I am a word girl. Words can be gifts that open up my heart and bring me to new and true places. Words can also cause me to spiral, to stumble, to shut down. Words are blessings that allow us to attempt to communicate Mystery and love and hope and faith. But words are also limited. Limited by our understanding. Limited by our skill of expression. Limited by the interpretation of those hearing the words. Limited by the layers of meaning that build up over time, obscuring what is true.
The language that we use to describe God and faith and Jesus seems especially worn out sometimes. Sometimes I wish that we could just start over with a new vocabulary. But then there are times when we are given new eyes to see these words in a different light. When we experience these words in the depths of our hearts. And the words become new. And we become new. That is the power at the heart of these most potent words.
“Believe” is one such word for me. The word “believe” has caused me grief and made me cringe. It is a word that has sent me searching, on a journey to discover what “believe” actually means and how and what it is that I believe, and most importantly, who it is that I believe in.
I grew up thinking that “believe” was at the center of what it meant to follow God or Jesus. I grew up thinking that, while “believe” was more, it also required a mental assent that certain things are actually true or actually happened. “Believer” is the word that many Christians throw around to describe those who are “In,” those who believe the right things about Jesus. After a while, it is easy to get lost in the layers of words, culture, interpretation, and theology that have been thrown on top of this word and the object of it. We can read the words of Jesus in the gospels and completely miss the point of what he was saying because of all the layers that have accumulated over our seeing.
For me, it got to the point where I cried for hours after hearing a pastor preach “All you have to do is believe in Jesus. . .”
That’s all I have to do? What does that even mean? (These are disturbing questions to someone who grew up eating, breathing, sleeping church.)
After my cry that Sunday, I set off for the library to see if I could find some books on what others had to say about who Jesus was. I was hoping for a new perspective.
What I found was a liberating, life-filled way of understanding the word “believe.” In his book Jesus: Understanding the Life of a Religious Revolutionary, Marcus Borg writes that it was not until Christianity’s collision with the Enlightenment that the verb “believe” meant to believe certain statements to be true.[i] He explains:
“To center in God means to love God with heart, soul, mind, and strength. It means to belove God. How do we love? What does it mean to belove God? It has multiple resonances: to yearn for, to pay attention to, to commit to, to be loyal to, to value above all else. For Christians, this was the central meaning of the word “believe” until its meaning became distorted by the collision between Christianity and modernity. But until a few centuries ago, to believe meant to belove.” [ii]
Did I find out everything I wanted to know about Jesus and what I should believe about him? No. Just a few weeks ago, I cried again over the word “believe.” I am slow sometimes.
But Borg’s words were a breath of fresh air. They gave me permission to let go of and examine or merely to set aside for a time the particulars of the beliefs that had been plaguing me. Permission to move out of the realm of my head. To open up my heart. To just sit with the love of God. To learn to see Jesus and his words in a new way. Permission to seek after this Jesus, who still remains a question to me in many ways.
Belove. I think that is something that my heart can do and is doing–even when the particulars of my beliefs are up in the air.
[i] Marcus Borg, Jesus: Uncovering the Life, Teachings, and Relevance of Religious Revolutionary, p. 20-21.
[ii] Id. at 222-23.
I just discovered that Marcus Borg passed away last week. I am so thankful for his work and for permission to see things in a different way.