My family and I have just finished watching Series One of an ABC show called Once Upon a Time. We’ve enjoyed it thoroughly. The premise of the show is that there’s a small town in Maine (Storybrooke) full of fairy tale characters who are under a curse. They’re trapped there and they’ve forgotten who they are. A young boy called Henry attempts to persuade his mother that there are two worlds: the world of Storybrooke (and the rest of the U.S.) and the world of fairy tales. He owns a beautiful leather-bound book called Once Upon a Time, which contains dozens of fairy tales, which he says are true. In attempting to persuade his mother that the other world is true, the curse is true, that Snow White and Prince Charming are now trapped in Storybrooke, he spends episode after episode pleading with her. Why won’t you believe? Why can’t you see?
His pleading raises the issue of our beliefs and where they come from. Why do we believe what we do? Can we choose our beliefs? In Once Upon a Time, we watch, anguished, as Emma (Henry’s mum) refuses to accept what we can all see right in front of our eyes. We’re privy to the story of the two worlds, but she isn’t. No wonder she doesn’t believe. Would you? If I came to you and told you that a fairy tale world existed with Rumplestiltskin and Pinocchio and Belle and Snow White, what would you say? As you backed away from me and called men in white coats, what would you conclude about my mental health? In The Matrix, we’re presented with a similar scenario. Morpheus tells Thomas Anderson (Neo) that the reality he sees . . . isn’t real at all. It’s an illusion.
So why do we believe the things we do? A little reflection on this matter is unnerving to say the least.
Try this for size. Take a look at something in the room where you’re sitting. Now tell yourself that it’s a pink elephant. Go on. Try hard. Tell yourself that your pen is a pink elephant. Not possible. Why? Because you can’t simply believe whatever you want to believe. You’re constrained. You’re constrained by your genes, your brain chemistry, your cultural background and frankly, by the worldview which you possess. That worldview – your assumptions about reality and your place in it – is itself . . . well, it’s not really a choice you’ve made. Hundreds of different factors bearing upon you have ‘created’ the belief system which you now own.
So we’re not free, then. Help!
Well, freedom is a complex subject. Yes, you are free but perhaps not quite in the way that you had imagined.
I wonder if you’ve ever seen this bumper sticker: Wise men still seek him.
I don’t like it. First, because it implies that Christians are virtuous due to their decision to follow Christ. Second, because it implies that ‘come on, if you would simply exercise some wisdom, you could join us too! And because you don’t, then you’re not wise. You’re dumb.’ Which, by the way, isn’t a very biblical term. Sinful, yes. Dumb, no. (Yes, 1 Cor 1.23 – foolishness to the Gentiles, but notice, the gospel is foolishness to them. It doesn’t say they are themselves foolish. That’s different.)
So if our beliefs are constrained, then what hope is there? Are we simply victims of our make-up and our circumstances?
Let’s leave aside the ‘magic’ of conversion, the moment when a soul is given new life. I urge most people to avoid pressing the M button for as long as possible. But Mystery is written all over that one. To choose Christ while being chosen, well, that’s a wonder to behold. (Keep visiting this blog for a subsequent discussion of free will.)
This post, however, has to do more broadly with beliefs. If it’s true that we inherit them, that they are influenced strongly by our background and surroundings, are we then powerless to choose them? And why does St. Paul include so many exhortations to change behaviour? Since belief and behaviour are so closely related, what hope is there for us?
As it happens, it’s found in the relationship between belief and action.
Many theologians and preachers focus almost exclusively on the way beliefs affect action. The subject is rich and wide-ranging. What you believe is extremely powerful. It affects how you live your life to a profound degree. I raise my children, love my wife, give, share, work, play . . . all based on what I believe about my calling, what I’m here for. My purpose is grounded in my beliefs about myself, God and others. And those are founded upon what the Bible teaches. So my beliefs influence every facet of my life.
But what about the other way round? What about the way action affects belief?
There is a lot less written about this, because it’s a subject which parts of the church have disregarded for too long. When I look at my beliefs and I desire to change them, develop them, deepen them, I’m immediately aware of how limited my freedom is. Like Henry’s mum, I can’t simply choose to believe merely through the force of my will. However, I can fill my mind with truths which come from sources which I know to be reliable. So, the first step is that I can make it a priority to read books which point me towards God and of course, the one Book which contains more truth than any other.
However, that’s not enough. Because while it’s good to assemble as many correct beliefs as possible, as a follower of Jesus, I want to go further. I want to live consistently with those beliefs. I want those beliefs to be buried deep inside me, so that they change my behaviour.
And to do that, like the heroes in our stories, I can take action. I can fight. I can struggle.
Action affects belief. Action affects the intensity of belief. Action can bring beliefs to life, so that they emerge from the closet and are put to good use. It’s not enough to believe that God is able to bring about holiness in us if we do nothing which brings us before him regularly.
By action, I mean spiritual formation. Can you choose your beliefs? To a limited degree, perhaps. But you can choose to fast. You can choose to pray. You can choose to be quiet before God. You can choose to meditate on the Word. Take a look at that pen. Choose to believe it’s a sandwich. Not possible. Now pick up the Bible nearby. Choose to read it. Regularly. Study it. Meditate on the psalms. Worship. Trust. Love. Those are things you really can choose to do.
That’s where your freedom lies.
It’s a mystery why we sometimes believe the things we do. But it’s not a mystery why we don’t act. It’s indiscipline. It’s a heart which is seduced by other things. It’s a life in which God is not the priority he should be. And that we can choose to change. Gradually. One decision at a time.
Because when you take action repeatedly, you gain a habit. And when you gain a good habit, your beliefs are developed and strengthened and you gradually become the kind of person who loves and gives and resembles your Saviour.
Beliefs affect action, yes. But action also affects belief.
To embrace, deepen and strengthen your beliefs, take action.
Good advice? You better believe it!
© Richard Collins 2014