The Dynamics of Change: Belief - #1

Dr. Brian Allison

This past week the N.B.A. season began. The Raptors are Toronto's basketball team. They won their first game at the start of their first season. Isaiah Thomas is the team's General Manager. He grew up in a Chicago ghetto and is one of nine children. Even as a boy, he had a talent for basketball. He eventually signed with the Detroit Pistons, and helped to lead that team to two championships. Besides that accomplishment, he has earned a degree in criminal justice. Further, apparently he is the first professional basketball player to become a General Manager. As we think of Isaiah Thomas and his various accomplishments, we may ask the question: How can we account for these accomplishments. One answer is that Isaiah Thomas believed in himself, and believed in his abilities and skills. He believed that things could change, that things could get better. He once said that no one should have to grow up in a ghetto. The power of belief brought change in his life. Belief is an essential dynamic of change. It is a precondition for changing behaviour.

The nature of true belief

True belief is the personal acceptance of a presented fact or testimony and the readiness to act upon it. It is more than mere acknowledgement or even mental assent. For example, Prime Minister Cretien believes that Canada should be a united nation, consisting of both the French and the English, and thus he has addressed the nation with his views and has become involved in the effort to keep the country together. True belief entails a personal allegiance and involvement.

True belief can either be extraordinary or ordinary. Extraordinary belief brings about miraculous effects. This kind of belief entails the supernatural. For example, Jesus instructed His disciples, "Truly I say to you, if you have faith [true belief], and do not doubt, you shall not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, 'Be taken up and cast into the sea,' it shall happen. And all things you ask in prayer, believing, you shall receive" (Mt. 21:21f.). This kind of belief, positively understood, has its source in, and derives its power from, the Holy Spirit. Ordinary belief, on the other hand, is simply the 'everyday' convictions of the human heart. It accepts the plain facts as true. So, for example, when the Lord was commissioning Moses to deliver the Israelites, we read, "Then Moses answered and said, 'What if they will not believe me, or listen to what I say? For they may say, 'The LORD has not appeared to you'" (Ex. 4:1). The Israelites eventually believed the words of Moses. Now, from a Biblical perspective, the source of ordinary belief can arise either from the Holy Spirit or naturally from within the human heart.

Now, there are different ways that we may understand the results of belief. First, we may understand the results of belief spiritually – belief is an instrument for receiving God's grace and blessing. God is pleased to respond to, and honour, belief. So, for example, when Jesus was passing through a certain city, two blind men met Him, crying out to Him, "Have mercy on us, Son of David!" Jesus then asked them whether they believed that He was able to heal them. To which they respond 'yes'. Jesus thus touched their eyes and healed them according to their faith (Mt. 9:27-31). Again, we read, "Of Him (Jesus) all the prophets bear witness that through His name everyone who believes in Him receives the forgiveness of sins" (Acts 10:43). Belief as the instrument for receiving God's grace may be called receiving belief.

Second, we may understand the results of belief behaviourally – belief is a dynamic which underlies, and provides the impetus for, action. True belief results in the actual 'forward movement' of behaviour. For instance, Jonah was sent to the city of Nineveh to preach repentance. We read, "Then the people of Nineveh believed in God; and they called a fast and put on sackcloth from the greatest to the least of them." The people of Nineveh believed the prophet's word, and responded with appropriate action (see also Acts 8:12). In this case, we do not have an example of receiving belief, but rather of effecting belief – belief that results in a change. This is what we mean by the power of belief. Our concern here will be with ordinary, effecting belief.

