Have you ever thought about the difference between knowing and believing? To know of something and to believe in something…certainly, they express two different cognitive actions. But it’s really hard to pinpoint their difference. The reason that I’m asking this question today is simple. It’s because, believing is what matters most in our Christian life. So, as Christians, we better clarify the meaning of believing at least once. What does it mean to believe? And how is it different from knowing? Let’s find out.
Imagine that you are in a mountain hiking along a trail. And this trail leads you to a hanging bridge. But that bridge looks old and dangerous. So you are worried and hesitating to cross the bridge. Right then, you see a man coming across the bridge. And he happens to be a State inspector. He’s there to check the bridge for an annual inspection. So you ask him, “Is it safe?” And the inspector gives you up-to-date knowledge about the bridge…about how sturdy the bridge is, how much weight it can sustain, and so on. Now you have good knowledge about that hanging bridge. But still, you are not hundred percent sure about that bridge, because it just looks unsafe. Who knows if something goes wrong when you put a step on it?
Here, we see one simple truth. Our knowledge alone cannot make us cross that hanging bridge. We need a certain degree of belief that the bridge is going to be alright. Of course, having more knowledge about the bridge can help us build confidence. But the actual action of walking across the bridge requires our belief… belief in the inspector and in the bridge. Now, can you see the difference between knowing and believing here? Knowing is about our reason, about proof and objective assessments. But believing is beyond reason; it’s more about our attitude, about our commitment that enables us to take action.
This is why that knowledge alone cannot make us Christians. Even if someone knows everything about Christianity and everything about the Bible, we can’t simply say, that person is Christian. To be a Christian, to actually live a new life in Christ, we need to believe in Jesus and commit ourselves to his way of love. Those who just have some knowledge about Jesus…they don’t have to follow him; they don’t have to live or die for him. But for those who believe in Jesus, he is the reason for life, reason for loving others and welcoming strangers, and reason for changing the world. Yes, believing in Jesus is more than just knowing Jesus.
In today’s Hebrew Bible story, we see Abram who is going to be called Abraham later. He is a believer. He’s a kind of person who puts believing before knowing. Here, God makes a great promise to him, saying, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing” (Genesis 12:2). But before this promise, God commands Abram to “go.” Go? To where? God doesn’t specify the destination of this journey. God just tells him, “Go from your country and your kindred and your father’s house to the land that I will show you”…the land I “will” show you (Genesis 12:1). God says, I will tell you later, but for now, just go. Incredibly, even though Abram doesn’t know where he should go, he believes in God’s plan and starts his journey. Without any knowledge, without any map or guide, but only with his belief in God’s promise, he commits himself to God’s lead and takes action.
Now, there’s a guy in today’s Gospel story, who is quite different from Abram. His name is Nicodemus. He is a knower. He’s a kind of person who puts knowing before believing. He was a Pharisee and a member of the Sanhedrin, the Jewish supreme council in Jerusalem, a gathering of PhDs and JDs of his days. In the story, he is very curious about Jesus. This young man from the poor town of Nazareth has something special. So, one night, he visits Jesus making sure nobody sees him, because his board doesn’t like Jesus. Looking at Nicodemus’ eagerness to seek a piece of truth, Jesus teaches him about the secret of salvation. “Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.” “Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit” (John 3:3; 5). What? Being born again? How come? It doesn’t sound right to Nicodemus.
To this Nicodemus, Jesus gives a lesson of lifetime. “The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes” (John 3:8). Here, Jesus means, “Nicodemus, the truth of salvation is beyond your knowledge. But don’t you think that it’s not for you to know but for you to believe. Knowledge can help you understand me better, but it’s your belief in me that regenerates you and saves you.” So listen, “for God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). You don’t have to know all the mystery of God’s grace to be saved, you can simply believe in me. Then you will be born again as a child of God.
Faithful friends in Christ, are you more like Abraham, a believer? Or are you more like Nicodemus, a knower? Between knowing and believing, where are you at now? In this Season of Lent, I hope we all become more like Abraham who puts believing before knowing. I love the English expression “believe in.” Yes, when we believe, we are in. We are in the attitude of accepting Jesus as our Lord. We commit ourselves into the journey with him. We step in the relationship with God. We abide in the Holy Spirit, so that in the presence of God, we experience and understand more and more the love that pours out upon us, the joy that fills our hearts, the grace that renews us even in our darkest days.
Today, you may feel like you don’t know how to live your life, don’t know why bad things happen to you, don’t know where God is, don’t know what to do to renew yourself. If you do, why don’t you stop trying to know everything, but instead, start believing like Abraham, believing that someday God will lead you to the land of promise? Why don’t you stop trying to know everything, but instead, start believing again the truth that Jesus gives to Nicodemus today, the truth that we have heard so many times? “For God so loved the world, for God so loves each one of you, that gave the only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16). Do you believe this? Do you believe in Jesus?
In this Season of Lent and beyond, let us put believing before knowing. May God renew your spirit and regenerate your life as you trust in Jesus more and more. And may God reaffirm your faith that is the assurance of what you hope for and conviction of what you do not see yet. Amen.
Pastor Earl Kim