This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent. (John 6:29)
Jesus could not be any clearer. When we believe in him, we receive eternal life. But in spite of Jesus’ clarity, his followers still struggle sometimes to understand what he teaches.
I have heard many people say something like this. “I’m not sure my faith (or his faith or her faith) is strong enough.” In other words, they have understood Jesus to be saying that the strength of a person’s faith determines whether or not she receives eternal life.
This misses the fundamental point about believing in Jesus. He doesn’t want us to focus on the strength of a follower’s beliefs, but on Jesus’ own unique power to give us eternal life.
|Vasily Perov’s “Dispute on the Confession of Faith”|
Jesus teaches us to examine carefully what we rely upon to justify our existence, to make our life significant, to secure a sense that we are worth loving.
Timothy Keller provides an illustration that gets Jesus’ point across. Imagine that Rambo and Peewee Herman have fallen off a cliff. Each has caught hold of a root sticking out of the ground just in time to keep them from tumbling to their death.
Now, ask yourself who will escape from falling. Will the muscular Rambo or the scrawny Peewee Herman make it out of this predicament alive?
If you chose Rambo because of his superior strength, you failed to ask a more fundamental question. Which root is strong enough to bear the weight of the man clinging to it for dear life?
No matter how strong Rambo is, he will drop like a stone if he has taken hold of a weak root. The root will snap and he will plunge to his death. The root he has chosen to believe in cannot bear his weight.
When Jesus urges us to believe in him for eternal life, he is talking about his power to bear our weight, not the strength we have to cling to him.
I’m going to explain what I mean in greater detail by addressing three questions.
How do some Christians commonly rely on themselves when they think they are relying on Jesus?
What did Jesus tell us that belief in him actually is?
What difference does believing make in our daily life?
Getting Right Answers and Following the Rules
Let’s turn to that first question. How do some followers of Jesus commonly rely on themselves to bear their weight instead of relying on Jesus?
Now we all know that the world is filled with idolatry. In every generation people have relied upon sex, money, and power to give their lives a sense of significance. They place the weight of their lives on something that we know cannot provide eternal life, only fleeting satisfaction and tenuous security.
Even though we believers are susceptible to the allure of basing our worth on our looks, on our career success, and on our social status, we know deep down that they promise more than they can deliver.
However, some of us routinely rely on something just as flimsy to bear the weight of our lives. We rely upon ourselves, and we do it in a way that masquerades as believing in Jesus.
We put our trust in ourselves, thinking that we are putting our trust in Jesus, in two distinct ways. We rely on our doctrine and count on our morality to give us eternal life. In other words, some of us reduce believing in Jesus to getting the right answers or following the rules.
|Norman Rockwell’s “Teacher’s Birthday”|
Let’s turn first to getting the right answers.
When Jesus tells us to believe in him, we are quick to hear that he wants us to give intellectual assent to a set of propositions.
For instance, when you say that there is a cat on the mat, I believe what you say because I agree that you have correctly described reality. There is a cat curled up on on a mat somewhere.
But strictly speaking, I could agree about the cat, and I could care less about having a thing to do with it.
In the same way, you can insist with all the force you’ve got that you are right about Jesus’ humanity, divinity, and atoning sacrifice, and you will have entirely missed the point.
Remember the Summary of the Law. The first half says this: Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and all your soul, and all your mind.
You can have all the right ideas about Jesus and still not love him as your pearl of great price, as the most precious thing in your life, as the one person you yearn to be with all the time above all others no matter what.
Our love for him is not our initiative or some achievement we’ve accomplished. It’s not a right answer. Our love is a response. Our love for him wells up in us when we finally experience the reckless, passionate, no-holds-barred love he has for us.
His love for us is the point. It bears our weight, justifies our existence, redeems our failures, heals our wounds, erases our shame, and calms our fears.
We can also spend our energy following the rules without truly believing in Jesus.
We can count on our moral rectitude to earn eternal life.
But you know, you can follow the rules and hate the rule giver. Or, you can obey the rules just to make the rule giver owe you a reward that you have won all on your own.
That’s not loving Jesus and relying on him to change your life. Focusing on our moral uprightness boils down to trusting our own will and our own conduct to make Jesus give us what we want.
By contrast, when we fall in love with Jesus because we have tasted his powerful love, we follow him around wherever he goes. We end up trying to be like him, just like we have copied the mannerisms and the demeanor of other people we love.
If getting the right answer and following the rules are not what believing really is, how did Jesus define belief? That is our second question, and we have already started to answer it.
In short, believing in Jesus comes down to relying on his love for us to bear the weight of our life.
Here’s what Jesus means by believing:
It’s not how strong we are but how weak we admit we are. Accept him as the teacher that we need. This includes admitting that we need a teacher. We don’t know it all, and much of what we think we know is not quite right, and we have trouble properly applying what little we do know.
Trust him as the one who will make sense of our life, so that we can boldly live the crazy life he models: loving enemies, forgiving the same person repeatedly for the same offense, giving the shirt off our back to the guy who just stole our jacket.
Above all, trust that his love for us will get us to where we need to go, not necessarily to where we think we want to go.
How do you do that? One little step at a time, returning again and again to reflect on the manger and on the cross. Reflect on how much he gave up to dwell in our midst and how much he suffered to give us a new life.
Eternal life is the is a whole new order of being that slowly emerges from this remarkable love and then stretches beyond the horizons of the life we can know on this earth.
Eternal life begins in small ways the moment we start to believe, and grows in power and depth the more we learn to rely on Jesus. We can see it if we know what we’re looking for. And that leads us to our final question.
Believing or Not
What difference does believing make in our daily life?
Let’s look at just one area: doubt. Believers and non-believers alike doubt. That’s right, belief is not the opposite of doubt. But the kind of doubt we find in believers and non-believers is radically different.
When non-believers doubt they ask questions like this: Will my plan work? Am I strong enough, smart enough, attractive enough to succeed? In other words, it’s all up to them.
Their doubt leads ultimately to fear and exhaustion as they slavishly pursue the next achievement, the next standing ovation, the promotion that proves to them that their lives matter, that they are worth loving.
Believers doubt in a very different way. It’s something like this.
I don’t know exactly how all of this will turn out. I wonder what Jesus is going to make of it. I doubt my ability to predict where Jesus will take me, but I trust that it will be good, even better than I can imagine. Because the one thing I do not doubt is that Jesus loves me.
We can count on Jesus to bear our weight.
This sermon was preached at Grace Episcopal Church, Monroe, Louisiana.
I think that the last two paragraphs give a real life application of the principle of humility.
Thanks for reading, Margaret. And thank you for the insightful comment. It seems to me that humility is one of the chief virtues Jesus teaches us.