Don't believe everything you think

The other day I saw a bumper sticker that said, “Don’t believe everything you think.” Intrigued, I googled it. Turns out it refers to a song by country singer Lee Brice. The basic premise of the song is: you think you’ve got me all figured out, what kind of person I am and how I’m going to act, but the mind is a funny thing, so don’t believe everything you think. 

Belief is a critical word in the Gospel of John. The evangelist uses the word believe, as in “whosoever believes in me will have eternal life,” ninety-some odd times. It’s like a technical term in this Gospel, having a special meaning for John.  

For us post-Enlightenment folks, belief usually means cognitive assent to a proposition, statement, or fact. We believe that 2 + 2 = 4 or that Ulysses Grant is buried in Grant’s Tomb. Sometimes belief is a conviction or opinion not necessarily based on provable facts. It’s a kind of trust or confidence. I believe that my husband loves me.  Chris believes that the Rolling Stones are the greatest rock-and-roll band ever. Either way, we tend to connect belief with thinking, a conclusion drawn after sifting through facts or experiences. 

And so when we hear this emphasis from Jesus about belief, perhaps we think he’s talking about cognitive assent, too. And perhaps we worry a bit about whether or not we really do believe. After all, the things we are asked to believe in the Bible are often hard to even understand (another cognitive act), much less assent to, without a little dancing around. 

When I was in my teens, I began to question churchy things I had previously accepted. I wondered if I really belonged in church if I wasn’t sure I believed in that way of cognitive assent.  And that was even before I became part of a church where we stand up and say the Nicene Creed every week.

Belief in the Gospel of John is not the same as doing math. When Jesus began to teach the 5000 people after he fed them, they asked him: “What must we do to perform the works of God?” And Jesus answers, “That you believe in him whom God has sent.”  That “him,” of course, is Jesus. 

But what does that really mean? I can believe all kinds of things that may have absolutely nothing to do with how I live my life. The fact that I believe Ulysses Grant to be buried in Grant’s tomb isn’t going to make a difference in how I see the world or treat others. 

When it comes to believing in Jesus, well, that’s different. My belief has to be about something other than intellectual assent, and it has to have something to do with how I live my life. I doubt I will ever master the fact of Jesus. I will never be finished considering what that means. I will never completely understand how Jesus is God, which is what is so difficult to the people hearing Jesus in this reading, because every Jew says twice a day: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” One, not two. Or three.

And, as Solomon astutely noted in his prayer at the Temple, it’s not as if God can be contained in a temple made with hands anyway. The whole world is not big enough to contain God. So how can the whole of God be contained in a flesh-and-blood man? 

And isn’t this question legitimate? Isn’t this one of the hard parts? We explain away the miracles or look for rational explanations because we don’t really think those things can happen.

But in this Gospel, to believe is to decide to enter into relationship. There is a decision, but it is not based on first finding the answer and then agreeing to it. It doesn’t have to do with one’s cognitive abilities (or lack thereof). It’s a decision to be in relationship - with all the ups and downs that are part of the territory of relationship. It’s a decision to be in the kind of relationship that becomes a lens through which to see the world and a framework for how to be in the world. A relationship that will transform us. 

I’ll never be finished with belief, because it’s how I live and what I sometimes struggle with, not what I know, or even what I agree to. 

Solomon built the temple not to contain God but to make a place for the people to meet God.  Jesus, who called himself a temple, is the same for us. Jesus is where we meet God.

And we do so through bread and wine at this altar. We meet God through Jesus right here. This is the abiding that Jesus is talking about. This is HOW we abide in him and he in us. We call it a mystery, a sacrament, something we can’t explain via cognitive powers. It doesn’t matter if we “understand it.” What matters, says Jesus, that we do it. That we participate in this fusing together of physical and spiritual food as both sign and way of being in relationship with God.

But that relationship goes well beyond this altar.  Sometimes I ask myself, what do I believe? But more often the question ought to be, HOW do I believe? And how do I live into that belief in and through all of my life? It only begins here.

Thinking is good. I love engaging with things cognitively (including Scripture). But that isn’t what Jesus means when he asks us to believe. We don’t think into relationship. We live into relationship.  So maybe we shouldn’t believe everything we think. As Jesus said to his disciples as he called them, come and see! 

So maybe we should just decide to come and see.


Ray Barnes said…
"Solomon built the temple not to contain God but to make a place for the people to meet God".
Wonderful sentence Penny.
This is so very much at the heart of things.
For a lot of people going to church on Sunday is because God is there, the hardest thing to accept is that, yes he is there, but it isn't where he lives.
God in us and we in God. Pure faith, not to be proven by any scientific equation.
A great post. Thankyou.
Bill Bynum said…
A great sermon full of meaning and relevance. I cannot comprehend the mystery of faith the same way that I work my way through a research paper, although that's what I seem to try first. I agree with Ray Barnes. Pure faith cannot be proven by any scientific equation.
Thank you, Ray! This one seemed to resonate with a lot of folks. I guess we all wrestle with this from time to time.
Thank you, Bill. It is hard to switch gears from intellectual process to something else without worrying that we are falling into the trap of mindlessness. But it's really the opposite. Faith is more about mindFULness.
steve said…
Great post Penny. I have been struggling with this thinking and believing difference since we have been reading through John. I know it is about right relationship over right thinking but you have articulated it so beautifully
steve etzel
steve said…
Great post Penny. I have been struggling with this thinking and believing difference since we have been reading through John. I know it is about right relationship over right thinking but you have articulated it so beautifully
steve etzel
Hello, Steve - so nice to hear from you! I am glad this was helpful. It may well be a lifelong struggle, this understanding of relationship over thinking, but it is a good way to spend a lifetime, isn't it? Blessings.
Steve, your second post gives me a chance to say something else. I know you to be of a contemplative nature. So I am a little surprised to know that you have this struggle, too. You have taught me something. The song says it all... I thought contemplatives might not be vexed by the worry about thinking over believing. I see I thought something that I shouldn't believe. Thanks!
steve said…
Ha! It is that human condition of ours that makes the thinking creep back into even the most contemplative. We laugh at ourselves about it... but as you say "what a good way to spend a lifetime..