Can You Choose What You Believe?

I’m reading a devotion on my Bible app in the shower (yes, in the shower), and it concluded with a question that gave me pause: “What messages about yourself do you hear the most? According to scripture, how does God see you? Whose message will you choose to believe?”

It’s not the first time I’ve encountered this question in one form or another. 

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What will I choose to believe? 

Hold on! Who said that I CHOOSE what I believe? Don’t I just believe what believe? I thought belief and choice were different because I can WANT to believe something is true and choose to act as though it is, but that doesn’t mean I actually believe that it it’s true. I could be trying to fake it til I make it. 

Self-help books and “get rich” courses wouldn’t exist unless millions of people want something to be true that they don’t currently believe IS true. 

Maybe this resonates with you. Maybe it doesn’t. Either way, I’m going to walk through some of my thoughts and ideas about belief in front of you and see where I end up. Sound good? 

First, let’s mention the two most popular references to faith in scripture and see how those interact with my question…

I’ll post three different translations of each in case the differences shed some light. 

The first passage is Hebrews 11:1

Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. (NKJ)

Faith shows the reality of what we hope for. It is the evidence of things we cannot see. (NLT)

Now faith brings our hopes into reality and becomes the foundation needed to acquire the things we long for. It is the evidence required to prove what is still unseen. (TPT)

The second passage is Romans 10:17

So then faith comes by hearing, and hearing by the word of God. (NKJ)

So faith comes from hearing, that is, hearing the Good News about Christ. (NLT)

Faith, then, is birthed in a heart that responds to God’s anointed utterance of the Anointed One. (TPT)

A guru can tell me that I can attract the healing, wealth, and intimacy that I crave, but do I believe the guru just because I heard his spoken words? No. Do I believe the guru just because I do what he says to do? No. I might choose based on hope, rather than belief. 

If you want to drill down and be precise, you COULD say that somewhere in that scenario is a belief that drives the action. I believe that it’s “possible” that the guru is telling me the truth. I choose to act on his advice because I hope for the outcome he describes. But I don’t believe. And this is where I want to start our conversation about what belief is, and what it isn’t. 

Convince Me

At age sixteen, I somehow became friends with one of the most popular guys in my school. He was cocky, and arrogant, and he even had humiliated me in front of the class two years before. But he was a smooth talker. He had quite a few girls pining away from him at school. 

We became friends somehow… I really still don’t understand how or why. But we started hanging out over the summer, and he was the first guy my age who confided in me and I reciprocally confided in him about issues of the heart. 

When we spent time together, I never knew what was true. He was so smooth and so confident when he spoke that I didn’t challenge him even when the things he said seemed too outlandish to be true. My point is, he would tell a story so detailed and make it sound so plausible that I would believe his story was true. 

I was convinced by the apparent legitimacy of his words. That mechanism of hearing statements that sound first plausible and then legitimate is what leads to being convinced that they’re true. And this is what I’ve called “belief.”

Apparently that is not the consensus definition. I’ve seen more than a few responses online talk about what we “choose to believe”. 

How does one choose to believe? 

If you tell me something that sounds untrue, I can’t choose to believe you. The evidence is too great for me to ignore. If you tell me something that sounds unlikely, but possible, I don’t know how to choose to believe you. I can act on the information you have given me, and that may tip the dominoes toward a different path than the path I was on, but does that mean I believe? 

I don’t think so. That’s taking a chance on a possibility. It’s a calculated risk. If I believe it to be true, there’s no perceived risk of being a fool. Now there may be undesirable consequences for my actions, and I may have to choose whether to act on what I believe based on whether I want to accept the consequences of that action, but I’m still not choosing what I believe. I am choosing what I am willing to risk based on uncertain terms. 

At what point does a person choose to believe? 

Let me clarify one more time before I put this out there into the world for you to read: 

If I hear a Bible verse and it tells me something is true that I didn’t already know, I have at least a few options: 

  • Ignore it
  • Meditate on it
  • Analyze it
  • Act on it
  • Share it with someone else

But acting on what I have heard does not equal belief. It equals a choice. I choose to act on what it says. It may be true. It may not be true. My reasons for acting are my own. My reasons for acting could include: 

  • I have no good reason not to act on it
  • I think it’s worth finding out
  • I’m afraid not to act on it
  • I hope it’s true and I want to find out
  • I believe it is true and therefore I am acting in confidence

So choosing to act on what we hear clearly isn’t the definition of faith. Oh, and let me just throw another verse out there to muddy the waters: 

James 2:26 says,

For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also. (NKJ)

Just as the body is dead without breath, so also faith is dead without good works. (NLT)

For just as a human body without the spirit is a dead corpse, so faith without the expression of good works is dead! (TPT) 

We could rabbit trail around that one for a while. But James differentiates between faith and works. So you can have faith without works, and you can have works without faith. But faith without works is dead. So there’s a dynamic needed where faith, which is NOT works, is put into action. 

But, you could argue, faith without actions isn’t really faith at all. It’s phony. It’s mislabeled. It’s what we might call “mental assent”.

Okay then. I can buy in. That makes sense to me. So what is the difference between faith, mental assent, and being convinced? 

I can tell myself that I’m muscular and fit, but if I’m fat and weak I’m lying to myself. 

I can say internally and externally that God’s Word is true, but if I’m not acting on it and demonstrating how true it is in my life, I have given it mental assent. Mental assent means 

“intellectually accepting the Word of God as true – admiring it and agreeing with it-but not allowing it to have an impact on you, so that it doesn’t do any good in your life.” 

Allan Kakinda, whom I quoted above also shares an opinion on what faith actually is. Take a look: 

James 1:22 says, “Do not merely listen to the Word (of God) and so deceive yourselves. DO WHAT IT SAYS.” This verse separates mental assent from faith. James said if you think listening to the Word by itself will make the difference, you are deceiving yourself. You must learn what you have heard by believing and then acting upon it.

So I was tracking with him until the last sentence, and I got lost. Don’t just listen to Scripture, but do what it says. Okay. That makes sense. 

So it sounds like he’s saying that if I only listen and acknowledge but do nothing about it, it’s mental assent and not faith. But conversely it sounds like he’s saying that if I listen, acknowledge, AND act on it, then I demonstrate that I have faith. 

But let’s revisit the list of reasons why I might act upon a Scripture I’ve heard: 

  • I have no good reason not to act on it
  • I think it’s worth finding out
  • I’m afraid not to act on it
  • I hope it’s true and I want to find out
  • I believe it is true and therefore I am acting in confidence

Let’s be very logical and precise. 

“If” acting upon what we’ve heard and given mental assent to equals belief/faith, then I couldn’t be choosing to act based on fear or a lack of other options. But clearly those ARE possible motivations. 

“So then” there is a missing component to our understanding of what faith IS. So far we have:

HEARING —> MENTAL ASSENT —> ACTING ON IT

What is the missing ingredient to make the recipe faith instead of carelessness or fear? 

I look forward to your answers. Perhaps we can continue this discussion in a further post.

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