Believing by Choice
Coming soon: A major revision of this article
Read the Summary (Reading time: 0.4 minutes)
(Total reading time: 7.4 minutes)
How do you decide whether to believe something you hear? You must decide whether the person who told you is credible, for one thing. Do you have confidence in them and are they a reliable source for the information they gave you? In addition to considering the source, you also evaluate what they said. Is the information itself believable? Is it compatible with what you already believe to be true, or does it violate what you think?
The point is this: You decide what you’ll believe. When someone says, “I don’t believe that,” they’ve chosen not to accept what they heard because it didn’t pass their credibility tests.
When you examine the Bible, you realize that God keeps urging you to believe certain things and not others. He not only gave you the ability to choose what you’ll believe, he also holds you accountable for your beliefs.
The English word for “believe” is a verb that means primarily to have a firm religious faith, or to accept something trustfully and on faith. The Greek word translated “believe” is actually the verb form of the noun “faith.” This suggests that “faith” is what you have and “believe” is what you do with it. If you use your faith, you are believing, trusting or relying. If other people can place their faith in you, then you are faithful, trustworthy or reliable.
Consider another English word, “work,” which has both noun and verb forms. In the noun form, work is a task you have to do; in the verb form, to work is to do the task. It’s the same word, and the noun and verb forms are closely related in meaning. Similarly, the Greek words for “faith” and “to believe” are different grammatical forms of the same root word.
In our culture, we use “believe” very loosely. At times it means to have religious faith, but at other times it means nothing more than to think something is true. We say, “I believe he is coming tomorrow” to mean, “I’m sure he’s coming.” But the Greek and biblical meanings are much more forceful; to believe is to use your faith.
The Bible says you believe with your heart (Rom. 10:10), which probably represents your spirit. We know that faith (or faithfulness) is a “fruit of the Spirit,” so faith and believing somehow require the cooperation of your spirit. We have seen that believing also involves the mind, requiring you to evaluate and choose what you’ll believe. Therefore, we can conclude that believing is both a mental and spiritual activity, a cooperative effort of your mind and spirit.
Now let’s consider what the Bible says about what you believe.
What Do You Believe?
When Jesus began his earthly ministry, his message was simple: “The time has come. The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15, NIV). He encouraged people to repent (change the way they think) and believe (use faith to accept what he says as true). The fact that he told them to repent and believe is proof that they could choose to do so.
Near the end of his ministry, Jesus was explaining the events that would precede his return and he said, “At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it” (Matt. 24:23). It’s clear that people can decide what to believe.
We have briefly shown from Scripture that you decide what you will or will not believe. Now let us consider how God responds to what you believe.
Jesus had some pretty stern words for the chief priests and elders who questioned his authority. They had asked, “By what authority are you doing these things? And who gave you this authority?” (Matt. 21:23). In reality they were challenging his credibility. They could prove their credibility because they were trained and acknowledged as religious leaders. But what credentials did Jesus offer? None they recognized, so they wanted to show that he wasn’t credible and the people shouldn’t believe him.
Jesus had no sympathy for the oppressive and self-protecting religious establishment, as his reply shows.
“Truly I tell you, the tax collectors and the prostitutes are entering the kingdom of God ahead of you. For John came to you to show you the way of righteousness, and you did not believe him, but the tax collectors and the prostitutes did. And even after you saw this, you did not repent and believe him” (Matt. 21:31-32).
If anyone were to recognize the Messiah whom God had promised, you would expect it to be those trained in God’s Word. Not only did they not recognize him, they protected their religious establishment and challenged his credibility. What was Jesus’ condemnation of them? They didn’t repent (change the way they thought) and believe (put their faith in what he said). They chose not to believe and he rebuked them for it.
You can probably understand his rebuking those who openly denounced his teaching, but how did Jesus respond to those who followed him and were eager to learn from him? As Jesus taught the crowd and his disciples about trusting God to provide for their basic needs, he referred to them as “you of little faith” (Matt. 6:30). When the disciples thought they were about to drown in a storm on a lake, how did Jesus address them? “You of little faith” (Matt. 8:26). When Peter walked on the water and began to sink, what did Jesus say? “You of little faith, why did you doubt?” (Matt. 14:31). When the disciples were concerned about not having enough bread? “You of little faith” (Matt. 16:8). He rebuked his followers for not believing, but he did it gently and encouraged them to believe in him.
There is one incident, however, in which Jesus rebuked his disciples more forcefully. Jesus had told them he would be crucified and then would return from the dead. After he rose from the dead some women reported that his tomb was empty, two disciples confirmed his tomb was empty and two others reported having seen Jesus. “Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen” (Mark 16:14).
They stubbornly refused to believe because they had made up their minds. They had expected an earthly kingdom but Jesus had died and their hopes had shattered. Even when several people they trusted confirmed that Jesus was alive again as he had promised, they refused to believe.
What promises of God are you refusing to believe? Maybe those promises seem hollow when you look at the circumstances, and you just can’t believe they’ll come true. You may even need to ask God to remind you of some promises you’ve rejected and forgotten. It might be helpful for you to write them down.
“This isn’t my problem,” you say. “I’m believing God to heal me” (or provide for you, or something else). The real question is: What’s the object of your faith? God, or what he’ll do for you? If God never does anything else for you, he’s still God and worthy of your praise and your faith. Even if you never see any evidence or the fulfillment of any of his promises, you can still believe.
Here are some pointers on how to believe God. Decide to believe that God is good. Decide to believe he loves you. Decide to believe he’ll always do whatever is right and whatever is best for you. Decide to have confidence in him and trust him. Decide to believe that God almighty knows what he is talking about. And compare what you think he is saying with what the Bible says.
The disciples had misdirected their faith. They believed that Jesus would set up a physical kingdom, rather than believe in Jesus himself. You can easily fall into the same trap. If you choose to believe for what you expect to happen, you’ll become disappointed someday because your expectations aren’t always correct. But if you believe in God himself, he’ll never disappoint you.
Believing is important, but it’s more important to believe in the right things.
You decide what you’ll believe, so accepting God’s truths is a matter of choice. Jesus sternly rebuked his disciples because they refused to believe that he had risen from the dead. God doesn’t treat disbelief lightly. If you don’t believe God, you’ve decided that what he said isn’t true; therefore, you believe God is a liar. You not only choose whether to believe, you also choose what you’ll believe.