Is Faith Mainly about Feelings?
*Editor’s Note: The following is an excerpt from Christian Convictions: Discerning the Essential, Important, and Personal Elements.
Starting in the spring of 2020, much of society temporarily shut down because of the COVID-19 pandemic. These shutdowns, of course, dramatically affected local churches because they were forced, in many cases, to stop meeting in person for worship. Laura Kelly, the governor of Kansas, faced criticism for her decision to shut down churches in her state, and defended her stance:
Religion is really not about the building. It’s about the faith, it’s about how it feels on the inside. The need to congregate is important but not during a pandemic. . . . I am not trying to suppress religion. I’m just trying to save Kansans’ lives.
There is a lot we could say about this statement, but for the purposes of this article, I want to focus on the second sentence, “It’s about the faith, it’s about how it feels on the inside.”
I agree that faith is more important than buildings, but is it true that faith is about “how it feels on the inside”?
To answer this question, let us turn first to the biblical Gospels. In the Gospel of John, the word “believe” appears ninety-eight times in its twenty-one chapters. In the overwhelming majority of those cases, belief is directed toward a person—Jesus. John 3:16 is the most famous example, but another good example is John 11:25:
“I am the resurrection and the life. The one who believes in me will live, even though they die.”
What is most important to Jesus is that people would believe in him and be saved. We observe a similar idea in Matthew’s Gospel. For example, Jesus asked Peter a critical question: “Who do you say I am?” Peter responded by affirming, “You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God” (Matthew 16:15–16). It is Peter’s true confession of Jesus’ identity, not simply his feelings, which serves as the bedrock foundation for the church.
Believing with the Whole Self
In the letters of Paul, we discover a consistent emphasis on believing rightly. One of the best and simplest examples is in Romans 10:9–10.
If you declare with your mouth, “Jesus is Lord,” and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. For it is with your heart that you believe and are justified, and it is with your mouth that you profess your faith and are saved.
The modern reader might read this and associate “heart” with “feelings,” but this would be a mistake. To the ancients, a person’s heart did not primarily represent their feelings. It represented the innermost being of a person. To believe with your heart means that you believe something beyond superficial faith. It means that you have believed with your whole self. To Paul here, much like to Jesus in the Gospels, salvation is tied to what the saved believe.
The notion that faith is merely about feelings would have been foreign to Paul.
Now, it is important to know that biblical faith in Jesus is not merely about belief. The book of James reminds us that “faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead” (James 2:17). Paul agrees with this in the Romans passage above! He reminds us in the passage above that believing in Jesus is more than just an intellectual exercise; we believe with our hearts and minds.
Our beliefs bring about an effect in every part of us. This idea is also at the core of what Jesus called the Greatest Commandment. He told us to love God “with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” (Matthew 22:37). Our belief really looks a lot like love in a marriage. It is comprehensive; it includes affection, trust, faithfulness, and loyalty.
The Greek word for “faith” in the New Testament is pistis. It encompasses everything you would find in a loyal relationship between a husband and wife that endures over the decades. So faith is more than belief, but we must add that believing is never less than affirming certain truths with our intellect. Loving God is difficult without any knowledge of who that God is. This leads me to my next point.
Many Paths Up the Same Mountain?
Despite what Scripture says, it is fashionable for some in our culture to insist that it does not really matter what you believe about God or religion. To these religious relativists, religious beliefs are different from other kinds of beliefs like beliefs about science, mathematics, or even history. The assumption is that specific beliefs about God are like opinions on music: everyone has their own preference and no one is any closer to the truth than the next person.
They sometimes compare beliefs about God to taking different paths up a mountain. The paths might be different, but the destination is ultimately the same. So when it comes to God, distinct beliefs do not matter. Religious beliefs are merely about personal preferences and not about what is objectively true.
We should point out that there is a fundamental problem with this many-paths-up-the-same-mountain illustration. It assumes that God is simply a place. If God were a place, then the illustration would work because we can of course take multiple paths to get to the same place. But God is not a place; God is a person. Remembering how Jesus talks about faith in the Gospel of John, we know that God calls us not to believe in abstractions but in him as a person (John 11:25). He calls us to believe in him.
This sort of faith in Jesus is personal and exclusive.
This kind of faith might be illustrated by a marriage relationship. What does it mean for me to “believe in” my wife? Well, my belief in this case would look a lot like trust, commitment, and even love. My belief in my wife is personal and exclusive to her. I do not believe in my wife and love her well by committing myself to other women.
Such a belief would be adulterous. It is not by accident that the false worship of idolatry in the Bible is so often compared to adultery (e.g., Ezekiel 23:37; Jeremiah 3:8–9; Hosea 1:2). Believing in other gods creates a fracture in our relationship with the living God.
There are consequences to assuming that beliefs do not really matter. For example, according to Barna, almost half of practicing Christian millennials say it is wrong to try to evangelize people of other religions. This statistic reveals how many who self-identify as Christians today do not think specific beliefs matter. Why else would they think it’s wrong to evangelize? This shows that when people reduce religion to feelings and faith to opinions, the passion for spreading the life-saving truth of the gospel wanes.
Tragically, we often find that a faith emptied of concrete beliefs soon becomes no faith at all. On the other hand, we know that believing in Jesus and following him is the only path to freedom (see John 8:31–2). The truth of Jesus sets us free from the power of sin and from the lies that masquerade as truth in this world. What we believe about God matters. It matters for true life and for salvation.
A faith emptied of concrete beliefs soon becomes no faith at all.
 Carol Kuruvilla, “Kansas Governor Sues GOP Leaders for Subverting Order Limiting Church Meetings,” Huffpost, April 10, 2020, https://www.huffpost.com/entry/kansas-coronavirus-churches-religious-freedom_n_5e90ab2ec5b6d641a6be4d13.
 See also John 3:36; 5:24; 6:29, 35, 47; 7:38.
 For more on how faith is more than merely belief or even trust, see Mark Moore’s book in the Real Life Theology series, Faithful Faith: Reclaiming Faith from Culture and Tradition (Renew.org, 2021).
 “Almost Half of Practicing Christian Millennials Say Evangelism is Wrong,” Barna, February 5, 2019, https://www.barna.com/research/millennials-oppose-evangelism/.
Excerpted from Chad Ragsdale, Christian Convictions: Discerning the Essential, Important, and Personal Elements (Renew.org, 2021).