Over and over in the Scriptures is a call to a specific verb—believe. As Christians, God calls us to love one another, to care for the poor, to make disciples—but no action seems as closely tied to salvation as belief. John 3:16 tells us that God sent his Son so that those who believe in him might have eternal life; Romans 10:9, that we must confess with our mouth and believe in our hearts to be saved. Paul and Silas tell their jailor to “believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved” (Acts 16:31). What is belief? Why does it matter to God? The passage we’ll be diving into here is Genesis 15:5-6 (NRSV):
[The Lord] brought [Abram] outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the stars, if you are able to count them.” Then he said to him, “So shall your descendants be.” And he believed the Lord; and the Lord reckoned it to him as righteousness.
I propose that there are two different ways to believe. There’s a difference between believing a proposition and believing a person. If you tell me “snow is white,” I can respond in two ways. I might say “I believe that,” but I can also say “I believe you.” What’s the difference? If I say “I believe that,” I’m conveying my agreement with your proposition that snow is white. “I believe you” is slightly different—I’m not only taking your statement to be true, I’m making a claim about the nature of our relationship. Believing a person means you believe what they say because of who they are. I take you to be reliable, place my trust in you, and accept your proposition “snow is white” as truth because of who you are. If I don’t believe you, I would come to believe that snow is white because of some other reason.
This matters because when God shared a promise, Abram believed God. He didn’t just believe what God said. He placed his trust in God and believed him for who he was. To do this, we have to take God to be a reliable source; we have to know who God is. Abram tells God “I believe you” because he understands God’s character. God is faithful, steadfast, immutable, unwavering. Thus, Abram’s believing God is the proof of his understanding of and relationship with the one true God.
“I believe you” forms a foundation for shared intimacy; if I don’t believe you and you don’t believe me, we are unable to be in relationship. Constantly requiring additional verification from your friend before believing what they say because you are unable to believe them would get annoying quickly. More importantly, there are things about me that are unverifiable; therefore, you must believe me on my word alone. For example, imagine confessing a sin to a friend who won’t believe you; you can’t share intimacy with that person. Whatever exchange just happened, it wasn’t intimacy. Intimacy is frustrated by lack of belief in each other.
I think God not only wants us to believe what he says, but he wants us to believe him. God wants intimacy with us. Because believing a person is a precondition for intimacy, when we constantly search and plead with God to give us signs and verification of his promises, we are not fully believing him. We want verification. We don’t want to wholly trust in God’s character to know he is who he says he is. Give me a sign! Fundamentally, this is a lack of belief in God. Unbelief is more than distrusting God, it is a misunderstanding of his character and an inability to accept the intimacy he offers. I think this is why Jesus says in Mark 10:14, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these.” The kingdom of God belongs to those who believe their Father without hesitation. The call for Christians is to believe, because by believing in him, we build a salvific relationship with the one true God.
Where does that leave us? It seems like we might fall into a vicious cycle stemming from an impossibly high bar. I misunderstand God, which leads to unbelief, which results in lack of intimacy with God, and hence in more misunderstanding! That’s exactly right. This is the human condition, and it’s precisely the one that Jesus lived and died and rose again to save us from. God did not let us live in a cloud of confusion, he came to Earth so that we could understand him. In getting to know Jesus, we can know God, and he is so gracious to us that belief in him as small as a mustard seed is enough for intimacy with him. Our belief will never be perfect, but because with God all things are possible, he will use what little we have to reveal more and more of himself to us.
As with human relationships, belief in God grows and strengthens over time. Even pleading with God for signs, while demonstrating our unbelief, contains a seed—the belief in a good God who might deliver them. Ultimately, this mustard seed must be belief in God as he revealed himself to the world in Jesus Christ. God will use this tiny belief to build us into people whose faith will never tremble in the face of adversity, whose joy will never cease as the foundations of the world shake, and whose hope can withstand the darkest valleys and deepest sorrows.
Great is our God!
Felix Perez Diener is a junior in Kirkland House studying Philosophy and Computer Science.