The biblical stories are replete with calls to believe and people who choose to believe or not to believe in God. Of course, the more familiar expression we use in speaking of this act of believing is to have faith. Whether we read stories of individuals in Israel’s history, or ancient Israel’s history as a nation, or whether we read the narratives surrounding the coming of Jesus, we are always reading about people who either had faith or about those who did not have faith.
When Jesus arrives on the scene in Mark’s Gospel, after his own experience of God’s presence in his baptism and immediately after his temptation in the wilderness, he proclaims his central message that God’s rule is near, and he calls on those who heard his message to respond, first through repentance and then by believing. Specifically, he called them to believe in the gospel of God. In doing so, Jesus was calling them not only to believe in the existence of God, but to believe that God was now among them through his own presence, and to believe that in his advent, the beginning of the end of injustice and oppression had arrived.
Yet when we consider the concept of faith, the act of believing, our modern minds tend to focus more on an intellectual agreement with some idea or proposition. Often, when we talk about faith, we speak of faith in terms of our intellectual faith; believing this proposition to be true, or that statement of faith to be true. Indeed, for many Christians, believing in certain theological statements is equivalent to believing in God. For example, many feel that one must believe that the entirety of the Bible is literally true, without any error, or we cannot have faith in God.
But when Jesus announced the coming of God’s rule and called people to believe in the gospel of God, was he calling them to agree intellectually with this? The initial answer to this question is yes. Faith, any faith, requires us to believe with our minds that something is true. But faith cannot end with our intellectual belief in God and what we think God is doing. Jesus called those who heard his message, as well as those who continue to hear his message, to a belief that is more than simply mental conformity to God’s rule. He called and continues to call folks to the actions of faith.
This is why the act of repentance is tied to the act of belief. Repentance is more than a change of one’s mind. Repentance is a continual change in one’s behavior based on hearing from God. So too, believing involves the actions of the whole self being oriented toward God and God’s purposes. If we truly believe God is doing something in our world, then we will demonstrate that belief through our participation in God’s work. If we do not participate in God’s work, then we fail to believe.
As Christians, we often give lip service to our faith. We say we believe certain ideas about God, Jesus, the Bible, and humanity, and we somehow convince ourselves that this makes us faithful. But this is nothing more than cheap faith, to borrow slightly from Dietrich Bonhoeffer. As James rightly states, “Faith without works is dead.” Faith that does not produce actions is not faith at all. The kind of belief to which Jesus calls us is a radical belief; a faith through which we are no longer being conformed to a self-centered way of living, but we are being transformed by the gospel of God.
To have a radical faith in God is to abandon all our desires for what God desires in our world. It is a call to hear what God wants from us, a call to repent from our selfish living and our long held, but often misguided, assumptions about what we think about God, and a call to believe in what God is doing now. And what God is doing now for our world is captured in the story of Christmas; a story about a deliverer who came to set the captives of oppression free and to bring peace, joy, and hope to all.
A faithful response to the Christmas story, a true act of believing, is not simply hearing the story and wishing these things to be true for the world. To believe the story, to believe in the gospel of God, is to bring to reality the peace, joy and hope God desires for the world through our acts of justice and mercy.