No I don’t mean a follower of a certain male pop star. This thought provoking essay by Debie Thomas on one of the most famous verses in the Christian gospels, John 3:16, is a handy reminder that this universal, inclusive, love-expanding, self-giving explanation of the heart of Christianity has too often been weaponised, used to exclude, propound self-righteousness and set intellectual hurdles for ‘others’.
Too often there has been an emphasis on “believing” the “right things” – debates about, of which, more often than not, has split Christianity. Its much more than giving intellectual assent (often without any intellectual foundation) to a certain set of prescribed “beliefs”.
The first problem with this narrow approach is that Jesus of Nazareth does not say “believe in this set of ideas or doctrinal propositions about” sin, God, righteousness, or indeed anything. He says believe in me. It’s about relationships. And as Thomas says in her essay, “I can’t think of any significant human relationships in which doctrine matters more than love and trust. So why should my relationship with God be any different?”
Whatsmore this is not even how a first century Jew in Roman occupied Israel would have used the term. Apparently the English word “believe” comes from the German “belieben” — the German word for love. “To believe is not to hold an opinion. To believe is to treasure. To hold something beloved. To give my heart over to it without reservation. To believe in something is to invest it with my love.“
“This is true in the ancient languages of the Bible as well. When the writers of the Hebrew Bible and the New Testament wrote of faithfulness, they were not writing about an intellectual surrender to a factual truth. They were writing about fidelity, trust, and confidence.”
On the one hand it is much more challenging to give our hearts to Jesus and the godly way he demonstrated, but it also makes much more sense that this is what we are called to. Giving our heart to this Way, this spirit of love, is what will make a difference for us, those around us, and the whole world – rather than just giving intellectual assent to an inherited set of philosophical propositions so we can have all our theological ducks in a row.