True belief translates into action

True belief is self-propelling. Without belief, there is no movement toward a significant course of action. Because you believe something to be true, you are thus prepared to act in a certain way. Belief becomes the forerunner of action, and thus it becomes the forerunner of change. This fact is borne out in one of the episodes of the apostle Paul's fourth missionary journey. We read, "And when considerable time had passed and the voyage was now dangerous, since even the fast was already over, Paul began to admonish them, and said to them, 'Men I perceive that the voyage will certainly be attended with damage and great loss, not only of the cargo and the ship, but also of our lives.' But the centurion was more persuaded by the pilot and the captain of the ship, than by what was being said by Paul" (Acts 27:9-11). Paul was an experienced traveler, and he gave his informed opinion concerning the current tenuous situation. He had endured various shipwrecks (2 Corinthians 11:25), and thus was familiar with possible tell-tale signs. He had a foreboding that the voyage would not fair well, and he thus communicated his informed belief to the centurion who apparently had the authority to make the decision whether the ship should proceed or not. The centurion, having heard Paul's view, was differently advised by the pilot and the owner of the ship. Accordingly, he followed their advice to proceed. The centurion did not believe Paul, and thus did not perform the appropriate and correspondent actions which such a belief would demand.

When we say that belief is foundational to action, we mean that one must first accept the correctness or truth of the presented facts before he or she will act in the expected way that such a belief would demand. Arthur Hugh Clough (1819-61), the British poet, aptly wrote, "Action will furnish belief, – but will that belief be the true one? This is the point you know." Wrong actions follow wrong beliefs; right actions follow right or true beliefs. True belief, of course, arises out of an understanding and acceptance of the facts as truth. Belief begs for truth; it answers to truth; it seeks truth. Similarly, truth calls for belief; it gives birth to belief; it provides the rich content for belief. The centurion, as well as the other passengers on this ship, did not believe; therefore they all agreed to hoist the anchor and sail on. They acted on the belief that the voyage would be save.

The voyage did indeed become very dangerous; the ship was overtaken by a violent storm; the situation was life – threatening. The passengers soon believed that the situation had become utterly hopeless. At which point, the apostle "Paul stood up in their midst and said, 'Men, you ought to have followed my advice [paraphrase - "I told you so"] and not to have set sail from Crete, and incurred this damage and loss. And yet now I urge you to keep up your courage, for their shall be no loss of life among you, but only of the ship. For this very night an angel of God to whom I belong and whom I serve stood before me saying, 'Do not be afraid Paul; you must stand before Caesar; and behold, God has granted you all who are sailing with you.' Therefore keep up your courage, men, for I believe God, that it will turn out exactly as I have been told" (Acts 27:21-25). Paul's former advice had turned out to be correct. This time the centurion and the other passengers believed what Paul had to say, and thus they responded accordingly; now, they were ready for change, they were ready to follow the course of action which such a belief would demand.

Paul was right in the first place according to his informed opinion, but now he was right according to the revelation of God's truth. Most of the passengers, including the centurion, now accepted the facts as true, as their subsequent actions showed. For example, when some of the sailors tried to escape from the ship by letting down the ship's boat into the sea on the pretense of laying out anchors from the bow, Paul warned the centurion and the soldiers, "Unless these men remain in the ship, you yourselves cannot be saved" (Acts 27:31). The centurion and the other soldiers responded accordingly. We read, "Then the soldiers cut away the ropes of the ship's boat, and let it fall away" (Acts 27:32). We learn that what Paul had here predicted did indeed come to pass. All the passengers eventually arrived on land safely (Acts 27:44). So belief answers to truth, belief seeks truth, and the result is a change for the better.

True belief and God's truth

Christians, of course, should rest upon, be informed by, and have their thoughts and beliefs shaped by God's truth. For instance, when Jesus addressed the Jews who had believed Him, He said, "But because I speak the truth, you do not believe Me. Which one of you convicts Me of sin? If I speak the truth, why do you not believe Me?" (Jn. 8:45f.); again, "And he who has seen has borne witness, and his witness is true; and he knows that he is telling the truth, so you also may believe" (Jn. 19:35).

