guile, and manipulation of various types to establish and maintain control of our environment and relationships for our benefit.  And when circumstances arise that show us we aren’t in control, we react poorly; anger or contempt or just simple frustration – usually with blame directed at something or someone else.  After believing and after experiencing this humility, we understand that we were never in control in the first place, and so we don’t react to it with emotions like anger or frustration, but rather with a depth of understanding that directs us to try to see the lesson to be learned.

Next, and closely related to humility, is submission.  Now submission is different from humility in that humbleness essentially comes over us once, upon realizing who we are in relation to who the Lord is, and generally stays with us.  It’s a kind of state change and overwhelming conclusion that you don’t have to continually revisit to feel and understand.

Submission on the other hand, is never ending:  it is a behavior and attitude that must be marshaled over and over, for the rest of your life.  The reason is that while we are changed – from no regard of or for God, and no communion with Him, to an ever-present sense of His presence – we (that is our natural selves) have not been erased.  Our old nature is still there, alive in us.  And it still wants its way in controlling us, as it has done up to this point in our lives.  (I’m not trying to mythologize the power of your nature.  But we are creatures of habit.  And each of us has lots and lots of habits that need to be systematically unlearned.)  This is what Paul was lamenting in the verse (Rom 7:18-20 (ESV)) we looked at in an earlier installment where he says: “For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing.”

This is the crux of the matter.  Our old natural selves, though having been both judged and atoned for by God, are still very much with us, and pushing to assert their way, just like in the old days.  The vocation of the Christian – the follower of Christ – is to submit to the Holy Spirit so that this old nature can’t have its sway with us.  And this struggle, as mentioned above, never stops.  The good news is that it can become easier for us with practice, as new habits are learned and the old replaced.  But it only becomes significantly easier if we condition ourselves for it, much as athletic achievement becomes easier as the athlete devotes his hours of training to improving his skills, speed and strength.

Training ourselves, not only to master submission, but to live out this vocation of Christ-following, is called discipleship.  The word conveys the meaning of one committing himself to learn from and be trained by his master as his apprentice, so that one day he will be able to do the same things his master does and in the same way. Dallas Willard has a great quote (which I unfortunately haven’t been able to re-find) that talks about this ‘preparation’.  In it he draws the analogy of a young boy wanting to be an NBA player.  The boy can’t simply put on the jersey and some sneakers and walk out onto the court expecting to be able to play NBA basketball.  Years of practice and training and coaching are necessary to even have the chance of succeeding at that level.  So before beginning such a thing, it is necessary to make an intentional commitment to it to make it happen – to see it through.  Otherwise, it’s not really your intention, it’s just your wish.

Or try this analogy.  Lots of kids want and expect to go to college to improve the standard of living in their life and perhaps work in a profession that is more fulfilling or rewarding than they would otherwise be able to do. So they apply.  And one day they receive a letter of admittance to a school they chose.  This letter says we accept you as a student in our college.  This acceptance is but the first of many, many steps.  Now they have to learn as much about their field as possible in the college time available and, upon graduation, begin practicing the craft they have learned.  For many fields, they will have to go through periodic training in special topics in their field, and through experience hone what they’ve been taught into effective practices, and potentially return for additional formal education for advanced credentials.  This is how professionals proceed with training themselves for their professional lives.  The analogy to the Christ-follower should be clear.  The letter is his acceptance into the body of Christ.  The college study is his basic preparation to understand the meaning of his faith in the context of the Bible.  And his professional career, punctuated by periodic episodes of yet more learning, is his life in the Kingdom.

So we, similarly, shouldn’t expect to simply cruise into an effective role in the Kingdom of God without spending the time necessary in training our minds and bodies — not just to sustain submission – but to soak in all of the teaching and instruction the Master already has (through the scriptures), and will (through His Spirit), give us.  This involves first and foremost spending time studying the Bible, and studying what others who we respect and trust have to say about what we read there.  The Bible is such a multi-layered presentation of truths, so interwoven by cross references interconnecting deep themes, and so partially obscured by its translation from Hebrew and Greek, that it is no shame to rely on those who have been formally and deeply trained in it to pull out meanings that may be obscured to those of us without such training.  (Similarly, I’ve also found that reading seemingly simple English-translated phrases should cause your antenna to go up; maybe leading you to check different translations to see how they render the same phrase, or look up somebody’s commentary on the phrase.  It may, in fact, be exactly what it appears to be, and the English you read may be exactly the thought the original author was conveying.  But there are certainly cases where that’s not true.  “Test everything” is sound advice.)

