Is there a difference between believing in Jesus and following Jesus? It depends in part on what it means to believe. To many, a believer is someone who has accepted Jesus as their personal lord and savior that often gets expressed in terms of intimate affection describing one’s relationship with Jesus. To believe becomes a technical term having specific requirements and limitations.
The more common meaning of believing has to do with having enough faith in the truth about something to act on it. In that sense, there are others who confess Jesus as the Word of God made flesh but are reluctant to claim him as theirs in intimately personal terms. They follow him as disciples, even if from afar.
It appears that believing defined as accepting Jesus as lord and savior is often an end point after which one can feel secure in whatever else they believe or feel about the world around them. On the other hand, having enough faith to follow where Jesus leads requires all other beliefs to be held provisionally, with the expectation that they may be challenged by new data or divinely guided revelation, which may come in many forms, or not at all.
There is great comfort in the first way of believing. It can resolve many troubling uncertainties, and provides place of safety when beset by unavoidable uncertainties. It can also make social and economic injustice appear tolerable, even ordained. The way of following is less comforting. It challenges life long prejudices, leads into proverbial dark valleys, and demands non violent confrontation of injustice and oppression.
Is one the right way, and the other wrong? The polarization of American society encourages us to think like that: black and white, right and wrong, us and them. I would like to offer another image. In medieval days the landscape was dotted with monasteries. In them, travelers passing through dangerous, uncertain territory could find a few nights safe lodging to recover from the journey behind and prepare for the journey ahead. The first way of believing can be needed safe waypoints along the journey. A few days comforted by Christ’s intimate presence that insulates one from the outside world can be a nourishing restorative for the uncertainties that lie ahead. But the second way of following is where Jesus is leading. The journey must be resumed.
Jesus often took his disciples to a deserted place to pray and rest. He often went alone to do the same. But then he and they moved on. Christians are not to stay in the comfort of Jesus as personal lord and savior. It is only a place for rest as needed. Christians are called to follow Jesus into uncertain times.