Why do you believe what you believe?
A boy was asked that very question one day. He firmly believed that a monster lived in his closet. Perhaps he’d seen Monsters, Inc., too many times. The parents had tried reasoning with him, they’d laid out all the facts, they’d kept the closet door open and searched their way through it, but to no avail. The boy just could not be convinced.
He wasn’t scared, really. It was simply a matter of fact: a monster lived in his closet, one that only came out while he was sleeping. But his parents were concerned. How could he believe in something so outlandish? He seemed too old to them to be clinging to such a silly fiction. But try as they might, there was no convincing him.
So one night, they asked him again, exasperated, why he believed there were monsters in his closet.
He replied, “I don’t know; I just do.”
Let’s hear our scripture for this morning: Colossians 2:6-15.
Paul’s very concerned about what the Colossians believe and how that leads them to act. This scripture is part of a longer discourse on the nature of their belief and practice. He says they need to remain grounded in their faith, grounded in their belief in Christ, not allowing themselves to be led astray by any philosophy of the day or other belief system.
That included Jewish practices. He says in later verses we didn’t read not to worry about keeping kosher, not to worry about keeping religious festivals, and especially notable considering the Bible study many of us are taking, not to worry about keeping the sabbath. He says that these things only provide the illusion of faith; that keeping those practices doesn’t actually cause faith in Christ, and so they’re not worth the time.
Paul, to my ears, sounds worried. And he has good reason to be. There are lots of foreign ideas, different philosophies and religions, floating around Colossae and merchant towns like it. Paul’s letters are often to cities on vital trade routes: Philippi, Corinth, Ephesus, even Rome itself. Colossae is just such a town, which means that as wares are traded and purchased, as trader’s goods are sold at market, ideas are exchanged and people’s beliefs are challenged.
Not unlike our modern day. No matter how carefully you might curate your social media feed, no matter if you make a conscious choice about your news sources, and no matter how much of an insular bubble we live in here in Eastman, we still encounter foreign ideas that challenge our beliefs.
Foreign ideas that make us ask, like those in Colossae and the monster-believing boy, why do I believe what I believe?
And that’s a question worth considering. Why do we believe what we believe?
In the last two months, I have read several articles and heard several podcasts about how we come to believe what we believe. It’s not something that I’ve sought out; it just seems to be in the cultural milieu as of late.
And report after report says the same thing: much of what we believe comes from two primary sources: how we were raised and the community that surrounds us. This includes our religious beliefs.
What that means is, when asked why do we believe what we believe, the authentic answer much, if not most, of the time is we believe because our parents and our community told us so.
Which ought to strike us as odd because most of us believe that we came to our beliefs through logic and rational thought. When I’ve asked people this very question of why they believe what they believe, they usually rush to rational answers. They look for evidence to support their claims. They ground their answers in logic and analysis such that it sounds as though they’ve really thought out why they believe what they believe.
And that’s just the point of these articles and studies I keep hearing about. Most of us think we have arrived at what we believe through rational discourse, honest debate, and thoughtful inquiry. But most of us have really arrived at our beliefs because of our upbringing and the community in which we live and move and have our being. Pushed hard enough about why we believe what we believe, most of us will end up saying, “I don’t know, I just believe it.”
Like the boy: he had given his parents all sorts of reasons why he believed the monster was in the closet. Things would randomly move overnight, for example; evidence of the monster’s presence. Sometimes, when he woke up in the middle of the night, he would hear sounds coming from the closet. More evidence that the monster was there.
The parents, of course, would counter with different rational explanations for the evidence. They would say that things didn’t really move overnight; he just perceived that to be the case. They would say that the sounds he heard were just the creaks of the old house in which they lived.
But, he wouldn’t buy it. And, of course, they didn’t buy his explanation. And short of installing a camera in the room, there was no way to definitively prove that the parents were right and the boy was wrong.
