Every few days for the last three weeks, my social media feeds have seen a sudden spike of people shouting a common phrase together: “I believe!” This, of course, was the shortened version of a chant that has expressed the feelings of the supporters of the United States Men’s National Team (USMNT) during their participation in the World Cup: “I believe that we will win!”
Yesterday that belief came to a screeching halt as the USMNT gave up two goals in extra time to bow out in the Round of 16. Players and fans were no doubt gutted. It was a difficult end to what had been a hopeful start.
On one level this is yet another example of the futility of placing one’s hope and satisfaction in those things which are uncertain. As one who spent his childhood heavily invested in a number of sports teams, I understand the pains of pulling for a particular team and seeing them lose. I understand the (short-lived) joys of winning and the utter dissatisfaction that comes with losing.
But on another level, the use of the phrase and its wrong prognosis on three out of four occasions during this World Cup – there were three games out of four that the USMNT most definitely did not win – raises an important point about the nature of belief itself.
Anyone is free to believe anything he wants to believe. I am free to believe that the moon will fall into the ocean tonight. I would be wrong, but I can believe it.
In the same way, everyone was free to believe that the USMNT would win. However, as is evident from the outcome of the matches, this belief was badly misplaced.
Now, I’m well aware that the phrase was not meant to indicate that people were firmly persuaded that the USMNT would win every match they played. I understand that the chant was just that: a rallying cry, not an actual definitive prognosis.
But at the same time it raises an interesting and crucial point: What should we actually believe, and why should we believe it?
This question has immense important in the realm of the Christian faith. To many, Christianity is simply something they “believe” as if it is simply their preferred way of moving through life. Others have their beliefs, and we have our beliefs. In these cases it is simply that one prefers to think in a particular way as opposed to another.
To others, especially those outside of Christianity, “belief” or “faith” is simply something that you decide that you want to be true and then you live as though it were. Forget the facts: you don’t really have grounds for it, but you believe it anyway. It goes a little something like this:
Bill: “John, a hurricane is coming through, you need to leave.”
John: ‘I’ll be okay.’
Bill: “But you live in a mobile home below the storm surge line and it’s a Category 5.”
John: ‘I’ll be fine. I have faith.’
This is the way that much of the world sees Christian beliefs. In essence it is no different than believing in Santa Claus or believing in the Tooth Fairy: It has no basis in reality, but someone wants it to be true, so he believes it.
Standing in contrast to all of this is biblical faith. When Christians “believe” in Christ according to the Bible, they are not making up what they want to be true and then deciding that it is true. In fact, far from making up one’s own understanding and believing it, we are called to deny our own speculations and to trust God and his word completely:
Trust in the Lord with all your heart
And do not lean on your own understanding. (Proverbs 3:5)
Biblical faith is not built upon human ideas or things it wants to be true. Rather, it is confidence in a God who has made specific claims and promises and told us to believe him and his words.
Abraham, the prototype of saving faith, demonstrated this kind of belief:
Without becoming weak in faith he contemplated his own body, now as good as dead since he was about a hundred years old, and the deadness of Sarah’s womb; 20yet, with respect to the promise of God, he did not waver in unbelief but grew strong in faith, giving glory to God, 21and being fully assured that what God had promised, He was able also to perform. (Romans 4:19-21)
True faith does not invent its own things to believe. Rather, it takes God at his word because God is 1) trustworthy so as to perform what he promises, and 2) powerful so as to be capable of doing what he promises.
The essential elements of biblical faith, then, consist in believing what God has said, primarily in the gospel: that God is holy and righteous; that you are sinful, guilty, and deserving of his judgment; and that Christ is the Son of God who died in the place of sinners and rose from the dead, offering salvation for all who call upon him. And believing that, you cast yourself upon God’s mercy and turn from your evil ways to love and serve him.
If your faith is merely in your speculations or wishes, you are sure to be let down every time.
But if your faith is in the words of a God who is trustworthy and powerful, you will never be disappointed.
For the Scripture says, “Whoever believes in Him will not be disappointed.” 12For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; for the same Lord is Lord of all, abounding in riches for all who call on Him; 13for “Whoever will call on the name of the Lord will be saved.” (Romans 10:11–13)