“You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that — and shudder.”
— James 2:18-20 [NRSV]
“Even the demons believe!”
That’s the refrain of countless numbers of letters that I receive as editor of this magazine. The critics are responding to the name of the magazine and the verse upon which it is grounded. Jesus tells us that “whosoever believes” is saved. Jesus doesn’t go much further than that in his declaration in John 3:16. He doesn’t add any “ands, ifs or buts.” He merely says “whosoever believes” in him is saved. But, as our critics love to point out, even the demons believe — and shudder! Simply believing — despite what Jesus said — is not quite enough, they tell us. Anyone can believe — the demons are proof!
So, what then do we mean when we say we “believe” in Jesus Christ? Before we answer that question, let’s think about other things we believe in. We believe that the sun will rise again tomorrow. We believe that our friends, if not our family, love us. We believe our partners when they tell us things. We believe our president when he tells us that we’ll win the war on terrorism. Some of us may even still believe in Santa Claus!
What is the foundation of all of these beliefs? Trust. We trust in the natural rhythms of the earth as we see the sun rise and set each day. We trust our friends to care for us, we trust our partners to be honest with us. We trust our president to carry out the actions he’s laid out. We trust that Santa will deliver the goods we’ve asked for! When we believe — we trust that something we believe in is true!
What else happens when we believe? Since our belief is based upon this trust that things we believe in will actually occur, then we feel confident enough to take action based on those beliefs. We get up every morning expecting the sun will be up. We continue relationships with our friends and our partners. We continue to support a president who is looking out for our interests and we continue our daily lives despite the ever-growing fear of terrorism. We leave out milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve because we trust he’s going to show up. The cookies and milk are always gone Christmas morning and presents have appeared. Our trust and action have paid off! Belief begets trust, which begets action.
Then let us apply this definition of belief to Jesus Christ. What then does it mean to “believe” in Jesus Christ?
When we say we “believe” in Jesus we are essentially saying that we trust Jesus with our very souls. In fact, the Greek work used in John 3:16 is “pisteuo” which means to “put one’s trust” in something. Believing in Jesus means we have given ourselves over to his loving care. It means we have studied his words, begged for his guidance and looked to him in both good times and bad for words of assurance, love and forgiveness.
That belief is bolstered because we have seen Christ in action in our lives. We have felt Christ’s loving care. We have found hope and life in his words. We have been granted God’s guidance, love and forgiveness through Christ. Because of all of these experiences of Christ in our lives, we trust that Christ will act over and over again in our lives. Why? Because Christ has never failed us in the past.
With our belief and trust set firmly in Jesus, then, we can begin to act out of that belief and trust. Jesus tells us in John 7:37-39, “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, streams of living water will flow from within them.” When we take action based upon our belief and trust in Jesus, living water flows from us.
But, what about the demons, don’t they act from their belief in God? Certainly they do. When Jesus sent the demons out of the Gadarene demoniac (Matthew 8:28-33) the demons recognized Jesus, calling him the “Son of God,” and they took definite action. They fled! Their actions, while they were certainly motivated by their belief in Jesus were missing one important piece. Their belief did not produce trust in Jesus.
We see this kind of lack of trust almost everyday in the real world. Many parents say they believe in or trust their children but then, without cause, they’ll go behind their backs, looking through their rooms or checking out their stories to make sure they’ve been truthful. Such actions show that they don’t really believe in their kids, even if they say they do. We might do the same things with our partners — saying we believe in them only to check up on them instead of really trusting in what they say or do for us.
Jesus understood this kind of behavior and condemned it when he warned that not everyone who says, “Lord, Lord,” will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21). We can say we believe. We can profess a belief in everything from sunrises to the Son of God, but if we don’t back that up with trustful actions, our professions are nothing but empty words, clanging cymbals that make loud noises but ultimately mean nothing.
But, if we look further at Matthew 7:21, we find out what it is that will gain us entry into the kingdom. It’s not saying “Lord, Lord” but doing “the will of my Parent in heaven.” Doing God’s will requires not only that we take action, but it requires one heck of a lot of trust and truckload after truckload of faith!
But that begs the question: What is God’s will? Undoubtedly, you will find person after person, church after church and doctrine after doctrine that will gladly tell you. However, not one person, not one church and not a book full of doctrines can adequately answer that question for you. They can, however, begin to give you the answers, but no one knows the answer to that question better than you know it yourself. The search for God’s will begins with you — in your relationship with God through Christ. In other words, it begins with your belief, with your trust that God, through Christ, will clearly mark out your path and gently guide you on your way if you will honestly seek God’s will for your life.
This is the most difficult part of belief, because this is the point where you have to abandon your will to God’s will. This is the part where everyone and his brother will tell you that you’ve got it all wrong and you’re damned to hell. This is the part where you’ll feel the most alone, the most lost, and often the most abandoned by God. But, this is where your belief is tested. This is the point where you put your money where your mouth is. This is where you learn whether your faith is really in Jesus or in yourself. Jesus tells us that, “Those on the rock are the ones who receive the word with joy when they hear it, but they have no root. They believe for a while, but in the time of testing they fall away” (Luke 8:12-14). Faith that is not bounded in a belief in Christ, in that “good soil,” (Luke 8:15) is like the rootless ones Jesus talks about who fall away during the time of testing. If your belief is true and rooted deep in the “good soil” of Christ, then no matter what, you’ll follow God’s will for your life, even if it makes other people angry, sad, outraged, or amused.