Pushed hard enough for an explanation, all that’s left is for the boy, and in fact the parents, too, to say, as to whether or not a monster lived in the closet, “I don’t know. I just believe it.”
In religious conversations, I’m sure we’ve all been in debates with people who believe differently than we do. At some point, if we stay with the debate long enough, one of us ends up saying, “I don’t know. I just believe it.” And there ends the debate.
That seems like an insufficient answer, doesn’t it? It feels like a failure. Like somehow we aren’t smart enough, we aren’t wise enough, we aren’t schooled enough in our own faith tradition to properly defend it. If only we knew our tradition better, if only we understood what it means to be a Methodist better when we’re debating with Baptists, if only we understood what the scriptures say better when we’re debating with someone who condemns us for drinking, if only we understood Christianity better, we’d be able to properly defend it.
We wouldn’t be left with, “I don’t know; I just believe it.”
Surely, that’s what Paul expects of us, right? He says, “see to it that no one takes you captive through philosophy and empty deceit, according to human tradition, according to the elemental spirits of the universe, and not according to Christ.” (2:8) If we are to “see to it,” then we have to be able to defend ourselves.
Otherwise, we might be led astray. We might be led astray by someone of a more conservative version of Christianity who convinces us that we are supposed to follow all these rules and that God condemns us if we don’t.
Or, we might be led astray by someone of a more liberal version of Christianity who convinces us that the only thing that matters is what we personally believe; that all truth is relative.
Or, we might be led astray by someone of another faith. Buddhism is very popular among Americans right now. If we can’t logically defend what we believe and why we believe it, we might end up Buddhist.
Or, we might be led astray by the rational conversations of atheists who convince us, with their powerful rationales, that God does not exist.
If we can’t defend what we believe and why we believe it, we might be led astray.
This is why, “I don’t know; I just believe it,” seems like such an insufficient answer. Fear of not being able to defend ourselves, and thus being led astray, is what makes that answer insufficient.
Except, you’ve heard preached from this pulpit many times, that fear is never of God. Fear is never a reason to decide something or to determine how we act. If we’re living our lives in fear of any kind, then we are living our lives outside of God’s ways. That includes living in fear of being led astray or its cousin, the fear of believing in the wrong thing.
Fear of someone smarter than us taking us, in Paul’s words, “captive.” Fear of someone better educated than us convincing us of some untruth. Fear is the motivating factor.
Fear, indeed, is why we think to ourselves that, “I don’t know; I just believe it,” isn’t a good enough answer. Fear or, perhaps, shame, because we think that we’ve somehow failed God by not knowing our tradition well enough. And shame, too, is never of God.
God’s love means that God never shames us.
I submit to you this morning, if someone who believes differently than I do where to push hard enough on me, I would eventually only be left with a simple answer for why I believe what I believe, “I don’t know; I just believe it.”
It’s notable that Paul doesn’t prescribe education about the faith tradition here as a way of preventing being made “captive” to various other ideas that are opposed to Christ. Rather, he says in the verses leading up to his warnings, “continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.” (v. 6b-7) Remain rooted and built up and established in faith.
That word faith is the key. Faith is related to belief; it’s a commitment to believe in what we cannot see and cannot prove. Faith is, in many ways, the opposite of fact. A fact is something that can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt. A fact can be tested, verified, subjected to the scientific method. Faith cannot do any of those things. Faith, instead, is trust in what cannot be proven.
Faith is in fact irrational. The only rational religious commitment is atheism. Ultimately, atheism is grounded in the fact that God cannot be proven to exist. By the scientific method, by testing and verification, God cannot be proven to exist. That is a fact.
And yet, we know God exists.
But how? How do we know? Not by something we can prove. Not by something that we can hold up as fact. Not by some rational explanation.
No, we know because we have “received Christ Jesus the Lord,” and so we “continue to live [our] lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith,” (v. 6b-7a). We know because we have chosen faith; we have chosen to believe and have, by that choice, experienced Jesus Christ as our Lord and Savior.
