O Me of Little Faith

O Me of Little Faith

Beliefs vs. Actions and Spiritual Health

I want to propose a thought experiment.

1. Some people believe in God but live as if he doesn’t exist. Craig Groeschel’s book, The Christian Atheist, addresses this phenomenon. (Is phenomenon the right word? Or is it more of a trend? Or maybe just an observance?) Anyway, how many of us go through our lives saying we believe in God but live each day in ways that seem to contradict that belief? We worry. We trust more in money than in God’s provision. We live selfishly. We fail to extend the grace we hope God has extended to us. We don’t pray.


2. Some people don’t believe in God but live as if he does exist. In other words, they may not identify as Christians but live very Christ-like lives. Maybe it’s out of habit. Maybe it’s because they are committed to the ethics of Christianity even if they no longer believe it. Maybe they are attracted to Christian ideals like grace and compassion even though they no longer trust the Bible or Christian tradition. Maybe they do it because they hope God exists, and live that way externally…while doubting on the inside. I know some atheists whose thoughtfulness, ethics, and personal morality put Christians to shame.

In your opinion, which is preferable? #1 or #2?

Note: most religious people will say the ideal, of course, is to believe AND live as if you believe. But we don’t live in an ideal world. Some struggle with faith. Some struggle with behavior. I’m not sure everyone struggles with both at the same time. Which is why I want to know what you think.


In terms of spiritual health, is it better to believe in God but live like you don’t? Or to not believe but live like you do?

Or maybe we should phrase it a simpler way. What’s more important: belief or actions?

[Thanks to my friend Liz for suggesting this post.]

Comments read comments(26)
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Ray Hollenbach

posted March 1, 2011 at 7:24 am

I find this post interesting and refreshing, Jason: it goes to the heart of the strengths–or weaknesses–of Evangelicalism. Your option #1 is all-too-common, and it causes me to tremble when I consider that so many people think it’s OK to “believe” yet act contrary to those beliefs. Here’s a startling statement from James 2:19, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” Even demons can have “correct doctrine!”
Position #2 is more interesting because our actions, as you’ve pointed out, can be informed by so many influences. Yet in the end, I think our actions shape our hearts. So for my money, the person whose actions are closer to God’s values will (eventually) find their hearts and minds open to the grace of God.
Our actions reveal our true beliefs. The best place, of course, is to “believe” and live as though we believe. May God give us the grace to do so!

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David N.

posted March 1, 2011 at 8:40 am

Obviously you’ve already said what the ideal is, so just to go out on a limb and make this interesting I will come down in camp #2. I can’t help but wonder if living in a Christ-like manner, showing love and grace, is in some way evidence of an intuitive belief the person may not even be aware of. Conversely, can belief be counted as real when it alters nothing in a person’s behavior?

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Janet Oberholtzer

posted March 1, 2011 at 8:53 am

I pick #2 – actions.
Because I’m not sure #1 is even possible … can our so-called beliefs really be our beliefs if no actions accompany them?

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mindful searcher

posted March 1, 2011 at 8:53 am

For me, Matthew 21: 28-31 answers the choice you put in front of your readers. Living the life of a follower of Jesus is preferable to being a follower in name only. The essence of being a Christian is treating others as one wishes to be treated.

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Chaplain Scott

posted March 1, 2011 at 9:09 am

Interesting thought experiment, especially in light of the Rob Bell controversy over the weekend. Someone wrote on Facebook, “By April we will know whether Rob Bell is a Christian.” In other words, what Rob Bell believes (specifically about hell) determines his ultimate relationship with God, regardless of his actions that have introduced so many to life in the Kingdom.
I think Jesus lived and taught according this his Jewishness, i.e., our life, our actions towards others are a reflection of our love and devotion towards God. Empty religiousity or belief is meaningless. So, #2.

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posted March 1, 2011 at 9:28 am

Right belief vs right practice, huh? I’m definitely a right practice guy. Well, as long as that practice is one I agree with. Being tolerant of people who come at it from a different angle is something I struggle with daily. If I believe and try to live like a Christian, but don’t extend the grace I’ve recieved to others, where do I come down? As someone who’s in the #1 camp, but is desperately trying to land a foot in #2. And, for now, failing dismally.

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Ed Cyzewski

posted March 1, 2011 at 9:40 am

Perhaps the answer has to do with this, “What kinds of people could Jesus use?” Those who thought they had their beliefs in place without the right practice tended to reject him. Though having the right practice didn’t necessarily prohibit anyone from following him either, those who desired to do the right thing were in a good place to hear and respond to Jesus.
I’m just glad that technically speaking right belief and right practice are intertwined. Thank God for the book of James.

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Susie Finkbeiner

posted March 1, 2011 at 10:11 am

I think that Ed’s on to something. Very good point!
I think that #1 is lukewarm Christianity…which is nauseating to the Lord. He’d rather have us blazing hot or icy cold. So, I’d say #2 would be preferable. But that’s kind of a “lesser of 2 evils” option.

