A Guide to Examining the Way We Believe So That What We Believe Will be Secure
I remember being out one night with a friend in Arizona. I was 20-years-old. My friend and I were about the craziest guys in town, with little good reputation to boot. Yet, this guy was worse than me. He had a death wish and swore he would not live past 24. But I loved him very much. This particular night, we were bar hopping, looking for trouble. As was typical for me in those days, I would get drunk and start to talk about Jesus. For better or worse, I was ready to lay it on this guy. This night was his night to get saved if I had anything to say about it. The Holy Spirit would have to work through my slur; we’ll just say I was speaking in tongues. Either way, I was not going to stop until this guy was in the kingdom.
To make a long story short, the guy started the night as an atheist, he ended the night having “believed” in Christ. Now, don’t get too excited, for that is not the direction that this story really goes. Let me make a long story just a bit longer. Here is how it all turned out. After many hours of discussion, I kept telling him, “All you have to do is believe that Christ died on the cross for your sins and rose from the dead.” He said, “Michael, I don’t get it. So your saying that all I have to do is believe that Christ died for my sins and I will be saved?” “That is it,” I responded. “So,” he continued, “I don’t have to stop drinking or living the way I do?” “No,” I said, “It is not about that. It is just about belief. Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” I could tell that he was a bit confused about this way of believing that I was attempting to get him to commit to. It felt like I was trying to get him to sign on the dotted line. “Fine!” he finally responded with an exhausted laugh, “I believe. Now I’m going to heaven. Can we quit talking about it now” “Yep,” I responded with relief, “You are good.”
What you can probably see is that there was no conviction, but a lot of concession. He just wanted to get me off his back. But at the same time, I think this minimalistic idea of belief, was attractive to him. He was able to “believe” without really believing.
Over the years, nothing changed with this guy, but I wanted to hold on to the idea that he really had an encounter with true Christian belief that day. I simply hoped that it “took.” But years later, when we talked about Christ again, there was no conviction and no concession. It had all vanished.
So far we have talked about the three aspects of faith that must be present:
1. Content: Knowledge
2. Conviction: Persuasion
3. Consent: Trust
My friend’s “faith” is what content and a bit of concession look like without conviction. True faith cannot be present without some degree of real conviction.
Cultural Christian Faith
Notice that there is sufficient content to produce a Christian faith (it raises above the yellow). Notice as well that the consent is present to some degree. However, the big faith meter (representing true faith) is still at zero. Why? Because there is no conviction whatsoever. This type of person is a Christian of convenience.
There are many reasons why someone would possess a faith of convenience or a “cultural faith”, but let me list two common (and related) reasons:
Many have grown up in a Christian home. Mom and dad were Christians so they are Christian. Mom and dad prayed before meals, so they pray before meals. Mom and dad went to church, so they go to church. This is a sort of “genetic faith.” From very early, many are indoctrinated with the content of Christianity and never question its reality. They simply assume it to be true. This assumption may produce an emotional consent, but, more often than not, no conviction is present. Conviction is not passed on from father to son. Conviction is very personal and cannot be indoctrinated. This type of person may never really believe all the stuff they “believe” is true, but it is “in their blood” nonetheless.
For many in the Western world, their faith is a part of the will-and-testament of their society. They celebrate Christmas because it is deeply part of their tradition. They sing Christmas carols because they grew up hearing them. The pathways in their brains have endeared them to everything to do with Christianity, but their faith is nothing more than a habit, born out of the societal norms. Their confession is a habit. Their prayers are a habit. Even their Bible reading is a habit.
The most important thing to understand here is that culture and family heritage can produce a consent to the basics of Christianity that look (and often feel) very real, but may not be representative of true faith at all. Without some intellectual conviction, biblical faith is not present. There has to be a time when a person is convinced, at least to some degree, that the basic truths of Christianity are actually true, not just culturally convenient.
A Pastor Without Conviction
I talked to a pastor the other day on the phone. While I will leave his identity anonymous, I will share his story. When I talked to him he was very disturbed. He said that he had been in the pulpit for over 30 years, loved his job, loved preaching, and loved his congregation. “So what’s the problem?” I asked him. “I don’t know where else to turn,” he said. “You seem like a person who will understand without judging.” “Go on,” I responded. It took him a while, but he finally was able to put the words together that he was too scared to utter out loud, “I don’t think I believe.” “You don’t think you believe what?” I responded. “All of it,” he said. “All of what?” I asked. “Christianity, the Bible, Christ, everything! I have been in the pulpit for thirty years. My dad was a pastor. My granddad was a pastor. It is all I have ever known!” “What happened?” I asked. “I don’t know,” he said. “It all started a few months ago when someone challenged me about the inspiration of an Old Testament book. It all seemed to make sense. From there I began to question everything. Now I don’t think I believe anything that I preach at all. And I don’t want to lose my faith.”
