When people are asked what they believe in, they give, not merely different answers, but different sorts of answers. Someone might say, “I believe in UFOs”—that means, I think UFOs are real. “I believe in democracy”—that means, I think democratic principles are just and beneficial. But what does it mean when Christian congregations stand and say: “I believe in God”? Far more than when the object of belief is UFOs or democracy.
I can believe in UFOs without ever looking for one, and in democracy without ever voting. In cases like these, belief is a matter of the intellect only. But the Creed’s opening words, “I believe in God,” render a Greek phrase coined by the writers of the New Testament, meaning literally: “I am believing into God.” That is to say, over and above believing certain truths about God, I am living in a relation of commitment to God in trust and union. When I say “I believe in God,” I am professing my conviction that God has invited me to this commitment, and declaring that I have accepted his invitation.
Bob Vernon, formerly with the Los Angeles Police Department, tells of how the Department would test bullet-proof vests; and demonstrate to rookie officers their value by placing them on mannequins and then shooting round after round at them.
They’d then check to see if any of the rounds penetrated the vests. Invariably the vests would pass the test with flying colors. Vernon would then turn to the rookie officers and ask, “So who wants to wear it now instead of the mannequin?”
Getting In The Wheelbarrow
One of my favorite stories of revealing authentic belief is the story of Charles Blondin, the French tightrope walker. On June 30, 1859, he did his most famous act when he became the first person to cross a tightrope stretched across the mighty Niagara Falls. The tightrope was more than a quarter mile long, suspended 160 feet above the foils, and he walked across several times, each time in a different way: once on stilts, once on a bike, once in the dark, and once blindfolded!
A large crowd gathered to watch, with each feat bringing louder applause. At a different performance, the crowd oohed and aahed as Blondin carefully walked across; one dangerous step after another, pushing a wheelbarrow holding a huge sack of potatoes. Then at one point, he asked the crowd, “Do you believe I can carry a person across in this wheelbarrow?”
The crowd enthusiastically yelled, “Yes! Yes! We believe! You are the greatest tightrope walker in the world. We believe!”
“Okay,” said Blondin, “who wants to get into the wheelbarrow? They said they believed, but no one was willing to get into the wheelbarrow.
God Believes in You
There was what an Orthodox Hasidic rabbi had said on a flight westward. He’d put his prayer shawl in the overhead compartment and sat down, sweeping aside the tassels dangling from his pockets. And somewhere over the mountains, the light thick above the clouds, the rabbi had turned to me, mid-conversation. “Why do you people always say it’s about having a strong belief in God? Who sits with the knowing that God’s belief in you is even stronger than yours in Him?” I’d put down my Styrofoam cup of black coffee and tried to read the rabbi’s face.
He’d leaned forward in his seat and tilted his head so he could look at me directly. “You may believe in God, but never forget—it’s God who believes in you.” He looked out the window and pointed. “Every morning that the sun rises and you get to rise? That’s God saying He believes in you, that He believes in the story He’s writing through you. He believes in you as a gift the world needs.”
On Heaven and Hell
There’s a story of a young girl on a plane who was reading her Bible, and there was a businessman sitting next to her. He looked over to her and he said, you don’t really believe that do you?” And she said, why yes I do”. And the businessmen than said, you really believe that Jonah was swallowed up by a whale. “Well it was actually a big fish” she responded. Okay, a big fish. You don’t really believe he’s in heaven do you? And the young girl responds “well yes of course I do, and I plan on meeting him there some day. Well what if he isn’t there? The business man replied. “Well then you can meet him” she replied.
A Map & Our Beliefs
A few years ago I was with my family in Washington, D.C., a wildly complex city laid out like a square wheel with broken spokes making an angular maze that is a nightmare to navigate. However, my family and I arrived at our various destinations and returned back safely to our hotel every evening, rarely getting off track. How did we do that in a world with no knowledge?
We found our way using a remarkable little invention called a map. Did you ever think about what takes place when you use a map? Maps represent a belief about what a piece of the world is like (Washington, D.C., in my case). There is a simple way to test to see if that belief is correct. We find our current location on the map, plot a course, then move out. If our beliefs are true (if the map is accurate), we arrive where we intended to go.
