What if I'm not certain what I believe?

"Not certain what I believe?" Try asking it this way: "Not certain what I trust?" If we can substitute "trust" for "believe," the fog around faith might be pierced with some new light.

Permission to reprint granted by Cowley Publications.

Becoming Human by Brian C. Taylor

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Trust in Jesus

Written By Brian Taylor

Trust in JesusExcerpted with permission from Becoming Human: Core Teachings of Jesus, published by Cowley Publications.

Many spiritual seekers, genuine in their quest, cannot bring themselves to “believe in Jesus Christ” in the way that they think the church expects them to. Some grew up in a Christian tradition that demanded strict obedience to doctrine and moral teachings. As they matured, they discovered that life wasn’t quite so black and white as it was presented to them.

Perhaps they went through a divorce or came to know closely a gay or lesbian person. They became friends with Buddhists, Jews, Native Americans, Muslims, loving agnostics, none of whom seemed wicked enough to be consigned to hell.

All of these experiences began to undermine the rigidity of their religious upbringing, eventually rendering it less credible. Now when they hear Jesus referred to in the Nicene Creed as “the only Son of God” or the admonition in John 14:6 that “No one comes to the Father except through me,” they can’t buy it. Christianity and the teachings of Jesus then become inaccessible for them.

Others have never worried too much about these things, being more comfortable with theological ambiguity and the ultimate love of God for all people. For them “belief in Christ” is the way that Christians enter more deeply into their faith life, just as people of other traditions place their belief in other things. And yet they, too, sometimes squirm when they hear the exclusive language voiced by televangelists or even in the traditional phrases of their own scriptures, creeds, and liturgical prayers.

An analysis of the doctrines of the church lies outside the scope of this book. And yet, if we are to take to heart the teachings of Jesus, we must deal at least briefly with this question of “belief in” him.

There are plenty of New Testament passages that call for belief in Christ. Primarily found in the letters of Paul and in the gospel of John, these texts were written by members of the early church as statements of their faith experience rather than factual reports of historical events. Even the gospel of John should not be understood as direct quotations of Jesus and a historical record of his actions, but rather as a portrayal of how the Christian community experienced the risen Christ in their faith and worship. In their writing of the gospels, they were proclaiming their spiritual experience of Christ.

And so the passages in John that refer to belief in Christ should be heard as “Jesus is for us the way to God, the truth and the life; he is our light, he is our bread, our gate, our true vine” (see John 14:6; 9:5; 6:48; 10:9; 15:1). This brings a very different feel to the texts than if Jesus were pointing to himself, saying, “I am the way, the only way, for everyone without exception.”

With this in mind, we can read the gospel of John and the letters of Paul, both texts that emphasize the necessity of belief in Christ, as faith statements of certain leaders of the early church. But even this should not be seen in an exclusive way. Reading the whole context of these writings, one sees that they did not demand belief in Christ in order to condemn everyone who did not share these beliefs. They did not have in mind all the Jews, Buddhists, Muslims, Hindus, agnostics, and native people of this world, thinking, “Well, they may be decent enough people, but they’re all going to hell for eternity if they don’t become baptized and believe these theological propositions about Jesus Christ.”

Instead, I think that their effusive (and sometimes exclusive) language was the language of love. They had encountered the spirit of the resurrected Jesus, and it had changed their lives. They wanted nothing more than to share this wonderful, liberating experience with the whole world: Jews, Greeks, atheists, everyone. The wonderful news was that now one didn’t have to live up to religious laws and rules in order to earn one’s way into heaven; instead, one could find freedom through a relationship with the living spirit of Christ, as they had. It was more a free offer of food from one beggar to another than a set of rigid beliefs that fenced off heaven from hell.

Effusive, even exclusive language was the way they expressed their enthusiastic desire to share what they had found. After all, when one falls in love, one might say, “I met the most wonderful, beautiful woman in the world,” never meaning to imply that there are no other beautiful women on the planet. Similarly, certain members of the early church said, in the enthusiasm of love and liberation, “This Jesus is the way to God! He has changed my life! You, too, can drink of this living water!” It is the good news (translated as “gospel”), a positive message of what happens when one enters into a relationship with the living Christ. It is not the bad news of what happens when one does not.

If one then turns to the synoptic gospels—Mark, Matthew and Luke—(the gospels that are more historically accurate in terms of Jesus’ own teachings), one sees this good news even more clearly. In these three gospels, Jesus is not running around pointing to himself and demanding that everyone believe certain theological propositions about him. He points to “the Father,” to whom all have a natural and equal access. He talks about life, love, faith, forgiveness, relationships, poverty, justice, and all the ways in which we might enter more deeply into an authentic and liberating life of faith. He asks people to follow him into this life of freedom that he knows and lives and passionately wants to share. He wants us break the chains that keep us imprisoned and to go with him, all of us together, into the kingdom of God.