This is what his faith looked like.
Notice that while the content and consent was very high, they were beginning to fail. Without the aid of conviction, these two will burn out very quickly (unless you can obscurantize your faith). When they finally crash, the big meter will go all the way down.
As we talked over the next few weeks, I began to discover that he was never really convinced that Christianity was true. He never took the time to examine his faith and ask Is this really true? That is the process we began together. I am relieved to say that today his faith has been restored. Through critical examination of those beliefs he took for granted for so many years, he realized that it was really true. More importantly, I believe that his belief is stronger than it has ever been, and so is his preaching!
Here we have a little conviction brought into the mix. Notice here that the content is very high with this person’s faith. As well, the consent is high. But the main faith meter does not raise too much since there so little conviction.
Many Christians have been indoctrinated with large amounts of content. The word “indoctrination” is often used in a very pejorative way. It normally carries the assumption that there is no critical thinking present. “Oh, you only believe that because you have never allowed yourself to consider alternatives.” Synonyms for this are “brainwash” and “propagandize.” Indoctrination is often thought of as the opposite of education, but, in reality, it is simply a type of education that is void of critical thinking.
I find this type of faith quite a bit in fundamentalistic type churches. In fact, in many people’s minds, critical thinking is an enemy of true faith. To question one’s beliefs is anathema. It is the very antinomy of faith. Some from this ilk actually promote and celebrate blind faith. The blinder the faith, the greater the faith. Here, there is very little, if any, true engagement in alternative options. Growing in faith simply amounts to confirming one’s prejudice. “Study” and “research” is the process of reviewing your belief by listening to and reading others who already agree with you.
This type of faith can produce the most dogmatic and unpleasant type of faith there is. By dogmatic, I mean emotional. Those who have little or no intellectual conviction, but a lot of content and consent, often have a very pronounced closet insecurity. This insecurity will sometimes surface when their faith is challenged. Since they don’t have any valid reasons for their faith, they resort to emotional defenses which are feuled by dogmatic methodology. These emotional defenses usually show themselves not through well argued and informed responses, but through belittling and shallow attacks on those who hold to alternative beliefs. This is often seen through the extreme rhetoric utilized. All who don’t agree with them are heretical, godless, hell bound, Satan blinded pagans. To these, everything is black and white, true or false, right or wrong. Why? Because without critical engagement, there is no reason to nuance your faith with pesky and confusing uncertainty. You either believe or you don’t. To these, it is that simple.
Those who possess this type of faith are normally blind to their own insecurity. Mistaking emotional commitment for intellectual conviction is a very dangerous thing. But this is exactly what happens here. And this is not just a characteristic of fundamentalistic type Christians. It is the same in any faith. In fact, most atheists I meet (not all) have more blind and uncritical faith than anyone else. They have very little true intellectual engagement of the issues, but a lot of emotion which drives them to demean anyone who believes in God. Ironically, their main accusation is that those who believe in God are not thinking critically.
Faith without conviction. Blind faith. Baseless faith. Fundamentalist faith. Cultural faith. Family faith. All of these share the same characteristic: they have no true conviction. This is the type of faith that I brought my friend to. He had no conviction that Christianity was true and I gave him no reason to think he should. I just wanted him to take a leap of faith. I just wanted him to make the commitment without really believing in that which he was committing to. I promoted a blind faith which was devoid of any value and could not save.
There must be a point where true intellectual engagement happens. The maturation of our faith cannot happen without it. The you-ask-me-how-I-know-he-lives-he-lives-within-my-heart type faith, while it sounds nice, is not a Christian type faith and we should never promote it. Yes, it is much easier to get people to sign on the dotted line when we minimize what faith is, assigning it to mere consent to content, but this is not the faith we are called to.
You must ask yourself if you really believe that it is true. Your conviction does not have to be perfect (no one’s is), but it does need to be present.
Next, I will examine this issue of intellectual conviction a bit more by adding three sub-meters to the conviction meter: certitudo, firmitas, and evidentia. Yes, I am going to complicate things a bit more. For this, I am sorry. But in order for us to examine our own faith, we must pull out the exacto-knife so that we can have some clarity. My hope is that this will serve many of you in building your conviction.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminary (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]