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Saturday, October 6, 2012

Ryder Cup Lessons, Part 3b

We're looking at how belief affected the outcome of the Ryder Cup... but first we have to lay some groundwork to help us understand what happened. Yesterday I covered some common wrong beliefs people have about faith and corrected them with a couple of facts:
  • It's not enough to just give mental assent to a belief, even if you believe the right things.
  • It doesn't matter how hard you believe.
Today I want to look at how belief actually works. I'll call these facts The Mechanics of Faith... and I think I'm going to surprise most of you with this post. You're probably expecting some touchy-feely explanation of fuzzy concepts, but faith is actually something all of us use every day. I have a very concrete example that will make these "mechanics" crystal clear.

First, here's the description of our "laboratory:"
I want you to imagine you're hiking in the woods. While you're there, a huge forest fire gets started and you have to run for your life. You can barely stay ahead of it but you're beginning to think you just might make it... when suddenly you have to stop. You've reached a cliff and the woods run right up to the edge of it, so you can't stop here and be safe. You can see clear ground across the chasm, but you'll fall to your death if you try to jump. However -- and this is the key part of our little experiment -- there's a bridge from this side to the other. Are you safe?
The answer is... maybe. And belief has a great deal to do with the eventual answer.

You see, a lot of this depends on whether you can trust that bridge or not. Can that bridge support your weight? Is it strong enough for you to get from this side of the chasm to the other?

This is one aspect of belief that often gets talked about in church but rarely gets any attention from motivational speakers or sports psychology. This is the first "mechanic" of belief: All faith is directed toward an object.
In our particular example, that bridge is the object of your faith... and whether it's worthy of your faith or not is critical to your survival.
Can that bridge support your weight long enough for you to get across the chasm? Then you've got a chance. Is that bridge too weak to hold you? Then you're dead. It's that simple.

"Faith in faith" is less than useless. Unless what you believe in is worth your trust, there is no amount of faith that can make it so. And that should help you understand the fact that confuses people the most -- namely, that it doesn't matter how hard you believe. Let's take another look at our bridge...

For this part of the experiment we'll assume the bridge is rotten and incapable of supporting your weight. It doesn't take a genius to realize what will happen. No matter how confident you are --i.e., how "hard you believe in" the bridge -- the instant your full weight hits that bridge, it's going to collapse and send you plummeting to your death. (If it's any consolation, at least you won't burn to death in the forest fire.)

Now suppose the bridge IS strong enough. You can run across that thing at full speed and TAH-DAHHHH! You're safe.

But... suppose the bridge is strong enough but you're not sure? Plus you're afraid of heights... but the fire keeps coming. Finally you decide you're even more afraid of becoming a crispy critter. What do you do? You get down on your hands and knees and slowly begin crawling onto the bridge. It takes every bit of courage you can muster but you keep putting one hand in front of the other. And what happens? You make it to the other side, safe and sound!

Do you understand now what Jesus meant when he talked about a "mustard seed" of faith? Assuming that what you believe in is worthy of your trust in the first place, it's not a question of how much you believe in it. Rather, it's about whether you have any trust at all! And that brings up the other primary "mechanic" most people don't understand when it comes to belief.

Remember yesterday when I mentioned that Bible verse about demons believing and it doing them no good? I said I'd be coming back to it... and this is why.

That section in the book of James keeps repeating the words "Faith without works is dead." (That saying actually shows up in several places in both the Old and New Testaments, which means it had been known for several thousand years when James used it.) This surprises a lot of people because we Christians stress that you can't work your way into heaven. But that's not what James is talking about, and our bridge experiment explains it very well.

Imagine you stand at the edge of the cliff, staring at the bridge and yelling, "Yes, I believe this bridge can get me safely to the other side!" and that's all you do. What happens? You still get burned up in the forest fire, don't you? Why?

Because you didn't act on your belief. Just like the demons who James says believe in God -- they believe God will punish evil but they don't repent of their evil and change their ways. They don't act on what they know!

Now consider the guy with just enough faith in the bridge to get on his hands and knees and crawl across. Although he didn't have what we might call a "strong faith," his willingness to act on that tiny bit of belief ends up saving his life.
It's not enough to believe in something -- to give mental assent to certain facts, no matter how accurate they may be. Here is the second "mechanic" of belief: You have to act on a belief for it to be worth anything. Otherwise you don't really believe at all.
I think I can anticipate a certain question from you: How can you say the guy who crawled across the bridge had any faith at all? As far as I can see, he really didn't have anything to lose one way or the other.

That really is a good question, and I can give you a reasonable answer using what we've covered in this post.

Looked at one way, you might say that "I don't really have anything to lose" IS a belief. Whether he was correct or not is up to debate, but I can address his response to this situation. You see, he actually had three different choices available to him here:
  1. Leap into the chasm.
  2. Stay on the cliff.
  3. Cross the bridge.
His actions tell a slightly different story -- he DID have a belief. He clearly believed the last option gave him the best chance of survival, and he acted on that belief by trying to cross the bridge. I would argue that "I don't really have anything to lose" was just a justification to help him act on the belief that "The bridge gives me my best chance to survive." It helped him avoid second-guessing himself:. Can't you hear the self-talk going on in his head? "You'll die for sure if you take option 1 or 2; at least 3 gives you a chance."

And I have to point out yet again -- because this basic "mechanic" of faith is so often overlooked -- if he hadn't tried to cross the bridge, it wouldn't have mattered what he said he believed. If you're unwilling to act on a belief, you don't really believe it.

I think part of the reason this "action" part gets overlooked is because figuring out what kind of action to take is often the trickiest part. Go back to what Jesus said about someone with "faith as a grain of mustard seed" being able to move a mountain. How do you act on that? I can understand how trying to cross the bridge acts on my belief that the bridge can get me to safety... but moving a mountain? That's probably why we don't see mountains being tossed around!

The key is that it would take God's power to move a mountain, so God determines what action is necessary. I suspect that explains a lot of of the sillier-sounding Bible stories. God often told people to do strange things that seemed unrelated to the miracles they needed Him to do. Doing those strange things -- often very simple things that just made no sense -- were meant as actions that proved they believed He would do what he said.

I'm going to make a blunt statement here that I doubt anyone can prove incorrect: People ALWAYS act on their beliefs. We can tell what they truly believe simply by watching how they act. They may say they believe this or that but, under pressure, actions rarely lie.

Even inaction is an action of sorts! If our hero from the bridge experiment said he believed there was always hope but simply sat down and waited to die, we would all know that he actually believed the situation was hopeless and that he could do nothing to change the outcome. You can use all the self-talk you want but you'll always act on what you truly believe. Just because you keep repeating something to yourself doesn't mean you believe it, no matter how often you say it.

So the important thing here is to find out what we truly believe in and then find a useful way to act on it. And in the context of sports, figuring out what beliefs we have that can be harnessed to spur us into constructive action is not always obvious. That's what we need to look at next.

And given that this post has gotten rather long, I'll break off here. Tomorrow I'll use these "mechanics" to explain why both the 1999 and 2012 Ryder Cups were shocking comebacks... and how you can learn to play better under pressure.

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