Is it necessary to understand a thing completely before you believe it? That sounds like a stupid question, but on several levels it’s not at all stupid… Sometimes people will refuse to believe what God says or even refuse to become a Christian because of something they cannot understand. Belief and understanding are not the same thing.
It’s exactly what Jesus asked John the Baptist to do
John began his ministry of preparing the way for Jesus with some amazingly confrontational statements. For instance, after he called the people he was preaching to vipers (vipers!), this is what he said: “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” It’s in Luke 3. John understood that the vipers of his day were in for a bad time.
Later in the same chapter, he says this about the judgment Jesus will bring with him: “His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
So it’s pretty clear John thinks Jesus will do some serious ax-cutting and chaff-burning just as soon as he gets to town.
Yet not much later and much to his surprise, it is John who is in a dungeon and Herod will soon lay an axe to John’s head, not the other way around. John is understandably confused about how things have worked out. So confused that he sends a few of his followers to ask Jesus if he is really the Messiah. John the Baptist is confused about what John has been preaching himself! That’s interesting.
And just as interesting is the answer Jesus sends back. This is in Luke 7. He tells John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.”
Notice that Jesus does not tell John why he is in Herod’s dungeon, nor does he explain how Jesus can still be the Messiah when it sure doesn’t seem like much chaff is getting burned up. These are things John doesn’t understand and Jesus doesn’t explain them. Instead, Jesus reminds John of a prophecy in Isaiah 35 that is obviously being fulfilled in Jesus (about the lame and lepers and all that) and he tells John he will be blessed if he does not “take offense” at Jesus.
Stripped to its essence, Jesus tells John to rely on what he does understand (the Isaiah 35 prophecy) and then trust and believe what God says (in John’s case, things he said as God’s prophet) in regard to the things he doesn’t understand. Jesus did not think it necessary to render a full understanding to John.
Use what you do understand to influence your reaction to things you don’t understand
If you are considering conversion, then maybe baptism is a sticking point for you. It is for a lot of people. Trusting God and living a good life and repenting of sin and having faith in Jesus as the Son of the Father and showing up at church on Sundays and all that… those things are usually not much of a problem. But baptism might be a problem (most Protestants do have some “issues” with water baptism).
Baptism doesn’t make a lot of sense when you get right down to it. You contact water in the context of Acts 2:38 and Mark 16:16 and Romans 6:3ff and Matthew 28:19 and Galatians 3:27 and that contact somehow washes away your sins?? Are we kidding?? That makes absolutely no sense.
But even if baptism doesn’t make sense and even if that gives you a problem, nevertheless you do understand that the claims of Jesus to be God’s only begotten Son are well-founded. You understand that his teaching on baptism is clear (I mean, look at that list of Bible passages above). You know the Church has taught baptism in its creeds and other documents all the way back to the earliest fathers. You know that millions of people for a couple of thousand years have given their lives to Jesus and he definitely keeps up his end of the bargain. Use the things you do understand to help you with the thing you do not understand – and be baptized, even if you don’t understand it.
The same conditions are present in what Jesus and Paul and the early fathers say about the Lord’s Supper. Jesus says “this is my body” and “this is my blood” while he holds what sure looks like bread and wine at the Last Supper. Paul says in I Corinthians 11:23-29 that eating these holy things “unworthily” makes a person answerable for the body and blood of Jesus. Writings from the early fathers consistently refer to the Lord’s Supper as a sacrifice and speak of the elements in the sacrament as changed. You don’t understand that and neither do I. But for the reasons I list above for baptism, plus the fact that this same Jesus performed miracles merely by speaking a word, I believe that what a priest hands me at Mass is the body and blood of Jesus regardless of whether I understand it.
The choice seems to be whether I believe Jesus and his church or whether I believe my senses. I’ll take Jesus.
This is not unique. Everyday, constantly, we do the same thing – we believe things we do not understand
For instance, I don’t understand why my friend loves me. For one thing, there are so many things about me that are not lovely. For another, I cannot really perceive the inmost thoughts of my friend. And lastly, the huge majority of people I know do not love me in any sort of special degree. Yet in the experience of our friendship, I believe my friend loves me, even though I cannot understand it.
Part of what makes me believe my friend loves me is feelings, I suppose, and feelings can be pretty flimsy things to rely on. But the larger consideration is that I know my friend quite well – I know he can be trusted – I know he tells the truth – over and over again, he has proven to be reliable. So when he tells me he loves me, I do believe it, even though I do not understand it. Whether I understand it is almost beside the point, almost irrelevant.
A second example is what happens when I have a difficult decision to make. I always “sleep on it”. I always give a hard decision the chance to work itself out in the back of my mind (whatever that means) and most of the time the decision is improved compared to what I would do the first day. During that time, I’m not consciously thinking about the issue. I’m not gathering more facts or consulting other people. I’ll usually pray about it some, but to be honest I don’t roll around in sweaty prayer over most decisions. I don’t understand what’s going on to make the decision better. But I always do it and I’m certain this kind of patience improves my decisions. I believe it, so I do it, even if I don’t understand it. It honestly doesn’t make any difference if I understand it – I just know it’s true.
Use what you do understand to help with what you do not understand.
Do not make your own understanding the criterion for whether you believe a thing.
Trust Jesus and his church even when you really don’t “get it”.