I’ve encountered all those reactions from fundamentalists who frequent one of the message boards I read. They become angry — even outraged — when a gay or lesbian person professes their belief in Christ. They express sadness and often will outright mock gays and lesbians who have the temerity to suggest that God might actually love them — or even has made them — as gays and lesbians.
I believe the people that attack gay and lesbian people of faith are no better than the demons who profess belief in Christ. Why? Because, their actions prove that they don’t trust Jesus. Instead, they deride gays and lesbians and demand that they renounce their homosexuality (or their “sick, perverted, lifestyles” as they like to say) or they’ll never be loved by God. In short, they trust their own power to save gays and lesbians. They believe they have to do God’s work to save others that they believe God hates. Instead of trusting Jesus to handle the lives and sins of others they feel compelled to hound, degrade and try to “save” gays and lesbians. They say they believe in Jesus, but their actions prove that belief is false. Jesus told Peter not to worry about the fate of another disciple, but to “follow me” (John 21:22). We are to follow Christ, love one another as we love ourselves and love God with all our heart, mind and strength. When we do this our belief in Christ is true and our lives will produce “living streams.”
How, then, can we know that our actions display utter belief and trust in Christ? Jesus reveals the answer in Luke 8:15. If our faith is planted in that “good soil” when we “hear the word,” meaning when we heed God’s will for our lives, we’ll “hold it fast with a good and honest heart, and bear fruit with patient endurance.” So, the marks of true faith include a good and honest heart and patient endurance. But, what is this “fruit” that Jesus says we must bear? Paul provides the answer in Galatians 5:22:
“The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things.” [NRSV]
Wow, that’s quite a list. How can we ever aspire to be everything on this list? Obviously there will be days, hours and even minutes when we will violate everything on this list. There are days when I don’t feel loving or joyful, or peaceful, or patient, or kind, or generous or faithful or gentle and I’m definitely out of control. It’s those days that I have to realize that I’ve shifted my focus, my belief, from God to myself. In those days, hours and minutes, I have abandoned my faith in God and am relying on my own strength. I have to remind myself, in these times, who I belong to. I don’t belong to myself. I belong to Christ. When I refocus my faith back on Christ, the peace is wonderful. I begin to feel loving, joyful, peaceful, patient, kind, generous, faithful, gentle and I regain control of myself and my emotions. I can only produce the fruit of the Spirit when my belief is firmly rooted in that “good soil” of Christ Jesus.
The demons who say they believe in Christ do not display the fruit of the Spirit. Instead, they are contentious, unkind, angry, condemnatory and hateful — like the fundamentalists who frequent this message board. They are full of vitriol for their fellow Christians and their actions prove, quite decidedly, that they do not trust God.
What should our reaction be when we are faced with such demons who say they believe but their actions prove that their claim is hollow? Paul again holds the answer when he admonishes us in Romans 12:18-19:
If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” [NRSV]
We are called to live peaceably with everyone, as far as it depends on us. Often you’ll find that you can’t live peaceably with some people. They will continue to abuse you, call you names and doubt your faith. In those instances, we must take Christ’s words to heart and “shake the dust” from our feet (Matthew 10:14) and leave them behind. We must never avenge ourselves, but by leaving the situation and the person behind, we “leave it to the wrath of God!” It’s not our duty to prove our detractors wrong. It’s not our duty to “save” anyone who disagrees with us. Our duty is to “live peaceably” and if we can’t, we must leave it to God! This is the ultimate form of trust in God. We cannot “fix” everything. We cannot make everyone agree with us. We must trust that God will fix everything in the end! This is the power behind our belief. If we can take this action, and not try to “fix” everything or go around trying to justify ourselves to other humans, and instead “leave it to the wrath of God” then we have shown that our faith is true — and more than that — powerful.
So, yes, even the demons believe, but the only true action their belief produces is fear — the demons shudder! A true belief in Christ produces bold action, based on trust, not fear. A true belief in Christ springs from that trust and compels us to search “with a good and honest heart” for the will of God in our lives. A true belief in Christ is recognizable because it produces the fruit of the Spirit — fruit that no one can deny when they see it. A true belief in Christ means we seek peace, not contention, and when peace is unattainable by our own efforts, we trust God enough to let it go so God can handle it in God’s own way and time. When our belief is truly grounded in Christ only then will the “living streams” flow from us, giving life and blessings to all those around us.
Whosoever founder and Editor Emeritus Rev. Candace Chellew (she/her) is the author of Bulletproof Faith: A Spiritual Survival Guide for Gay and Lesbian Christians. She earned her masters of theological studies at Emory University’s Candler School of Theology, was ordained in December 2003, and trained as a spiritual director through the Omega Point program of the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta. She serves as the spiritual director of Jubilee! Circle in Columbia, S.C., and blogs at Motley Mystic.