|Believing a plane can fly, and actually getting on one to fly somewhere|
are two different things.
If you knew someone who builds birdhouses once in a while, what would you think if that person declared, “I’m a carpenter”? What would be the difference between him and the individual who pursues carpentry as a profession, building and renovating houses five days a week, 52 weeks a year?
When I was young, I would write poems from time to time, dabbled with composing short stories, and enjoyed writing letters. But it wasn’t until I began my career as a newspaper editor, writing scores of articles every week, that I felt I could legitimately describe myself as a “writer.”
It obviously makes a difference how we use terms and what we mean when we use them. An occasional hobby does not a full-time vocation make.
I’m thinking about this because there seems to be a similar difference between intellectual belief and genuine faith. I believe the first President of the United States was George Washington, but I’ve never placed my faith in him. The same could be said of every President since, including the current occupant of the Oval Office.
When the meteorologist predicts rain for tomorrow morning, I believe her. Why would she lie? But do I really believe her? Tomorrow morning I’ll look out the door, and if I don’t spot any precipitation and the sidewalk is dry, I’ll probably consult my weather app before deciding whether I’ll need an umbrella for wherever I’m going. My belief in what the weather lady said didn’t translate into faith.
This is why we sometimes stumble over the use of the word “believe” in the Bible. We use the term easily, even flippantly, but belief doesn’t always equate to a genuine faith in Jesus Christ. After all, in James 2:19 we’re told, “You believe there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe – and shudder.” And I doubt anyone would suspect demons of being devoted followers of Jesus.
Consider another analogy I’ve used before: Many people who believe in jet airplanes refuse to board one. If we were to ask any of them if they believed the plane could take them to their intended destination, they’d probably say yes. But they’re still unwilling to entrust themselves to the aircraft and its crew.
In their defense, Jesus did say in Matthew 28:20, “lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age!" (But I don’t think that’s what He meant.) For whatever reason, while they may have intellectual belief, some folks lack the necessary faith to get on the plane, take a seat, strap in, and expect to arrive safely at their destination.
Actually, the Bible uses the word “believe” in different ways. One meaning relates to knowledge, like the time recounted in Matthew 14 when Jesus was walking on the water while His disciples were in a boat being buffeted by waves of the sea. When impetuous Peter saw Him, he asked Jesus, “Lord, if it’s you…tell me to come to you on the water.”
When Jesus said, “Come,” Peter responded by stepping out. Within moments, however, he must have had one of those “What was I thinking!” moments and began to go down into the water. Peter believed several things. He knew it was Jesus strolling across the surface of the water and the waves, and also that Jesus had invited him to step out of the boat. But he also knew walking on water wasn’t a normal human activity, so he took his eyes off Jesus and started sinking.
So what does it mean when the Bible says, in passages such as John 3:16 and John 3:36, “whoever believes” will have eternal life? In this case, the term involves far more than information and knowledge. Literally it means to entrust oneself to the object of belief. When I boarded planes to fly to and from Italy in July, I entrusted myself to the jetliner and the crew, believing – by faith – they would get me where I wanted to go.
This is why I use a simple “spiritual equation” when meeting with men in mentoring or discipling relationships:
Belief + Trust = Faith
I remember the days I believed in Jesus Christ in an intellectual sense. I can’t remember doubting the existence of Christ from a factual standpoint. But it wasn’t until I was about 30 years old that my belief transformed into genuine, saving faith and new life spiritually.
Consider the honesty of the father of a demon-possessed boy who approached Jesus, asking Him to heal his son – if He could. When Jesus replied, “’If [I] can?’ Everything is possible for one who believes,” the dad candidly responded, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief” (Mark 9:17-29).
We’ve probably all had times like that, when we wanted to believe God could do something specific in answer to our prayers, but couldn’t imagine how He could do it. So whether consciously or not, we think, “Lord, I do believe – enable me to overcome my unbelief.” The good news is, based on how Jesus interacted with the troubled father and his afflicted son, He’s more than willing to do just that.