Believing Well -- Part 1
Once upon a time, I lived in Pampa, Texas – a town in the panhandle, where it is so flat that on a clear day you can see the back of your own head. It is a small town, and, as it is in many small towns, everybody seems to know everybody else’s business. One of the wisest women I’ve ever met lived there, and I miss her to this day.
Ms. Dona, who had lived well for a good long time, once told me something about life in a small town, especially the unsavory parts of it. She said that sometimes someone messes up and sullies a family’s name. When that happens, there are three ways to deal with it.
- You can change your name and pretend your family isn’t in any way related to that dastardly person.
- You can leave town and start over somewhere else.
- Or you can stay put, live a superlative life and try to redeem your good name.
There are some folks in the Christian community who seem to want to opt for the former path. Let’s change our names. Stop calling ourselves Evangelicals or even Christians. Let’s be “Followers of The Way” or something like that.
I, for one, have mixed feelings about this. For one thing, the names they pick out always sound creepy – like we should all be wearing matching sneakers and waiting for the mothership to come pick us up at any moment. I understand, given some of the things that have gone on in modern-day Christian culture, why they want to do this; I'm just not sure I care for their solution.
Others seem to just want to move on. Let’s resign ourselves to the fact that the west has become a post-Christian wasteland. It’s all secular now and beyond redemption. Christendom in the west is past its expiration date. Let’s focus all our attention on Africa or Asia.
But if Ms. Dona taught me anything it’s that wisdom lies in that third path. Let’s stay put, live superlative lives, and redeem our good name. To reconnect your name with the name of all your good ancestors – the ones who worked hard and paid their bills and were good neighbors.
To do that will take courage and discernment. Perhaps most difficult of all, it will require us to learn the difference between believing right and believing well.
I was sitting in my office a few years ago when my cell phone rang. I didn’t recognize the number at first, but I knew the voice immediately.
He’s a man I’ve known for a long time. I’ve learned from him. I’ve laughed with him. I’ve fought with him. I’ve respected him, and I’ve made fun of him. I’ve sat with people when his name comes up in conversation, and we’ve collectively rolled our eyes. We’ve heard stories about him and said, “That’s just like him.” We’ve told stories about him that included the phrase, “You know how he is.”
But this day there was something different in his voice. He asked me to pray for him. “Just pray for me, John,” he said. “I’ve been wrong. I’ve written things that were just plain wrong. You suffered some of that abuse, didn’t you?”
I sat silent.
“I’m sorry. I’m rambling. This morning I got on my knees and told God I was sorry. I’ve gotten so caught up in being right. Does that make sense?”
Yes, I know the feeling. More than I care to admit.
We talked for a few minutes more. We talked about how easy it is to miss the “who” of Christianity and get caught up in the “what.” We talked about how we fool ourselves into believing that we’re fighting for truth, when we’re really fighting to be the one who gets everything right – or to be heard – to be respected. If we can’t be liked or loved, at least we can be feared.
He was telling me anything I didn't already know. The truth is, I know it all too well.
Christianity – at its core – is relational, not propositional. The diagnostic questions we must ask ourselves have less to do with how well we know our Bibles and more to do with how well we love the people around us. Are we more approachable or less? Are we becoming more like Jesus or more like the people Jesus criticized?
It’s strange how humbling an experience like this can be. Rather than putting me in some kind of superior position, it brought me down to the place of being a servant. Praying for him was like washing his feet.
“Pray for me, John. Will you do that?”
Of course I would. I did. I still do.
I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about this friend and how things had gotten off track for him. He’d become a kind of caricature of Christianity – always right, always proud, always yelling his truth with a bullhorn. How did he get there?
I've come to this conclusion: he had been believing right – he just hadn’t been believing well.
The man on the other end of my phone that day is a bona fide theologian. He’s taught in seminaries. He knows Greek. I mean he really knows Greek. He can recite lengthy passages of the New Testament in the original language. He’s read many of the same orthodox, conservative scholars I’ve read (he’s especially fond of Francis Schaeffer). The content of his faith is pretty solid. It’s the quality of his faith that causes him problems.
See, there’s what we believe (content), and then there’s how we hold those beliefs (quality).
It’s possible to believe all the right things in all the wrong ways.
Most of our conversations about faith focus on content. We get all worked up trying to convince someone whose faith content is different from ours that our content is better than their content.
What we don’t often realize is that many of our friends and neighbors don’t think content is all that important anymore. They’ll say things like, “What you believe isn’t that important as long as you’re sincere.” Of course, even the most politically correct or spiritually enlightened person has limits, and they’ll admit that the whole 9/11-thing was a fly in the ointment for this kind of sentimentality. On that day, men of sincere conviction flew airplanes into buildings full of tolerant people. Clearly, what they did was wrong, but what’s a tolerant person to say in light of such terrible events?
So, now the statement has to be modified appropriately: “What you believe isn’t that important as long as you’re sincere…and you don’t hurt anyone.”
In other words, “Believe whatever you believe. Just be sincere and leave the rest of us alone.”
Christians are often quick to dismiss this as sloppy thinking, the worst postmodernism, pluralism, and relativism have to offer. But, while it is an overstatement, we should be cautious about dismissing it altogether. There is a kernel of truth hiding behind the fuzzy sentiments. What we believe is important, but it is not the only important thing. How we believe is also important, and we would be wise to consider the quality of our faith alongside its content.
Wade Hodges, another of my friends, likes to say, “In the long run, quality trumps content.” Of course, Wade is just restating something the philosopher Peter Kreeft said years ago, “An honest atheist in search of truth will find it; a dishonest Christian won’t.” Given a long enough runway, an honest and authentic search for truth will lead to the desired destination. But right beliefs pointed in the wrong direction will inevitably lead to error.
Photo Credit: Kathy Hillacre