When I was just a new Christian, having been about two years in the faith, I was confronted with the teaching of tithing – giving a tenth of one's income to the Lord. At the time, I wrestled with that fact. I sought counsel and studied the Bible because I wanted to know God's mind on the matter. I eventually realized that tithing was not simply an Old Testament principle, and that I was to give a tenth of my income to the Lord as an act of worship. Because of that belief in God's truth, there was a personal behavioural change. From that day on, whether I earned ten dollars or one hundred dollars, I have been conscientious about devoting a tithe to the Lord. Belief in God's truth effects positive behavioural change.

Practical applications of true belief and change

Suppose you have the problem/sin of lying; you simply do not tell the truth. Before you will change your behaviour, you will first need to believe a number of things. For example, you need to believe that God hates lying (Pr. 6:17); you need to believe that lying wreaks havoc and confusion (1 Kgs. 13:18ff.); you need to believe that liars will be punished (Rev. 21:8; 22:15); you need to believe that God calls you to be honest, and characterized by integrity (Eph. 4:25). Let's actually hear God's truth – "Truthful lips will be established forever, but a lying tongue is only for a moment" (Pr. 12:19); "Lying lips are an abomination to the LORD, but those who deal faithfully are His delight" (Pr. 12:22); "A righteous man hates falsehood, but a wicked man acts disgustingly and shamefully" (Pr. 13:5). If you have the problem of lying, and are able to believe these truths (and others), you are prepared for change.

Suppose you have the problem/sin of fearing people (which is a common problem, even among Christians), you will not change this behaviour until you come to believe a number of things. For example, you need to believe that God is sovereign (Is. 4:22ff.); that He ordains everything that comes to pass (Is. 46:8-11); that He is in absolute control (Is. 45:9f.); that He protects His own (Jn. 10:29); and that people cannot hurt you unless God permits it, and if He does permit such, it is for your own good because whom the Lord loves, He chastens (Rm. 8:28ff.). Again, let's actually hear God's truth – "The fear of man brings a snare, but he who trusts in the Lord will be exalted" (Pr. 29:25); "Then Saul said to Samuel, 'I have sinned; I have indeed transgressed the command of the LORD and your words, because I feared the people and listened to their voice'" (1 Sam. 15:24); "I, even I, am He who comforts you. Who are you that you are afraid of man who dies, and of the son of man who is made like grass; that you have forgotten the LORD your Maker, who stretched out the heavens, and laid the foundations of the earth; that you fear continually all day long because of the fury of the oppressor, as he makes ready to destroy? But where is the fury of the oppressor?" (Is. 51:12,13). You who suffer from the fear of people, you will not change until you come to believe these truths, and more. Believing in the truth will prepare you for change.

Suppose you have the problem/sin of laziness. You will experience no change until you come to believe certain things. For example, you need to believe that laziness tends to poverty (Pr. 20:13); that an idle mind, a lazy heart, is the devil's workshop (Mt. 25:26ff.); you need to believe that God calls you to be diligent and active, and that for His cause (2 Pe. 3:14). Again, let's actually hear God's truth – "The soul of the sluggard craves and gets nothing, but the soul of the diligent is made fat" (Pr. 13:4); "He also who is slack in his work is brother to him who destroys" (Pr. 18:9); "The sluggard does not plough after the autumn, so he begs during the harvest and has nothing" (Pr. 20:4); "For even when we were with you, we used to give you this order: If anyone will not work, neither let him eat. For we hear that some among you are leading a very undisciplined life, doing no work at all, but acting like busybodies. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to work in quiet fashion and eat their own bread" (2 Th. 3:10,11). Until you are impacted with these truths, and more, you will not change.

Suppose you have the problem/sin of strained relationships, either with a family member or with a friend. Again, before you will experience significant behavioural change, you will have to believe certain things. For example, you will have to believe that harmonious relationships are worth pursuing (Hb. 12:14); you will have to believe that God is able to work mightily in each person's heart, bringing about meekness, gentleness, and humility ((Pr. 21:1); you will have to believe that peace honours God and adorns the Gospel (1 Cor. 7:15; 2 Cor. 13:11). Again, let's actually hear God's truth – "Never pay back evil for evil to anyone. Respect what is right in the sight of all men. If possible, so far as it depends on you, be at peace with all men. Never take your own revenge, beloved, but leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, 'VENGEANCE IS MINE, I WILL REPAY,' says the Lord" (Rm. 12:17-19); "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, along with all malice. And be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving each other, just as God in Christ also has forgiven you" (Eph. 4:31,32). Again, unless you believe these truths, and others like them, you will not change.