We may not be able to prove it, but we know it deep down in our souls.
This is why, “I don’t know; I just believe it,” is, indeed, a sufficient answer. It’s a correct answer. In fact, after all the fancy theology and explanations, at a base level, it’s the basic answer in our faith.
Or, perhaps, it’s better stated this way, “I don’t know; I just experience Christ in me.” We know that our faith is real because we have experienced Jesus Christ, because we know Christ through that experience. So it has been for everyone who has ever claimed the name of Christ.
Even Paul, with his Damascus Road experience, had to make the choice to continue to believe in Christ. He could have written off that fantastic vision as too much sun, as eating the wrong thing, or by any other rational explanation. It was irrational that God would part the skies and Christ would speak to Paul on the road through a vision. It’s unbelievable in fact.
But Paul believes it. He made a choice, based on his experience.
And so it is with us.
We must make a choice, based on our experience, of whether or not we believe.
And if we have made that choice, we believe it because we have experienced Christ.
This is not to say that our faith is unthinking. Let me be clear on that point. By not thinking, by not being considerate, by not being disciplined in faith, many atrocities have been committed in the name of Christ. This is not an excuse to not keep learning, not keep growing in faith, not be disciplined.
Because even after we make the choice for Christ and experience him in our lives, we still have growing in faith to do. Without attending to our faith through spiritual disciplines, we can, indeed, come to believe very wrong things and do harm in the name of Christ.
We do not have an unthinking faith. We have a very thoughtful, very deep, very robust, theological tradition. And it’s very important. And I encourage much learning through being attentive at home in your disciplines and attentive here at church through sermons, bible studies, and Sunday school or small groups.
So this sermon isn’t to say that we don’t need to learn or think. But it is to say that learning and thinking are not what our faith should ultimately rest upon. If we need to have God proven to us in some factual way, if we need to somehow have Christianity proven to be right beyond a shadow of a doubt, then we do not have faith.
“Faith is believing in advance what will only make sense in reverse,” so says Philip Yancey. That means that faith is based on what we cannot see, what we cannot touch, what we cannot taste, what we cannot feel, and what we cannot smell. Faith is based, grounded, in the fact that we have experienced Christ, we know the forgiveness of our sins, we know the unconditional love he brings, and we have sensed the power of the Holy Spirit at work in our lives.
We believe it because we made a choice, based on our experience.
And that’s sufficient reason when asked to defend what we believe and why we believe it.
“I don’t know, I just experience Christ in me.” This is the best, and ultimate, answer of faith.
So, this morning, if you’ve felt ashamed because you haven’t been able to successfully defend what you believe against a challenge, let go of that shame. It’s ok. Keep learning, keep growing, but know in your heart that the fact that you have experienced Jesus Christ as Lord of our life is sufficient reason to believe what you believe. If you experience Christ in you, it is enough.
If, this morning, you’ve been afraid to be led astray by some other “philosophy” or “empty deceit;” if you’ve been nervous that if you didn’t know your tradition well enough you’d be led astray, rest easy. If you have experienced Christ in your life, then you have all you need. Just listen to Christ in you as you keep growing, keep learning, for you will know how Christ is calling you, how the Spirit is speaking to you.
If, this morning, you have not had that experience, then it’s time to make the choice for faith. Nothing I can say in this pulpit can make Christ, nor Christianity, nor religion of any kind, factual. Nothing I can say can prove it, but you know the need you have for it. Come to the rail and give your life to Christ. Make that faith commitment. There’s great joy in the fact that we get to experience God. Indeed, we get to know God, not just know about God.
I don’t know, I just believe it. I don’t know, I just experience Christ in me.
It is enough. This is grounding in our faith. This is remaining true to Christ.
Listen to your experience of Christ, for it is there that the bedrock of our faith lays.
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; Amen.