Believing by Choice
(Reading time: 9.7 minutes)
How do we decide whether to believe what we hear? We must decide whether the person who said it credible, for one thing. Do we have confidence in them and are they a reliable source for the information they gave? In addition to considering the source, we also evaluate what they said. Is the information itself believable? Is it compatible with what we already believe to be true, or does it violate what we think?
The point is this: We decide what we’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.
As we examine the Bible, we realize that God keeps urging us to believe certain things and not others. He not only gave us the ability to choose what we believe, he also holds us accountable for our beliefs.
The English word, “believe,” has a variety of meanings, from having religious faith to merely thinking something is true. But the Greek and biblical meanings are much more forceful and specific.
The Greek word translated “believe” is actually the verb form of the noun for “faith.” This suggests that “faith” is what we have and “believe” is what we do with it. The Bible tells us, “faith is confidence in what we hope for and assurance about what we do not see” (Heb 11:1, NIV). So faith is a strong confidence in and reliance upon someone or something; a certainty that something is true or real. If we use our faith, we’re believing, trusting or relying. If other people can place their faith in us, then we’re faithful, trustworthy or reliable.
It should be clear that believing is more than mental agreement; it governs what we do. If our actions aren’t influenced by what we say we believe, then we simply don’t have the faith we claim.
The Bible says we believe with our heart (Rom. 10:10), which might represent our mind and spirit. We know that faith (or faithfulness) is a “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal. 5:22), so faith and believing somehow require the cooperation of our spirit. We’ve seen that believing also involves the mind, requiring us to evaluate and choose what we will believe. Therefore, we can conclude that believing is both a mental and spiritual activity.
When Jesus began his earthly ministry, his message was simple: “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). He encouraged people to repent (change the way they think) and believe (use faith to accept what he says as true). Telling them to repent and believe is proof 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). Again, it’s clear people can decide what to believe.
Jesus had some stern words for the chief priests and elders who rejected his message. “I tell you the truth, 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). Why did Jesus condemn them? They didn’t repent (change the way they thought) and believe (act on faith in what he said). They chose not to believe and he rebuked them for it.
We can understand his rebuking those who openly denounced his teaching, but how did he respond to those who followed him but didn’t believe everything he said? Four times he referred to them as “you of little faith,” using a word that refers to a very weak belief, trust or reliance (Matt. 6:30; 8:26; 14:31; 16:8). He rebuked his followers who didn’t believe, but he did it gently and encouraged them to believe in him.
Believing is a choice, as we’ve seen, and we’ll experience the consequences of our decision to believe. For example, we read about those who hear the gospel: “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). We see a similar statement in John 3:18: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” God doesn’t treat disbelief lightly. Those who choose not to believe bring condemnation on themselves.
Hebrews tells us, “without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6). It’s impossible to please God if we don’t believe (exercise faith). Because Christianity is a relationship with God and because he will eventually judge everything we do, pleasing him should be a high priority. Believing what he has said is a critical first step in pleasing him.
Some acts of disbelief are less serious than rejecting the gospel message, but every refusal to believe has its consequences. When an angel appeared to Zechariah with the wonderful news that he and his wife would have an anointed son, even in their old age, Zechariah wouldn’t accept the news (Luke 1:19-20). Because he refused to believe what the angel said, he couldn’t say anything until the angel’s words came true. The consequences fit the offense.
God gave humanity free will – the ability to choose – and he honors our choices by allowing us to experience their results. We’ll experience good for using our faith and believing him, or problems if we don’t because we’re aligning ourselves with God’s and our enemy, Satan.
This contrast between faith and disbelief is very clear in the following verse. “Whoever does not believe God has made him out to be a liar, because they have not believed the testimony God has given about his Son” (1 John 5:10). If we choose not to believe God, we’ve decided that what he said is not true; therefore, we believe God lied.
We not only choose whether to believe, we also choose what we’ll believe. Faith is selective and we decide what or whom will be the object of our faith. If someone believes something that is not true, we say they are deceived. The Bible warns us not to believe everything we see or hear, because it’s possible for us to be deceived. Consider John’s warning, for example: “Dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, because many false prophets have gone out into the world” (1 John 4:1). It clearly is our responsibility to judge what we see and hear, then decide what we should believe.
God usually honors our decisions, but at times he might help us change our mind. When Saul was on his way to arrest the believers in Damascus, the Lord knocked him down and temporarily blinded him to get his attention (Acts 9:1-6). God was rather persuasive and Paul changed his mind, later becoming a believer himself (vv. 19-20).
Also, God stopped Jonah from running away and persuaded him to go to Ninevah. Having a sea creature swallow you and then vomit you onto a beach several days later can definitely change your mind (Jon. 1:1-3:3). But Jonah still could decide whether to act on what he believed God said.
The New Testament gives us another clear description of God responding to people’s choices. In Romans we read, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them” (Rom. 1:18-19).
God has revealed knowledge about himself to humanity, but people have chosen to suppress that knowledge; to discredit it, deny it, and remove it from public view. They knew the truth about God, but they chose not to honor him (v. 21). How did God respond? He “gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another” (v. 24). He allowed them to fulfill their impure sexual desires.
That was only the beginning, however. Although they knew the truth, they “exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator” (v. 25). They chose to believe a lie rather than the truth. How did God respond? He “gave them over to shameful lusts,” and they abandoned the natural heterosexual desires and became inflamed with homosexual lust (vv. 26-27).
“Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done” (v. 28). There is something ominous about the word “furthermore” in this sequence. Not only did people choose to suppress the clear truth about God, they chose to believe a lie and discarded the truth. How did God respond? He gave them over to depraved minds and they became filled with every form of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity (vv. 29-31).
Did God turn them over to sexual impurity, homosexuality and depravity? Yes, and he did so in response to their choices by giving them what they wanted. They were free to decide what they would believe and he honored their choices, allowing them to experience the results.
We decide whether to believe and what to believe, so accepting God’s truths is a matter of choice. However, God doesn’t treat disbelief lightly. If someone doesn’t believe him, they’ve decided that what he said is not true; therefore, they consider him a liar.
Consider the following passage. “If any of you lacks wisdom, you should ask God, who gives generously to all without finding fault, and it will be given to you. But when you ask, you must believe and not doubt, because the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind. That person should not expect to receive anything from the Lord. Such a person is double-minded and unstable in all they do” (James 1:5-8).
- These verses show the relationship between asking and believing. Recalling that believing is using your faith, what should be the object of your faith when you ask God for wisdom, according to these verses?
- Consider the three analogies of a doubting person: a wave blown and tossed by the sea, double-minded (having more than one focus or goal), and unstable. What insights do these analogies give about a doubting person?
- Consider the contrasting images of God presented in these verses: (1) giving generously to all without finding fault; and (2) not giving anything. To what kinds of people does God respond in these drastically different ways? What does this reveal about how God honors a person’s free will?
- What is the significance of the phrase “without finding fault” in the context of God giving wisdom to those who ask and believe?
We decide whether to believe and what to believe, so accepting God’s truths is a matter of choice. He gave us free will and allows us to experience the results of our choices.