If our beliefs are not accurate, we’ll learn that soon enough. Notice that perfection is not required in this enterprise. Sometimes we get it wrong, but even then, we know we’re wrong because of new, accurate information that shows us our error.
This little exercise repeats itself thousands of times a day, every day of our lives in the countless details we encounter as we navigate our world. Our beliefs about reality are like that map. We constantly test them to see if they match up with the world.
When they do, we know our beliefs are true. Every time we use a map or take a medicine or drive a freeway or move from bedroom to bathroom in the middle of the night, we prove that at least parts of the story of reality can be known. If not—if we couldn’t know certain important things that are actually true about the world—we’d be dead in a day.
You never know how much you really believe anything until its truth or falsehood becomes a matter of life and death. It is easy to say you believe a rope to be strong as long as you are merely using it to cord a box. But suppose you had to hang by that rope over a precipice. Wouldn’t you then first discover how much you really trusted it?
Thomas Jefferson’s Bible
The great American statesman and president Thomas Jefferson was a man of science who did not believe in miracles but really liked Jesus. Unfortunately, right next to Jesus’ ethical teachings are stories about miracles—feeding five thousand people with a sack lunch, walking on water, curing blindness. Jefferson resolved this conflict in a very pragmatic way. He took a pair of scissors and cut out the miracle stories. He was left with the teachings of Jesus. He also snipped out some of those teachings that were a bit incredible. In the end he had just the Jesus he wanted.
Vance Vanders and the Witch Doctor
Late one night in a small Alabama cemetery, Vance Vanders had a run-in with the local witch doctor, who wafted a bottle of unpleasant-smelling liquid in front of his face, and told him he was about to die and that no one could save him. Back home, Vanders took to his bed and began to deteriorate. Some weeks later, emaciated and near death, he was admitted to the local hospital, where doctors were unable to find a cause for his symptoms or slow his decline.
Only then did his wife tell one of the doctors, Drayton Doherty, of the hex. Doherty thought long and hard. The next morning, he called Vanders’s family to his bedside. He told them that the previous night he had lured the witch doctor back to the cemetery, where he had choked him against a tree until he explained how the curse worked.
The medicine man had, he said, rubbed lizard eggs into Vanders’s stomach, which had hatched inside his body. One reptile remained, which was eating Vanders from the inside out. Doherty then summoned a nurse who had, by prior arrangement, filled a large syringe with a powerful emetic [a substance which induces vomiting]. With great ceremony, he inspected the instrument and injected its contents into Vanders’s arm. A few minutes later, Vanders began to gag and vomit uncontrollably. In the midst of it all, unnoticed by everyone in the room, Doherty produced his pièce de résistance—a green lizard he had stashed in his black bag. “Look what has come out of you Vance,” he cried. “The voodoo curse is lifted.” Vanders did a double take, lurched backwards to the head of the bed, then drifted into a deep sleep. When he woke the next day he was alert and ravenous. He quickly regained his strength and was discharged a week later…
In the 1970s, Sam Shoeman was diagnosed with liver cancer and told he had only months to live. A few months after his death, the autopsy revealed the doctors were wrong. He had only one small tumor still contained within the liver—not a life-threatening stage of cancer. Sam Shoeman did not die from liver cancer; he died from believing he was dying of liver cancer. Our beliefs change us mentally, physically and spiritually.
What Do You Believe?
In ordinary times we get along surprisingly well, on the whole, without ever discovering what our faith really is. If, now and again, this remote and academic problem is so unmannerly as to thrust its way into our minds, there are plenty of things we can do to drive the intruder away…
But to us in wartime, cut off from mental distractions by restrictions and blackouts, and cowering in a cellar with a gas mask under threat of imminent death, comes in the stronger fear and sits down beside us. “What,” he demands rather disagreeably, “do you make of all this? What do you believe? Is your faith a comfort to you under the present circumstances?”
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on Belief. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!