Behavior or belief?

February 27th, 2017

So, which is more important? What we believe? Or how we behave?

It’s a lot like breathing. Which is more important? Exhaling or inhaling? As a person who lives with asthma, I can tell you that it all depends on which one you did last!

Belief and behavior both matter. What we believe shapes how we behave and how we behave demonstrates what we believe. For a healthy life, they need to be in sync with each other. Even our bodies rebel when what we say we believe and how we behave are not consistent. They both matter.

And yet…

My problem with Jesus

Over the past few weeks, the lectionary gospel readings have focused on Matthew’s collection of Jesus’ words we know as the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5:1-7:28). Most people who say they believe in Christ would agree that these passages are the essential core of what Jesus taught.

The problem is that Jesus has almost nothing to say about what we believe. He focuses entirely on the peculiar way he expects his followers to behave. It’s the same when you turn to Jesus’ parables. Most of them are not about what we affirm as the content of our faith, but what we do and how we live. His parables of the final judgment are painfully clear that what will matter is not what we say we have believed, but the way we have behaved. (Matthew 25:1-46)

John’s Gospel is the only gospel that puts a major emphasis on belief, but even it concludes with Jesus saying, “This is how everyone will know that you are my disciples, when you love each other.” (John 13:35). Paul’s epistles are the bedrock of what Christians believe, but every letter points to the way what we believe shapes the way we behave.

That’s not to say that belief is unimportant. If it were, I wasted a lot of time and energy across the past four decades attempting to help folks get clear about what they believe and why they believe it. What is unimportant is belief that doesn’t transform our behavior. The goal of Christian discipleship is not making sure that we get everything right in our heads, but that our hearts and lives are being shaped into the likeness of Jesus.

The problem for us

The problem for “so-called” Christians is that the world watches how we behave more closely that it listens to what we believe. Particularly the so-called “Gen-Xers” and “Millennials” can smell a hypocrite a mile away.

They may not understand all the complexities of Christian theology, but they know when people who say they believe in Christ behave in ways that are inconsistent with what Jesus teaches; when we manipulate the truth with self-serving exaggerations; when we accept economic policies that benefit the rich by denying the needs of the poor; when we vote for candidates whose life styles are a contradiction of the most basic standards of truth or personal morality; when we close our eyes to the subtle and persistent sins of racism, xenophobia, sexism and jingoistic nationalism; when we are quick to resort to violence and slow to walk in Jesus’ way of peacemaking; when we love to pray on street corners but fail to practice the disciplines of spiritual formation; when anger and old-fashioned meanness contradict the way of mercy and forgiveness; when we settle for our lives the way they are without stretching toward what they can become; when we say we believe the creed but behave in ways that don’t look like Jesus.

In times like these, Jesus words come with painful and penetrating clarity: “Not everybody who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will get into the kingdom of heaven. Only those who do the will of my Father who is in heaven.” (Matthew 7:21)

Walk the narrow way

David Brooks is just about the closest thing we have to a biblical prophet. I plan to reread his powerful book, The Road to Character during Lent and hope you will, too. In his recent sermon in the National Cathedral he reminds us that the teachers who made the biggest difference in our lives were not the ones who gave us an A+ because we walked in the door, but the ones who “started with a C- and loved us toward an A.”

That’s what Jesus does in the Sermon on the Mount. That’s what he meant when he said, “The gate that leads to destruction is broad and the road wide, so many people enter through it. But the gate that leads to life is narrow and the road difficult, so few people find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) He calls us to a way of discipleship that leads us toward the complete integration of our behavior with our belief. He challenges us to face our failures and continue to grow toward what Wesley called “Christian perfection,” the completion of God’s work of love in our human lives.

The need for ashes

All of which is why we need to get our ashes in church next Wednesday. (Pardon the corny play on words!) The dirty smudge on our foreheads is the tangible reminder that we are all dust. We are all mortal. We are all imperfect people. But they are also the sign of the grace that meets us wherever we are and loves us too much to leave us there. Jesus accepts us with all our contradictions between what we believe and the way we behave and draws us toward the wholeness (holiness) of a life that is fully integrated with his will.

We follow the Teacher who meets us at a C- and loves us toward an A.

Jim Harnish is the author of A Disciple's Heart and Earn. Save. Give. He blogs at at

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