And yet, over the centuries the church has at times still emphasized the exclusive message of condemnation. Why? Partly because this message controls the masses. If you can threaten people with hell, many of them will be more likely to obey you. It also has a way of strengthening one’s own position, so that one might give oneself to it with more certainty and abandon. And in fairness to the early church, they wrote these scriptures and creeds and doctrines at a time when the very fragile, nascent Christian community was in the process of splitting into a hundred splinter groups, each with its own set of beliefs and customs. If this had continued, Christianity, and Jesus’ liberating gospel with it, would have disappeared off the face of the earth. Certainty and theological boundaries had a way of helping the church survive.

What then does one do now with the church’s directive to “believe in Jesus”? One approach is to toss it out entirely, but that has a way of constantly putting us at odds with the Bible and the church’s worship, since in these places we are frequently confronted with that which we have rejected.

But there is another positive use of “belief in Christ” that is both faithful to the church’s experience and teachings, and also nonexclusive. It is to understand that when we believe in something or someone, we place our trust there. When we really believe in our partner in love, we place our trust in them. We count on them to be there for us, to be true and faithful to us. We know that as we place our trust in another, they will come through. We will follow that person anywhere, because we believe in him or her.

The same is true with Jesus. When we place our trust in him, when we open our heart to his spirit, he comes through. He then lives in us, he teaches us by his presence, and he guides us into a free and vital life. Jesus is spiritually alive, after all. He is not just a revered dead teacher of the past. The Christian community believes that he is spiritually alive as a resurrected presence, available to anyone who turns to him in faith. As we place our trust in this presence, he comes through. This is believing in Jesus, much more so than believing certain theological doctrines about him.

It is far more challenging and rewarding to place our trust in Jesus than merely to believe that doctrinal statements about him are objectively true. For what does it really mean to simply say, “I believe that Jesus died for my sins, that he is my savior, that he is the second person of the Trinity and the only way to God"? Perhaps nothing. Just because one believes that these things are true does not necessarily mean that one is any different, any more loving, any more connected to God than if one didn’t believe these things.

By contrast, if you place your trust in Jesus, if you open your heart to his life-giving presence, you will enter into a relationship of faith that will change you. You may be more likely to try to forgive instead of holding onto resentment like a security blanket; you may look at that homeless person at the freeway on-ramp a little differently; you may start to awaken to the quiet joy of just being alive in God, even when things are not going so well for you. Like any relationship, you will be asked to risk the experiment of living as he lives. This relationship will make you, by your efforts and by the grace of God, a more healthy, loving, courageous, and faithful person. You will, in fact, become more like Jesus himself, taking on his own character.

This approach to belief has always been the real heart of the church’s teaching about Jesus, not the threat of condemnation for those who are unorthodox in their theology. This teaching began when the members of the early church discovered that Jesus’ spiritual presence liberated them and changed their world. And so they proclaimed, “If you, too, place your trust in him, he will do the same for you!”

When we trust in Jesus this way we begin to know, from the inside out, what it means to follow him. He speaks to us from within, calling us to live generously, to let go of worry, to turn from sin toward an always-loving God; we listen, we follow his bidding, and we are changed. When Jesus walked the region of Galilee and invited people to follow him, he was not just asking them to travel where he was headed down the road. He was not even just asking them to coolly and objectively consider his teachings, alongside the valid teachings of other spiritual masters. He was asking them to journey with him, to enter into his life, to experience what he had to offer. He was asking them to allow him some space in their heart, so that he could affect them in a personal and loving relationship. He was inviting them to place their trust in him.

When they did so, their following was something far more than mere theological certainty. Their following was a fully committed entrance into a way of life, with Jesus as their guide. As their belief gave them the ability to place their trust in him, their following allowed them to go with him where they might not otherwise be able to go. Jesus led them, as they trusted in him, into new spiritual territory.

So it is with all who trust in and follow Jesus. We, too, are attracted to his teaching, to his refreshing and authentic character. He catches our attention and his words penetrate deeply into our souls. If our response to Jesus remains cool, detached, and objective, we might benefit from him as we would benefit from any wise teacher. But if we know in our heart that his words, his actions, and his character are deeply and authentically true, we will be drawn to place our trust in him. We will enter into a relationship with him. We will begin to count on his presence and his guidance as he leads us into the kingdom, and we will follow him into its depths. We will then know for ourselves the good news that the church has always proclaimed: “you shall know the truth, and the truth will make you free” (John 8:32).

Copyright ©2005 Brian C. Taylor

Brian C. Taylor lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he has been Rector of St. Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church since 1983. He is also the author of Becoming Christ: Transformation through Contemplation.