Back in the days when I spent an hour of every weekday reading aloud to my kids for school, it was no great surprise to me which books from our reading list my kids loved best: the novels. We always had a novel going, and they were usually classic (often Newbury Award winning) historical fiction selections that tied in with what we were studying in history. But it wasn’t long before Rowyn (as a primary schooler) would start asking the same question with every book.

Is this true?

At the time, I would explain historical fiction to him–that the characters themselves were from the author’s imagination, but that they were interacting with true events or showing us a true glimpse of the world in which they were set. And Rowyn would always make a face and say something along the lines of, “But I want it to be true.”

These old memories, now nearing a decade old, came back to me the other week as David and I were talking about theology on one of our morning walks. What, we were asking, does it really mean to believe in something? It’s an interesting question when you dig down below the face of it. We believe in God. We believe in Jesus. Using the word belief there tells us that the very word gets at something important, some need planted deep within the heart of humanity. 

But we use the same word for other things. We ask if children believe in Santa Claus. We talk about whether we believe in ghosts. And as a novelist, I hear all the time whether my plots or characters or twists are believable.

Combining that thought with Rowyn’s question brought me to a rather odd but inescapable quirk of the human mind and heart: Our belief does not hinge on whether something is true…but on whether we want it to be. We can be “willing to believe” something not because  the evidence is irrefutable or the facts beyond dispute, but simply because we find the story compelling or convincing.

Then there’s the flipside–we can choose not to believe something because we don’t like it. We once sat in a Bible study in which there was a questionable version read of a verse. We had the Greek in front of us, so we could say, “Actually, that’s not accurate. It reads like this.” And someone replied, “Well, I just don’t believe that.”

I recall just blinking at her. Here was a woman who professed to be a Christian and “believed the Bible to be true,” but who was unwilling to believe a particular statement irrefutably from the Bible and upheld in the majority of translations through time (if not that one particular one) because it didn’t align with her worldview. And it wasn’t even one of those verses that you can take out of context or which was poetic. It was a concept expounded on over and again in the Epistles (to put others above yourself). How, I wondered, can you just say you don’t believe it and expect that to be an argument against it?

And yet…how often do we all do that? Reject something because we don’t like it? How often do we cling to something untrue because we do like it? How often do we think that our very belief or unbelief is all that it should take to convince the world to think like we do?

It’s a concept that we’ve been talking over a lot as we think about miracles through the history of the Church, of healings associated with things like relics, of the mysteries of faith. When we’re looking on those things from the outside, our questions tend to be, “Did that really happen? I don’t know if I can believe it.” But the “truth” of it isn’t really what we’re objecting to. There are Eucharistic miracles, for instance (when communion wafers have been turned into flesh), that have been scientifically examined and confirmed. But people will still dismiss it. Not because it isn’t true according to the definitio of factual–but because they can’t believe it. Why can’t they believe it?

Because if they believe it, they have to admit to other things too. They have to accept the whole of faith. They have to accept as Truth other things they’ve denied. You can’t believe in a miracle without granting the validity of the God, the Church, and the people who performed it.

The real beauty is the reverse though. When we surrender our wills and our logic to God, suddenly we can believe in things that seemed impossible, because we hold Him as the ultimate Truth. We can believe in the Red Sea parted. We can believe in the dead rising. We can believe in Peter’s shadow healing people. We can believe in the blind receiving sight, in storms being calmed, in angels battling for us in the heavenly spheres. We believe it not because it’s believable, but because when we put our hand in God’s, He gives us the grace to accept as Truth what defies logic. He gives us the grace to want to believe, and so, to do so. The cry of that desperate father–Lord, I believe; help my unbelief!–suddenly comes into clarity.

We’re all capable of believing in what isn’t true…but the real triumph of faith is being able to believe in what is.

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