The word “believe” is an example of a word whose meaning has been corrupted over time so that it is harder to understand the Bible’s intent when using it. Examples like, “I’m a believer now!”, “Seeing is believing!”, or choosing a ‘belief system’ are proper, but “I believe we’ve met” is more like “maybe”, and an older kid still sort of believing in santa to keep getting presents has belief weakened by doubt. Or a person may not want to think and determine for themselves what to believe so they ignore the doubts and deceive themselves with a lie they say they believe. So “believe” is supposed to be like “abide” (live by, accept as truth after objective study to overcome shallow ignorance and bias), not like “maybe” or “doubt” or self-deception.
An example of a topic that every single person ever born has some type of understanding of “believe” is gravity. From birth they are testing and learning the laws of gravity and know that it is real. They have a type of faith in it even though they can’t see it and don’t understand the science of it. People with a more juvenile idea of believing will assume things about gravity and their abilities instead of learning first and then obeying what they have learned, so they risk being harmed by their poor choices (pride and ignorance make them believe in maybes and self-deceptions). They may err on the side of convenience and defy gravity by assuming they can jump across an obstacle instead of determining what the odds are of making it, risking harm. They are also more likely to disrespect the laws of gravity by ignoring what they have learned, and need frequent reminders like slipping on ice or falling into the fountain at the mall because they are not paying enough attention (respect) to the rules.
Other people choose to learn what to believe about how gravity works and the benefits/risks of obeying or disregarding what they have learned. The harm they suffer when they ignore the rules removes any doubt that gravity is real and must be obeyed. The more they learn, the more firm their belief and the more “maybes” and “doubts” they remove from their intent to obey. If they are confronted with a choice of leaping across a ditch or taking the long way around, they consider their options/abilities with gravity and make an informed decision about what to do. If they decide the jump is too risky they will err on the side of caution and walk the long way around. They are living by, abiding in, obeying what they have chosen to believe.
Faith in an idea is what causes a person to test and prove something is true and leads to believing in it. Believing in it and seeing the success when following it and the failure when ignoring it leads to knowing the importance of obeying it. Seeing the success from obeying it leads to wondering what other faith ideas should be tested and added to the beliefs that must be obeyed. This cycle eventually creates a belief system for the person, they are a becoming a disciplined student (disciple) of it, learning what works IF they obey. So the definition of believe actually includes faithfulness, loyalty and obedience. Believing in something means living in it, abiding by it, staying true to it. The same is true for human ideas like believing in how to improve health by changing diet and fitness and Godly ideas like believing in what the Bible teaches about the sacrifice of Christ (Rom 10:9-10 If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved). In John 1:12-13 Jesus says that only believers can be a part of Him, and in Eph 1:13 Paul tells us that believing this results in receiving the permanent gift of the Holy Spirit.
Choosing to accept the truth of Christianity and developing a belief system in it to live by is a lifelong process, and follows a path like this:
- First the person realizes that what they used to believe about their own “goodness” isn’t true, that they are falling short of what God intended people to be, so they really are part of Romans 3:23 (For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God).
- This makes them realize how badly they need an advocate to enable a right relationship for them with God (Rom 6:23b For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord).
- So they start to learn who this advocate is and how to get His help (Luke 5:31-32 And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance”).
- This call from Him about the need to repent (an action item meaning change direction permanently) reinforces the shame we felt when we realized how far off of God’s mark we are (2Cor 7:10a For Godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret).
- So we start the process of learning how to live for Him (Acts 2:38 And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit.”).
- Now armed with God’s indwelling Spirit and the bit of wisdom we have acquired, we realize that the belief system we are developing is a total and full-time commitment to change away from what the world has taught us before (Rom 12:1-2 Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship. Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will).
- This results in understanding what this quote from Jesus in Matthew 21:22 actually means (“If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”). The world sees it as a sort of catch-22, if someone is brainwashed into submitting to a cult then of course they will only want what the cult tells them to want. But a believer understands they now have access to the truth, and allowing their minds to be reshaped by His teaching means they will only want to ask Him for what they know is good.
People with a more juvenile idea about believing may say they believe in Jesus but actually don’t know what to believe or even know Him. Their idea of hope for a future with Him is like thinking they can win the lottery just because they have a ticket and they are deserving of a lucky break. They have no reason to believe their hopes will come true because they have not been studying and developing their relationship with Him (and at least attempting to live by what they have learned). They are vulnerable to the popular “ear-tickling” lies that the Apostle Paul warned about in 2 Timothy 4:3-4. This also means they will have fear from doubt near the end of their physical life about what their eternity will be. Their belief is so weak and ill or uninformed it is actually unbelief and they will suffer the same eternal separation from God that all other unbelievers are doomed to. People that have studied their relationship with God enough to become disciples have enough faith to feel a certainty about what they believe (2 Corinthians 13:5). They can live free from doubt (James 1:6) with an expectation that their hopes are true, so they have less or no fear during this life or while contemplating their eternity. As in James 1:22-25, they have heard and looked at God’s Word, decided to believe it, and are learning to live by what He is teaching them.
Sometimes people can be firmly convinced they believe in something about themselves even though they have never really examined themselves (or have been tested with it!). If they are stubborn, a serious intervention may be required to get them to start to look in the mirror and re-evaluate their understanding. The apostle Peter really believed he would follow Jesus anywhere until he denied even knowing Jesus three times after Jesus predicted it (Luke chapter 22). He wept bitterly as he realized how little he actually knew about his own character (heart).