What and How We Believe

Before we can start thinking about the relationship between faith and innovation, we need to gain a clearer sense of how our faith in Christ should be shaping the way we live. A helpful place to start is with some questions Jesus asks in Luke 10.

 While Jesus is teaching his disciples, a religious scholar interrupts to ask him a question: “What must I do to inherit eternal life?” On the surface, this question sounds perfectly legitimate. But Luke makes it clear that something shady is going on by noting that the scholar is trying to “test” Jesus (v. 25). This is the same verb Luke used to talk about the devil testing Jesus in the wilderness (Luke 4:12). It appears that the scholar is trying to provoke Jesus, or argue with him, or trip him up in some way.

Jesus seems to be aware of the scholar’s motives, and so he doesn’t respond to his question directly. Instead, he asks the scholar two questions in return. “What is written in the law?  How do you read it?” (v. 26). Note the content of these questions: What do you know? And how—or in what way—do you know it?

The scholar gets the what part of the answer exactly right: “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and your neighbor as yourself” (v. 27). This scholar has done his homework, and Jesus affirms that he has the correct beliefs: “You have given the right answer; do this, and you will live” (v. 28). 

Yet there seems to be something wrong with how the scholar knows what he knows. “But wanting to justify himself, [the scholar] asked Jesus, ‘And who is my neighbor?’” (v. 29). The scholar’s attempt to “justify himself” indicates that Jesus’ response disturbed him in some way. We can only speculate, but it is likely that the scholar was not really obeying the commandment to love all of his neighbors. We do not know the details, but we do know that the scholar does not want to change his behavior. He is not seeking a precise definition of “neighbor” so he becomes more loving to the people around him. In fact, he is not thinking about other people at all. He is seeking this definition because he knows that, once he can define the exact parameters of a “neighbor,” he will be able to find a way to justify his lack of love. 

Jesus sees through this game. Instead of entering into a technical discussion about the definition of a “neighbor,” Jesus responds by telling a story—the story of the Good Samaritan (vv. 30-35). A man traveling from Jerusalem to Jericho fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him and left him half dead. A priest walks by, sees him, and passes on the other side. A Levite walks by, sees him, and passes on the other side. But a Samaritan sees him and is moved with pity. He goes to him, bandages his wounds, pours oil and wine on them, puts him on his animal, brings him to an inn, takes care of him and then pays for his care after he leaves. 

Jesus tells this story and then asks the scholar: “Which of these three was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”. The scholar responds, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (vv. 36-37).  

Notice what Jesus has done here. By telling this story, Jesus prevents the scholar from turning his neighbor into an idea that be discussed, debated, and qualified. Instead, the scholar now has to face how he actually lives in light of his faith. He faces a stark choice: he will either act like the Good Samaritan or he will not. His actions toward his neighbors will show whether or not his faith is real.

This passage provides a key insight. Faith is not just about what we believe. Faith is also about how we believe what we believe, and this how is demonstrated through our life with God and others. If we think about faith merely in terms of what we know, then we can focus solely on ourselves—on what we think, believe, and affirm. But if we think about faith in terms of how we know what we know, then we have to ask ourselves whether we are truly loving God and the people around us. This requires us to think about God and the needs of our neighbors before we think about ourselves.

Now we are in position to think about the relationship between faith and innovation. The question is not how we bring our faith into the marketplace. Rather, the question is how our work in the marketplace relates to our life of love for God and our neighbors. Our goal is not only to think about what we believe but also about how we love. And so we ask: Does this proposed innovation manifest our love for God? And will this innovation be an act of love for our neighbors—particularly those neighbors around whom others have passed by?

Dr. Keith Johnson is a professor in the Biblical and Theological Studies Department at Wheaton College and the Co-director of the Center for Faith and Innovation. Dr. Johnson currently is writing a theology of innovation that will help Christians in the marketplace relate the disruption of innovation to the grace of God. In addition to this research, his academic work focuses on modern theology with an emphasis on contemporary discussion related to the doctrines of the Trinity, Christology, and salvation. His recent publications include The Essential Karl Barth (Baker Academic, 2019) and the co-edited volume Balm in Gilead: A Theological Dialogue with Marilynne Robinson (IVP Academic, 2019).

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