The goal in this study is to expose/immerse yourself in the thoughts and ‘ways’ of God/Christ so that they replace the thoughts and ‘ways’ you have built into habits throughout your life, so that they become second (or actually first) nature for you.  The purpose is not to win some Bible memorization contest.  What you’re trying to do is have Christ “at hand” in your mind, so that you’re ready to have him act on your behalf in whatever situation that confronts you.

Other practices of disciples that people over the centuries have found helpful include: periods of reflective solitude, away from TV’s, smartphones and other distractions; fasting, not as a weight loss strategy, but as a way to underscore in your mind the all-sufficiency of Christ in your life; worship, as a way not just to talk with God, but to joyfully thank Him; fellowship with like-minded followers, to build each other up, and experience the simple pleasure of interacting with those whose minds are set on the same things as yours; service to those around you, possibly in your church, but in any setting where the gift of your time and talents can express love to others and fulfill a human need; and, of course, prayer.

For the disciple, prayer isn’t a staged or formulaic speech to God.  It is a continuous conversation about every detail of every day.  The more one is versed in God’s teaching, the more readily this conversation can zero in on God’s will for the situation, whatever that situation may be, and cut to the heart of the matter.  No topic is too small, so don’t save prayer for the ‘world peace’ kinds of topics.  And don’t ‘schedule’ your communion with God into discreet “prayer times”.  Some folks may be so unbelievably busy with 100% focus jobs (maybe an air traffic controller), that they don’t see it as practical to be constantly interacting with God, and so resort to scheduled times.  Fair enough.

But if you’re not controlling air traffic or performing brain surgery, or similar, just talk with Him.  God’s desire is to be with you in your life and provide His help to you to do His will and to be at peace in whatever situation you have.  Just talk (or more to the point, be in connection) with Him all the time; then you won’t have to worry if you’re praying the right way or about the right things.  The issue here is to strive to not compartmentalize God.  Thinking of some things in our lives as “God things” and others as “my own” things defeats effective discipleship.  Everything is a “God thing.”  We just need to retrain ourselves to see and deal with life in light of that reality.

What to Expect

I’ve already mentioned, above, the ongoing struggle to maintain submission.  Obviously, you should expect this.  If the foremost champion of Christ in history, Paul, had to live with it, so will you and I.  Other things will change, though, and sometimes quite surprisingly.

Perhaps the first thing to change will be your level of interest in or infatuation with ‘stuff’ in the world.  This is a little hard to explain, but you just won’t be as invested in current topics in the world as you once were.  Things like watching the news, reading a newspaper, following the lives of celebrities, seeing who said what to whom on Twitter, etc.: all of these kinds of things will simply fade in importance.  You may still engage in them to some degree, but they won’t be nearly as important.

You will also feel more contentment, even if your personal situation doesn’t change, or even somehow changes for the worse.  This is what the Bible is talking about when it talks about the “peace of God that surpasses all understanding” (Phil 4:7).  The Holy Spirit instills in us a defense mechanism against anxiety.  The more we live with Him, the more our anxiety fades.

If you’re prone to anger, you’ll be less angry, though you may find yourself angry at completely different things.  For example, if you read or hear someone belittling a person that believes in Christ, or someone demeaning belief in God – or God Himself, possibly laced with profanity, you may get angry.  I know I do.  But I’m trying to work on that. 🙂

And almost assuredly, you will find people asking you: “Are you all right?  What happened?”, because they will perceive that you’re changed – you’re not (the old) ‘you’.  If they ask, feel free to tell them what happened.  Feel free to let them know that Christ, the guy who assembled your trillions of sub-atomic particles into you, intervened in your life, called you out of it and into His, and changed you.  Then, don’t be too shy to ask them to spread the word.

[1] http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/blogs/physics/2012/10/quantum-foam-virtual-particles-and-other-curiosities/  What this article fails to mention is that the life span of such virtual particles is 1×10-120 seconds – hardly long enough to build a universe and develop it so that we could exist in it.

[2] Matthew 11:28-30 ( ESV ) 28Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.  29Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  30For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

[3] John 10:9-11 ( ESV ) 9I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture.  10The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.  11I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.

[4] John 15:8-11 ( ESV ) 8By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples.  9As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love.  10If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.  11These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

[5] Matthew 19:24 ( ESV ) 24Again I tell you, it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God.”

[6] Matthew 13:44 ( ESV ) 44“The kingdom of heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy he goes and sells all that he has and buys that field.

[7] This gets back to the discussion in “The Christian Message” of the word “believe” (Gk “pisteuō”).  There’s a huge difference between intellectual assent, and commitment to entrusting your life.