For the past few months I have been wondering about what James KA Smith wonders about in his book Imagining the Kingdom. Charles Taylor in The Secular Age has similar wonderings, (or wanderings!) as does Hunter in To Change the World, and Lose in Preaching at the Crossroads. The wondering is this: What does it mean to believe today?
We can look at this question in two parts. What does it mean to believe? and secondly, how does the world of today impact how we believe?
Last night at our Wednesday Bible Study, we asked these questions. We looked at the passage in Acts 16:25-40. Paul and Silas have been beaten and thrown into a prison. Rather than moping about their bad luck, they start singing hymns to God. Everyone else in the prison listens in. Suddenly, in the middle of the night there is an earthquake. The chains fall off the prisoners. The doors open.
The prison guard is terrified. He knows it is life for life. If a prisoner escapes then he loses his head. “What must I do to be saved?!” he cries.
“Believe in the Lord Jesus.” Says Paul.
Sounds simple enough. Until we stop for a moment and wonder: What is Paul asking him to do? He is worried that he might loose his head because the prisoners might have escaped and Paul says “Believe, man… you just gotta believe.” What is Paul asking him to do?
There are a couple answers here. First, Paul is asking him to believe some facts about the world and about God. Facts like: God saves people from difficult situations. God answers prayer. God intervenes in the world. God sent the earthquake that freed the prisoners. The God of the Jews now invites Roman Jailers to be a part of the kingdom of his Messiah Jesus.
Secondly, Paul is asking the jailer to trust in this God, who sent his son Jesus into the world. Now this is a little different than merely believing facts. For example: I might believe the fact that the parachute will open and I will drift safely down to earth. But when I jump, then I am trusting that the parachute will carry me safely down to earth. Likewise, the Jailer is invited to trust that God will really save him and that by trusting in God, the Jailer won’t lose his head.
Third, Paul is asking the jailer to decide without a full understanding of the situation. The faith is somewhat blind. Paul cannot say what will happen to the Jailer. Paul cannot say how the Jailer will be saved. Paul can only bear witness to what God has done, and invite the Jailer to decide on the basis of Paul’s testimony.
We can imagine Paul saying something like this: Jesus made it clear to his disciples many times that they would be persecuted, jailed, and flogged. So here we are, recovering from a flogging in jail, because we are disciples of Jesus. Jesus also promised that he would deliver us from death. And look, there was an earthquake and we are free from a long suffering death in prison. Paul may have spoke of the time when Jesus spoke directly to him. Paul is then able to draw the conclusion: What Jesus told us would happen, did happen. We trusted in Jesus and now we are delivered. If you want to be delivered, you should do the same.
And that brings us to a fourth aspect of belief. Believe in the Lord Jesus, like I do. It is an invitation to imitation. This is to say, the Jailer is invited not only to think different thoughts and to put his faith in a different God, he is invited to do different things.
What is the thing that Paul and Silas are doing? They were singing praises to God. They were worshiping God in a dungeon, because somehow they were able to imagine (see beyond) in the current situation a broader picture of God who allows his servants to suffer, but still holds them and the world in his hands. And this singing, this worship, reinforces their belief and trust in God. There cannot be belief and trust in God separate from worship.
Therefore, they offer an invitation to imitation. They invite the Jailer to worship the same God they worship. To believe and be baptized. And when the Jailer does this, he is filled with joy… not unlike the joy experienced by Paul and Silas when they sang hymns at the beginning of the story.
Faith then, involves believing, trusting, deciding, and imitating (worshiping). Consider one of my favorite theologians, John Calvin, on faith (all translations from the Battles ed.) :
-Faith is a sure and certain knowledge of God’s benevolence (believing)
-Knowledge of faith consists in assurance (trusting)
-Faith cannot be separated from a devout disposition (imitation and worship)
-Assurance of faith is tinged with doubt and assailed by anxiety. It certainly feels to us like we are deciding to have faith in these moments, even though the Holy Spirit is guiding our steps.
The Christian tradition has emphasized these different parts of faith at different times. The movement of Christian Apologetics in the 20th century was very interested in the believing part – the proving that the facts are true. We see Christian movements, like Billy Graham crusades that were heavy on the deciding aspect of faith. Make a decision for Christ! Most of us who were born and raised Christian tend to see faith through the lens of imitation. I pray like my father did and my pastor did.
Each of these aspects of faith don’t play well in today’s culture. The question of believing facts quickly slips into endless debates about science and history and the reliability of the Bible. The challenge to make a decision is less pressing in a pluralistic culture. Why choose one faith, when I can dabble in them all, or ignore them all? On the imitation side, there are less people to imitate. Name five famous Christians that inspire you to be like them. Not as easy as it once was.
What is left then is faith as trust. This aspect of faith still resonates today. We are looking for authenticity and credibility. We are looking for a story that resonates. The Jailer needed to trust Paul. And Paul was the real deal. He sang praises in prison and an earthquake set him free. Put your faith in me, Paul seems to say, and I will show you where you can safely and securely put your faith and trust. This “I believe in you and you believe in God…” may very well be the first step into the Christian faith for many people in this pluralistic age.
Photo credit: https://jamesrg.wordpress.com/2013/01/23/last-days-in-rome/