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Mike L.

posted March 1, 2011 at 10:17 am

I wonder if he got this backwards. I wonder if the problem with Christianity is that it believes in a God too much. I wonder if Christians would do better if we lived as if God doesn’t exist.
If God doesn’t exist, then Christians have to do something in the real world. There would be no magic solution, no supernatural quick fix, no staying at home praying for justice while allowing injustice to thrive. I wonder if the whole point of incarnation was too reject the concept of a Pagan God “up there” and seek the spirit of Christ that now lives in us. Ending our “belief as superstition”, may be exactly what we need in order begin a “faith as practice”. Rather than waiting for another Zues-like God to save us, maybe we should begin to follow Christ by actually incarnating God in the world.

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Casey McCollum

posted March 1, 2011 at 10:28 am

i needed this today. thanks.

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posted March 1, 2011 at 10:47 am

It depends on what we want out of Christianity. If it is a ticket to heaven and nothing else, #1 is good. If we want social justice #2 is probably better.
This particular proposal is sort of self-centered; it’s about what I want from Christianity. The better questions to ask might be these:
Does God want us to act like Jesus?
Does God want us to know Jesus; love him and serve him?
From God’s perspective neither is sufficient.
2 John 1:6 And this is love: that we walk in obedience to his commands.
Acting like Jesus, and failing to obey Him, both are insufficient.

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posted March 1, 2011 at 3:52 pm

I don’t think belief and actions can be separated, because belief is much broader than intellectually assenting to a specific statement of faith. I once did an internship as a community organizer at an Alinsky-style organization, which is based on the premise that people take action based on their own self-interest, so any kind of lasting community change will have to come out of what people feel is important to them. Anyway, my supervisor said something that stuck with me, “I don’t ask people what’s important to them or what they believe in. I find out how they spend their time and how they spend their money, and then I know what’s really important to them.”
I think that what we do reveals what we REALLY believe – about ourselves, about others, about God – and that is frequently different than what we might SAY we believe. You might say that god is love, but if what you really believe way down deep is that god is up there ready to smack you around the second you put your toe over the line, your behavior and relationships will reflect that. If you believe that the primary reason to be a Christian is to go to heaven and avoid hell, then your life will reflect that too.
I know that for me, when I was an active Christian, there was a pretty big disconnect between the doctrine that I claimed to believe and what I actually believed. Once I owned what I really believe about me and the Divine and the world, lining up spirituality and behavior got a LOT easier.

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posted March 1, 2011 at 8:00 pm

I think the parable of the Good Samaritan indicates that Jesus thinks it is better to have the wrong beliefs but do the right thing than to have the right beliefs and do the wrong thing. Everyone loves to quote John 3:16 like it’s the end-all be-all verse of the Bible, but there are an awful lot of passages where the sheep are separated from the goats based on actions, not professed beliefs.
I also agree with many above who believe that how a person acts gives us at least a partial picture of what they really believe. No one is perfect; many (all?) of us struggle to live out our beliefs, even the ones we’re passionate about. Acting is harder than thinking about acting, so some degree of inconsistency between beliefs and actions is, in my opinion, very normal. However, our actions do reflect what we think, feel, and believe about the world, and actions will betray the hypocrite.

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Edward William Fudge

posted March 2, 2011 at 9:14 am

It seems I remember a story from our Lord about a man who told his two sons to go work in his vineyard, and SAID “I go” (but did not) while the other SAID “I will not” (but went). Might we learn anything from that?

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posted March 2, 2011 at 11:15 am

I’ve found it best to do away with the belief in anything that lacks evidence, including gods. In my post-religion life I’ve made decisions about morality based on what causes the least harm and the most cooperation, happiness and peace, not on what I think a god or holy book would suggest. This type of morality certainly overlaps with Christian morality in many areas, so I guess I would choose #2 if I had to choose one of your options. But leaving faith and religion behind has allowed me to honestly grapple with tough ethical choices based on reality rather than authority.

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Jon Peterson

posted March 2, 2011 at 11:23 am

Actions are more important than beliefs. Actions affect everyone around you; beliefs potentially affect nobody.
And from that I say that it’s better to live a good life in non-belief.

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posted March 2, 2011 at 12:55 pm

Both of these options are intellectually dishonest. It is better to believe a thing and act as if you believe it, or to not believe a thing and then act as if you don’t believe it. Doing either of your two options is deceitful, either to others or to yourself; or both.
In short: honesty is better than belief or actions.

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posted March 2, 2011 at 12:58 pm

When I first read this question, I thought that what you meant by “living as if God does exist” means that you attend religious services and ceremonies. However, it seems that what you mean is “living a good, charitable life.”
I am confused as to why living a charitable life is equated to “living as if God exists.” People who do not believe in god are certainly capable of living good moral lives. There are plenty of reasons to live a good life other than to please an almighty being. I don’t think that this was your intent, but your assumption perpetuates the myth that religion is necessary to morality.

