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  • Writer's pictureCole Feix

What Does It Mean to Believe?

What does it mean to believe in Christ? This may sound so rudimentary it hardly needs to be asked. But therein lies the problem. Do we know exactly what it means when we say we ‘believe’ in Christ? Do we know what we’re asking other people to do when we call them to believe in Christ?

The problem begins in a world where the word believe – at least on the surface – means to take something as a fact. Historical, scientific, and otherwise observable facts merely require our intellectual assent. They are true regardless of our thoughts, but we can affirm or deny their validity. As we discussed in the resurrection episode of the podcast a few weeks ago, many facets of the Christian faith fall into this category. We assent to the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as historical facts. We read along in the Bible, believing the things reported there are true. We believe the Word of God as we believe God; what he says happened, actually happened. What he says will happen, will happen.

To this point, though, we’ve yet to come into the realm of faith, trust, or belief in biblical terms. James reminds us that even the demons ‘believe’ in the factual statement that there is one God (James 2:19). In the Gospels, the demons often say truer things about Jesus than the disciples do. When Jesus comes upon a demon-possessed man in the synagogue at Capernaum, the demon says, “What have you to do with us, Jesus of Nazareth? Have you come to destroy us? I know who you are—the Holy One of God.” That sounds like a statement of fact. Is it belief in Jesus? Of course not, we would conclude. So, what makes the difference?

Beyond Belief

Without overstating it, I consider Iain McGilchrist one of the world’s most important thinkers today. He became well-known after he published The Master and His Emissary in 2009. Many people now have come to know him through listening to Jordan Peterson. If you’re looking for an introduction to McGilchrist’s work, listen to their most recent conversation. If you think Peterson is brilliant (and he is), wait until you listen to McGilchrist.

The thesis of The Master and His Emissary is that the two hemispheres of the brain are oriented to the world in two different ways, producing two different world pictures. McGilchrist argues that the ascendance of the left hemisphere in our society bodes poorly for our grasp of the truth and our experience of the world. The dominant values we live by and the reductionistic world picture we experience has given us a re-presentation of the world most consistent with the left hemisphere. Going beyond that, in The Master and His Emissary, he argues that whole cultures can succumb to this kind of over-emphasis.

In his latest work, The Matter with Things, his magnum opus, McGilchrist looks at the very foundations of knowledge and belief, arguing that there are far more ways to “know” than scientific inquiry and logical deduction. He includes reason, science, intuition, and imagination among the paths to truth, and he emphasizes that these avenues together bring us to experience the presence of the world around us. I could go on about McGilchrist’s project (and certainly will in future posts), but I want to bring his insights back to believing in Jesus.

Belief and Love

One of McGilchrist’s key insights is that belief must include elements of the will and of relationship. Belief is bound up in assent, trust, and love. Even the word ‘belief’ reveals a deeper and more involved concept than intellectual assent; “Belief too is about fidelity (Latin fides, faith). The word ‘belief’ has nowhere buried in it the idea of signing up for a proposition, whether certain or uncertain. It is not a matter of cognition but of recognition. The word ‘belief’ comes from the same root as the word ‘love,’ a sense preserved in the now archaic word ‘lief’, familiar to us from Shakespeare, with which one once described one’s friend, sweetheart, or lord – someone in whom one believed” (McGilchrist, The Matter with Things, 385-386).

He may be overestimating our knowledge of Shakespeare, but the point holds, nevertheless. There is a deep connection between believing and loving. And because of that, there is a relational component to belief. “Belief is about a relationship, in which by definition, more than one party is involved. The believer needs to be disposed to love, but the believed-in needs to inspire another’s belief or trust” (McGilchrist, The Matter with Things, 386). It’s hard not to see the connection with the way the Bible talks about faith and belief.

Of course, Christians have been onto this for some time. Esther Meek, a Christian philosopher, captured this phenomenon in the book Loving to Know. She reminds us that all-knowing is wrapped up in loving. The heart is as involved in knowing, trusting, and believing as the brain. Especially when we’re talking about believing in a person, as we are in Christianity, there’s a heart component involved in the relational aspect that must go along with the mind component involved in the intellectual aspect. Further, the biblical terms that we translate heart (cardia) and soul (psyche) encompass a much greater and deeper portion of our ‘self’ than the term ‘mind’ does today. To love God with your heart, soul, mind, and strength is to trust him, believe him, surrender to him, and be in a relationship with him.

What Must We Do?

This being the case, we cannot help but arrive at the conclusion that to “believe in Jesus” is to love him and to be in a real relationship with him. In Acts 16, Paul and Silas are jailed for preaching the gospel in Philippi. After an earthquake shakes the doors off their hinges, the jailor, in a panic, moves to take his own life. Paul cries out that he and the other prisoners are all in place. As the jailor comes in to observe the prisoners, he falls down and asks, “What must I do to be saved?”

This, indeed, is the question. We have all faced it. What should we do to be saved? How do we, separated by two thousand years from the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ, have anything to do with him? It’s obvious in this context that the admission of his historical reality is not enough. Paul answers, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved, you and your household” (Acts 16:31). The jailor must do more than assent to Christ; he must surrender to him and put the weight of his trust on him. He must love him and find in him the solution to his sinful plight. As John writes, “Whoever confesses that Jesus is the son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So, we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him" (1 John 4:15-16). Essentially, to know him is to love him. Better yet, to trust in him is to love him.

To return to the opening question, to believe in Jesus Christ is to come to know, love, trust in, and surrender to him. This is why repentance and belief are two sides to the same coin. Believing in him requires something of us. Believing is the wholehearted embrace of the message and mission of Christ that begins with a decision to trust him and takes a lifetime of relationship to unpack.

Dr. Cole Feix is the founder and president of So We Speak and the Senior Pastor of Carlton Landing Community Church in Oklahoma.


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