Growing in true belief

Now, some of you may be saying something like this: "I believe these truths, and more, and yet I am not experiencing any change." Well, my response to you is, "Maybe you do not really believe." Think about this possibility. You may acknowledge the soundness or correctness of these truths; you may even give allegiance to the importance of these truths, but deep down inside, you may not really believe them. Again, true belief is self-propelling. It involves who you are as a person. As Anton Chekhow (1860-1904), the Russian dramatist and short-story writer, said, "Man is what he believes." True belief is activating. It has an implicit driving dynamic so that you act in accordance with that belief. If you really believe something, you will demonstrate the effect of that which you really believe. Abraham Lincoln ((1809-1865) believed the truth that all men are created equal, so much so that he was willing to lead a nation into war over it. Consequently, he was called the "Great Emancipator," the one who was particularly instrumental in abolishing slavery in the United States of America. He believed, and thus he acted. Nelson Mandela (1918- ), the national organizer of the African National Congress, believes that apartheid is evil and degrades the dignity of people. The result of such a belief is that he is actively and politically helping to completely eradicate such a practice, and thus is changing the social face of South Africa. True belief constrains him to act.

If you really believe something, there will be action. The point is this: True belief runs with the truth. Now, you may raise the question: "How do I believe? I really want to believe because I really want to change. How do I believe?" Again, belief answers to truth; truth gives birth to belief. Accordingly, you need to expose yourself to the truth; but not only expose yourself to the truth, you must endeavour to clearly understand that truth. This principle is the implied in Romans 10:17, "So faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of Christ" (Rm. 10:17). True belief (faith) comes by understanding (hearing), and understanding arises through exposure to the truth (the Word). By being exposed to the truth, you enter into the context (and preparation) in which understanding may result; and understanding is the necessary foundation for belief.

A number of years ago, I sat in a seminary class listening to one of my wise professor teach that God is probably going to work in a special, favourable way with the Jews at the end of history. I challenged him on a number of occasions. Being driven to explore that question again, I subjected myself to God's truth. I came to realize that God may indeed do something special with Israel again at the end of history. How did I come to that belief? – exposure to the truth, which resulted in understanding, which provided the foundation for belief.

A young man came to see me awhile ago. He just graduated from seminary. He evidenced a passion to preach God's Word, but apparently the Lord had 'closed the doors'. I remember teaching him 3 or 4 years prior to this visit, and he had a rather negative view toward Christian service. He served God out of a sense of obligation, rather than out of delight. He even went to seminary out of a sense of obligation. In my office, this young man confessed, "An incredible passion to preach God's Word has filled my heart during this past month. It is consuming me." Now, how did that passion, and thus the compulsion for action, get there?" This young man apparently received a fresh understanding of God's Word. Further, he had exposed himself to the writings of history concerning which God has worked in the hearts of His people. He had revisited the writings of the Puritans, particularly focusing on the truth and glory of preaching. With new understanding came true belief. That belief now controls him. He is primed for action. He experienced the power of belief.

So, my Christian friend, if you want to believe, because you really want to change, I suggest that you continue to read, study, meditate on, and seek out God's truth. Be diligent and relentless, admitting no obstacle. As the Scriptures say, "Buy the truth, and do not sell it. Get wisdom and instruction and understanding" (Pr. 23:23). As you secure the truth, and become addicted to it, you will have secured the context out of which belief will sprout, grow, and flourish (as the Spirit Himself waters it); and you will then come to know the power of belief and, subsequently, significant change. Someone once well said, "If there should arise one utterly believing person, the history of the world might be changed." Could that person be you?