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posted March 2, 2011 at 7:17 pm

I have to agree with Stan.
What is the connection between “Living as if God exists” and “living as a good person.”
Why is that assumed?
Surely another way to look at that would be “Living as if God exists” means. . . stoning gay people, rebellious children, and fornicators. Living in fear of hell. Denying scientific findings that contradict one’s holy book. There are so many, So, So many horrible things people do because they believe in God, and yet we’re pummeled every day with, “living for God means doing good!”
I was a missionary with Navigators for years, and I made this same connection. Now, as a non-believer, it’s easier to see the presumptions I made all of the time. I know many people who do not believe, and they are wonderful people. They’re not “acting like believers,” they’re just being good people.
Just for fun, let’s put that into the previous construction. “When people are living charitably and kindly they’re living like non-believers.” :)

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posted March 3, 2011 at 12:04 am

I have to say I’m quietly horrified by your option #2.
“…the ethics of Christianity”
“Christian ideals like…compassion”
“…hope God exists, and live that way”
I wonder is there’s any way to really impress upon Mr. Boyett just how insulting his well-meaning statements are. How intolerant it is to casually assume that any good moral qualities must be Christian by default.
I would ask him to consider re-examining his underlying assumptions of morality and ethics. If he does I hope he will give some thought to the idea that he knows “some atheists whose thoughtfulness, ethics, and personal morality put Christians to shame” not because these atheists have adopted Christian-owned ethics, but because they have adopted a form of shared human morals. A shared morality which has the Christian ethical philosophy as one of many variations on a common theme.

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Jason Boyett

posted March 3, 2011 at 12:38 am

First, my apologies for quietly horrifying you. It wasn’t my intent to insult — you’re correct in supposing that my statements were well-meaning toward those atheist friends of mine who impress me with their morality and ethics. I meant it as a compliment, though I see how it could be seen as patronizing or intolerant. You see, I’ve spent three decades growing out of the evangelistic fundamentalism of my childhood, in which I was taught that atheists had not only rejected God, but were evil. The process of moving beyond that stereotype has involved a lot of re-examination of those “underlying assumptions.” But I’m doing it. I’m always doing it. Subconsciously, though, I do default to looking at kindness, compassion and grace as Christian concepts rather than human ones. It’s not that I think we, as Christians, own those. But that kind of thinking is still ingrained in me. I am a product of my faith and my family’s faith. Just like a lifelong American might unthinkingly consider “freedom” or “democracy” to be American ideals rather than human ones — and therefore offend non-Americans — I see ethics through the lens of Christianity. Does that make me intolerant? Maybe. But at least I realize the lens is there, and I try to bend my eyes around it whenever possible.
Thanks for your comment.

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Chris Hallquist

posted March 3, 2011 at 1:21 am

I’m an atheist, and I’ll go with “better to believe in God but live like you don’t.”
It’s a very good thing that most religious people aren’t fanatics.
Best of course, is to not believe in God and live like you don’t.
(For a less snarky answer, I hope you’ve gotten Friendly Atheist’s incoming link, if not, just Google the blog.)

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posted March 3, 2011 at 2:13 am

“Maybe it’s out of habit. Maybe it’s because they are committed to the ethics of Christianity even if they no longer believe it. Maybe…”
Correct me if I’m wrong, but you make it sound like you aren’t quite sure why people still strive to behave morally when they don’t believe in God? You should check out Axelrod’s work on the evolution of cooperation, if you haven’t done so already. Maybe we do it because we were born that way :-)
PS: I liked your reply to Franco just above.
PPS: If the reason for having faith in God is so one can have faith in morality, then maybe it’s possible to just skip the middle-man and go straight to the source.

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posted March 3, 2011 at 4:15 pm

Hi Jason –
One additional comment in the “assumptions that evangelicals tend to make that kind of bug me” category: Lots of people do believe in God and aren’t Christians – Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, etc., etc, so it’s not like the choice is Christianity or atheism. Other religions (some of which pre-date Christianity) have their own very well-developed set of ethics and morality which have precisely zero to do with Jesus. i.e. – Buddhists are trying to be Buddha-like, not Christ-like. And there are also a whole bunch of people who don’t adhere to a specific religion, but who still believe in God in some fashion – although their conception of it might vary greatly from yours.
There’s nothing wrong with being an atheist, and there’s no reason an atheist can’t be compassionate and ethical – but globally speaking, they comprise a relatively small part of the people who aren’t Christians. I grew up evangelical myself, so I totally understand your lens – it just bugs me a bit when evangelicals act as if all these other ways of believing don’t exist (except for when they’re talking about Islamofascists – but that’s another comment entirely.)

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Jon Henegar

posted April 23, 2011 at 9:13 am

I have read many articles about Mr. Bell, both pro and con. I’ve noticed that many of his supporters say that he is a gifted communicator. That he is gifted in his ability to express his thoughts and ideas. The question I have is this. After years of being a pastor of a church, writing many books, making teaching material available to thousands of churches, having countless interviews, nobody seems to know what he believes. How come?

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posted March 31, 2012 at 9:33 pm

Christ himself said that he could not minister in his own home town because of unbelief. If you believe the Holy Spirit will begin to guide you. You will study the Word of God and you will pray and transformation will start to take place. Does it mean you will beerfect? Absolutely not….however, you will begin to change those things that you know are not pleasing to God with the empowerment of the Holy Spirit and in the Name of Jesus. God cannot work where there is unbelief.

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