Studying and Believing
This lesson is part of Mel Lawrenz’ “How to Study the Bible” series. If you know someone or a group who would like to follow along on this journey through Scripture, they can get more info and sign up to receive these essays via email here.
Many people today have heard that faith is not possible anymore, that we know better than that now. To say that you absolutely believe in something or someone is to be certain where there is no certainty. It is to risk being a social pariah because to say you absolutely know something will prove antisocial to at least somebody along the way. One thing is certain, these people say, be suspicious of certainty. And they are quite certain about this uncertainty.
But belief is not about us. The true believer doesn’t focus on himself, saying, I believe this. Rather, he or she says, I believe this. The more focus there is on the experience of believing, the greater the risk that we can believe something just for the sake of believing.
Belief is not just about knowing; it is about trusting. True faith in God is one of the most intimate personal states a person can find himself or herself in. It is not just about gathering and processing information, otherwise a computer would be a “believer” of sorts. Because there is so much information to process, so many voices to listen to, so many topics that get thrown in our faces everyday, we use up most of our “belief energy” just sorting it all out. In the contemporary world, believing becomes calculating, and drawing a sum. We forget that the most important belief in life is a decision not about what, but about whom. Faith says, this God I can trust.
When we believe, when we trust, we are the most human we ever are, because we are actively connecting with our Creator, anchoring ourselves in his unchangeable nature. Knowing and trusting a friend or a spouse projects us into a world larger than ourselves—and how much more when we know and trust the God who made us and loves us with an irrepressible love.
But whom should we believe? And why? Which God? Which religion? Which doctrine? What about the Bible?
Time and again people responded to Jesus’ words with speechless astonishment. Perhaps as they listened to Jesus’ teaching, they occasionally found themselves turning a corner and stunned by a vista of reality that was bigger and grander than they had imagined. Not everyone who heard Jesus became believers because we all have personal agendas that can hold us in disbelief. But everyone who did hear had to grapple with the power of what he said, and they had to decide what to do with the authoritative voice with which he spoke—an authority that did not come from a booming microphone or spotlights or banners, but from the ring of truth in the words themselves, backed up by every action he performed.
The gospel writers make it clear that one of the outstanding features of Jesus’ ministry was that he freely and naturally exercised this authority. People sensed that they were under the immediate influence of God. Jesus’ words struck at the heart; they were clear, strong, unequivocal, simple, and mysterious. They both wounded and healed, and when they did wound, they offered immediate healing as well. His words still stick in people’s minds and keep moving across the landscape of history like a cyclone. That’s why almost everybody, including even proponents of other religions, show respect for the thunder and lightning of Jesus’ teaching.
But showing respect is one thing; responding is another. In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus talked about one man who built a house on a rock foundation and another whose house rested on a bed of unstable sand. The house-on-sand person hears Jesus’ words only, whereas the house-on-rock person hears and practices. Respect plus response. It was right after this tale of two builders that Matthew mentions the people’s astonishment at Jesus’ authority. The people were not saying, “Did you hear what this fellow is trying to assert?” They were swept up in the power of the Word himself. His authority carried them, and it carries us still. It summons us not just to listen, but to act.
House building is a metaphor for life. Christ does not assert authority so that he can push his weight around. God doesn’t impose commands so that he can have a bevy of mindless followers. His is an act of grace. These authoritative words come to us because God knows there is so much we need to learn about life. Ignorance may not be a sin, but it is an extraordinarily dangerous way to live.
When someone asks, “Why should I believe what the Bible teaches?” or, “Why should I believe the specific things taught about personal ethics, and life after death, and God’s providence in history, and angels, and failure?” the answer he or she deserves is that followers of Jesus Christ believe such things (knowing and trusting) because they believe they have heard an authoritative voice on the matters. Christ summons, and the oracles of prophets and the writings of apostles are Holy Scripture—the exhalation of God’s own Spirit.
Mel Lawrenz trains an international network of Christian leaders, ministry pioneers, and thought-leaders. He served as senior pastor of Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin, for ten years and now serves as Elmbrook’s minister at large. He has a Ph.D. in the history of Christian thought and is on the adjunct faculty of Trinity International University. Mel is the author of 18 books, the latest, How to Understand the Bible—A Simple Guide and Spiritual Influence: the Hidden Power Behind Leadership (Zondervan, 2012). See more of Mel’s writing at WordWay.