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Do We Live What We Believe

When one edits a book, one has an extraordinary opportunity to think multiple times about some of the statements. In the case of a revolutionary book such as The Jesus Paradigm, which is in the final stages before release, there are quite a number of such sentences.

One of these impressed me enough that I quoted it on Twitter, and also used it in an ad for another book on discipleship. It reads:

The key to church renewal is very simple: every follower of Jesus is to live what is believed.

Now on the face of it, it’s a fairly straightforward statement. I have very often said myself that the one tool of evangelism I would prefer above all others is a church congregation living the message of Jesus. Now please don’t bother with comments about legalism and about how we are not perfect. Certainly none of us are perfect. I’m not even close to a candidate for that adjective.

But “I’m not perfect” quickly becomes an excuse for any level of inaction. Jesus does give commands, such as “love one another as I have loved you” (John 15:12). One suspects that Jesus anticipated some sort of response to this command.

So I think this little sentence expresses a critical principle of renewal in the church.

But then I started thinking of it the other way around. This reminded me of a conversation I had with a friend who is an atheist. Somehow the misbehavior of a televangelist came up in conversation and after we discussed a particular incident, she said, “You know, Henry, if I believed in God I would be terrified to do something like that.”

I carried that sentence in my head, and even used it in a sermon that I titled “Practical Atheism.” (It was on a Sunday night, and was one of the best attended services, if I remember correctly! Perhaps many Christians would like to know how to be atheists.) I told this story and then quoted Psalm 14:1 “The fool says in his heart: ‘There is no God.'” I suggested that in the modern world, an atheist observing our church services–and our reactions to them–might not be a fool to say “There is no God.” He might simply be observant.

This keeps coming back to me as I study through Leviticus again. It isn’t a popular book, to a great extent because very few people understand it. It takes lots of work to understand, and even then there is much that is very difficult.

But there are a few themes that are very clear. First, approaching the holy is both desirable, even essential. Second, approaching the holy is dangerous. Third, God’s presence is powerful and active. Things change when God gets involved. I’m not going to develop or support these themes; I’ll leave that for another time. Suffice it to say that they seem quite clear to me.

These days, however, I hear frequently about the presence of God. “Wow! God was really present in our worship service this morning. I could feel it!” Now don’t take me as deriding the idea that one can feel the presence of God, though I prefer to say that God is present everywhere and everywhen, and we should discuss how aware we are of his presence.

What I do question is how God can be especially present at so many worship services with so little impact. People go back again and again to experience the presence of God and then leave and go on living in the same way.

Either we are not experiencing the presence of God as much as we say we are, or that presence is having much less impact on us than it should.

I’m afraid it may come back to belief. We need to practice what we believe. That’s true. But is there another dirty secret in many of our churches–that we don’t actually believe the stuff we claim. I’m not talking here about doctrinal statements or theological propositions. I’m talking about belief that there is a God and that he does have expectations, that he might get involved in our lives in some way.

Perhaps if we become certain that this is important we can get on with discussing those particular beliefs more effectively. I don’t know, but I’d like to try.

So let me ask one question, of myself as well as of my readers:

Do we really believe what we say we believe?

I think that if we do, we’re going to live it, or to express it better, let Jesus live it through us.

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  1. Hi Henry – good questions. There is much talk. There are many explanatory theological statements around. But the real issue is, as you say, living our faith. I have finished my first complete draft of Job – did Job live what he believed? I see it is very Deuteronomic in its relationship to covenant – the insight surprised me but shouldn’t have. Job is questioned and he responds – that’s our life. To respond to the question that is put to us at the moment – and to get on with the doing of faith – feeding the hungry, paying attention to the extent that we have such gifts, and – O the unsayable – working out in fear and trembling the reality of the salvation in which we have come to be known.

  2. It is sad that the opening statement has been neutered for the sake of the grammarians’ rule disallowing singular “they”. “What is believed” indeed? By whom? What most of the world believes? That is of course how most Christians live. But the statement should read:

    every follower of Jesus is to live what they believe.

    I am also reminded that, from what I heard in a talk by Tony Campolo, Nietzsche came up with his formula that “God is dead” after observing a church service and noting how it felt like God’s funeral.

    1. It is sad that Peter’s opening statement has overlooked a basic rule of writing: The passive voice is to be avoided. The statement should read: “It is sad that Dave Black neutered his opening statement for the sake of the grammarians’ rule….”


  3. The commenters have expanded the grammar – well done! I never noticed – shows I didn’t read the original very well – a common problem. Yes it’s passive – and it’s not a divine passive so it is doubly dangerous. Whose belief is to be lived? Whoa! Culture and self-centredness unleashed! What is that ‘belief’ that we should live it. I will not have this man to rule over me.

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