"Oh everyone believes, in how they think it ought to be..." - John Mayer
A few years ago I had a friend who was very convinced about what hell was going to look like. The imagery wouldn’t surprise you: fire, a burning lake, and lots of gnashing of teeth. Personally I’ve always struggled with both the concept, and the violent images people use to describe hell and so to hear someone speak of it so easily without any discomfort was disturbing.
Hell was going to be horrific, they claimed, for those that did not believe in Jesus. If you fast forward a few years that same person lost someone very close to them. The person who died wasn’t a believer. I remember seeing the heartache my friend was going through and wondering to myself whether it was made all the more painful because of what they believed about hell. Interestingly enough that very topic came up in a conversation a little while later and when I asked them what their thoughts were about it they responded with a very simple phrase: “I really don’t know.” This was one of the most honest moments of theological reflection I had ever heard. It made me realise something. Belief is easy. This isn’t a post about hell, in case you were wondering. It’s about the fact that it’s really quite easy to believe in something. It’s much more difficult to live out that belief, especially in times of difficulty or pain. So much of Christianity has become about the way we think about things. Doctrine, theology, belief. It often feels as if the greatest crime in the church is to believe the wrong thing. Reflect on the questions we ask each other: “What do you think about… evolution… hell…resurrection?” Belief is important, and the way we think makes a difference, but so does the way we feel about things. Often we forget that if we’re not careful we can create a tension between our brains and our hearts when they are supposed to work in harmony. What some people inevitably come to discover is that: Belief is easy. Living belief out is difficult. This is why so many people go through seasons of faith deconstruction whenever they experience a trauma in their life, because the beliefs they were taught are found to be anaemic in the face of life’s many trials. Jonathan Haidt in his book, The Happiness Hypothesis uses the analogy of an elephant and a rider. The elephant represents the affective, or emotional self. The rider is the cognitive, or rational self. We often live life assuming that the rider is in control, showing the elephant where to go and pointing it in the right direction. What Haidt points out to us is simply that the rider is in control only until the elephant decides to exert its will. What does this mean? It means that the most powerfully formative aspect of us as human beings is not the way we think about things, it’s the way we feel about things. Which is why even the most strongly held beliefs often collapse in seasons of pain and trauma. Not just because they are hard to believe, but because the beliefs themselves often stop making as much sense as they used to. They are supplanted by empathy. I can already hear the theological masses jumping up and down. “We can’t let our feelings dictate the TRUTH about God! Couldn’t we then believe whatever we want?” It’s a common enough point, but a very uninteresting one. As if Jesus walked through life disconnected from the way people felt because he was so concerned about ascending to some objective truth. Allowing our feelings or emotions to completely direct the course of our lives would be a mistake, no doubt. Often the way we feel about things gets all tangled up in our perceptions and bias’, but one of the tragedies of the modern day is that we have almost removed empathy from the theological process. We care more about objective truth, systematic formulation of doctrine, knowing the right thing, than allowing God to profoundly shape the way we feel about the world. To allow empathy to guide our reflections on doctrine, theology and biblical studies doesn’t diminish it, it strengthens it. I grew up being profoundly disturbed by a God who would ask Abraham to stab his son in the chest as a way of proving his allegiance. Now that I’m a father I’m even more disturbed. But this feeling – that something didn’t make sense about the story – has led me to explore the text in more depth and what I discovered was a God more loving and compassionate than I could ever have imagined. A God who – far from calling Abraham to sacrifice his son is actually the one crying “Stop!” when he comes close to doing what every other religion around him demanded he do. We need to recognise that we are aren’t just meant to think our way through life, we are meant to feel our way through it too. This is difficult for me. I’m not a feeling, I’m a thinker. But the more I pay attention to the “elephant” I realise the more I am guided towards an image of God that is far more graceful than I had previously been taught. How often in life do we find ourselves believing passionately in something, but then realise that the practical application of that belief might require so much more of us than we are willing to give. Often, that feeling is worth paying attention to. A friend of mine recently spoke to me about what they called the ‘cruciform pattern of life.’ By this they were referring to a particular saying of Jesus’ where he told his disciples that: “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it.” – Matt.16:25 It struck me that this is the pattern of Christian life, that in order for resurrection to occur – for life to be born within us – we need to die to certain things. I read this passage over and over again and realised how much I hated it. You see, I believe in the cruciform pattern of life, but to actually embody it is a completely different thing. This comes to the surface most prominently for me in my relationships with others. I am a fiercely independent person (INTJ on the MBTI and 8 on the Enneagram, in case you were wondering, which you weren’t, but it’s my blog). Valuing autonomy over most things in life, sacrificing for others doesn’t come naturally for me at all. It’s a painful experience. Being a husband and a dad – two things I love and cherish so much – has therefore been incredibly difficult. The tension between believing that a sacrificial life is the only path to true freedom, and still longing for personal freedom and autonomy is a very real wrestle (and one I constantly lose). What compels me to keep trying is not just the belief that one particular way is better, but it’s when I look at my wife and kids, when I sit around the dinner table and hear them laugh, or when I see them growing, learning, becoming more of who God has made them to be. It’s the feelings of love I have for them that compel me to live out what I know to be right. Simply believing in something, it seems, isn’t enough to make you live it out. Believing in something is easy. Living it out is not. John Mayer summed it up beautifully in his song, Belief, where he said: “Belief is a beautiful armour, but makes for the heaviest sword” If John Mayer isn’t the spiritual director you’re looking for why not try out Paolo Coelho: “The world is changed by your example, not your opinion.” Or, bringing it home, the one and only: “Do everything [the Pharisees] tell you… but do not do what they do, for they do not practice what they preach. They tie up heavy, cumbersome loads and put them on other people’s shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” Let’s allow our beliefs – the way we think – to be formed and informed by the way that we feel, so as to stop belief from becoming the sword that cuts others down.