[Mel Lawrenz is a pastor at Elmbrook Church in Brookfield, Wisconsin. His newest book, A Chronicle of Grief: Finding Life After Traumatic Loss, was released this week.]
What is conviction? How can we have valid convictions that will give us stability, but also have a proper attitude of tolerance?
“So then, brothers, stand firm and hold to the teachings we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thes. 2:15). To almost every church Paul wrote he said “stand firm.” And when he did he meant the collection of beliefs—the core convictions—that he had worked so hard to teach them.
A conviction is a belief, a trust or confidence, a tenet or dogma. It is much more than opinion because opinion is merely a viewpoint that is held with no necessity of proof. We all have opinions about what we prefer in a worship service—the style of music, type of prayer, volume of preacher—but what qualifies as a conviction is the core belief that worship is a necessary part of the Christian life. No wonder we get into protracted debates when we elevate matters of opinion to the status of conviction and vice versa.
A conviction is a belief you hold so strongly that it seems as if it holds you. It is Martin Luther before the powers of Europe saying “my conscience is held captive by the word of God.”
Conviction is intense, but it is not simply strong emotion. We feel strongly about a lot of things—the kind of car we buy, the clothing we like to wear, the hair style we prefer for our spouses—all of them far short of convictions.
Conviction is not prejudice. Having a strong opinion about a thing before knowing the facts (or wanting to know the facts) is simple prejudice, the slant or bias of the way we think. Conviction comes after the facts are gathered, evaluated, compared, and interpreted.
The strength of conviction that is truthful comes from the absoluteness of its source which is God himself. We have to talk about “true” conviction because not every strong belief is true. It is the voice of exaggerated toleration that says “it doesn’t matter what you believe as long as you believe something.”
Terrorists may demonstrate unusual conviction, even to the point of sacrificing their own lives in a suicide car bomb, but if the underlying belief is that to die for the cause is to merit Paradise, it is a false conviction. John wrote “dear friends, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God” (1 Jn. 4:1).
Christian belief is clear, straightforward, and singular—because of its single source. Certainly Christians have disagreed a great many times on a broad spectrum of issues, but stop and think about how much agreement there has been. Across the centuries and across the cultures of the world Christians have lived and died for their conviction about “God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth” and about “Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried.” They have known that his resurrection from the dead, his ascension and coming judgment, the Holy Spirit, the church, and the life everlasting are beliefs that life can be built on. These core convictions tell us who is in this universe, where we can look for answers, and where we can find real help. The apostle Paul saw the greatest honor of his life as his calling to communicate to and construct in his hearers the core convictions of the gospel:
Belief is given. That is why Paul called it a deposit (2 Tim. 1:14). It is not opinion, or preference, much less prejudice. True belief is neither invention nor imagination. Conviction grips us because it is God shocking us out of ignorance and apathy with the brilliance of revelation.
For the Christian, all convictions radiate out from the person of Christ. We come to believe in him as Lord of all and from that point on we have to assume all that he taught, all that he stood for, all other sources he authorized (including the Old Testament and the apostles) to be the substance of our belief system. Any skeptic wishing to poke holes in Christian faith needs to have his attention continually turned to Jesus. That is where the decision lies. That is where one will have one conviction or another: he is the divine Son and thus all he said and did become the groundwork of our belief system, or he is not and his words and deeds may be treated with benign neglect.
[next time – where to have tolerance]