What if Following Jesus isn’t Primarily about Beliefs or Actions?

What if Following Jesus isn’t Primarily about Beliefs or Actions? February 23, 2015

The following is part of “My Jesus Project,” a year-long quest to better understand what it means to follow the life, teaching and example of Jesus in prayer, study and action. To read more, or to join the conversation, visit the website.

4503025213_f4eb379db0_zI’m intrigued by the fact that, in spite of my explanation that this project is more about delving into who we are and what we do, rather than focusing as much on what we think or believe, many people are eager to distill the “Jesus journey” down to making a specific set of claims for beliefs: end of story.

Of course, there’s another (more recent in some ways) camp, especially since the emergence of the Social Gospel movement in the sixties, followed by the “Missional Church,” that has emphasized right action or behavior. And there are fierce debates between the two about which is more important.

But I’m starting to wonder if neither is entirely right.

Right thought or belief is generally called “Orthodoxy,” while right action is called “Orthopraxy.” And sometimes we seem to assume that these are the only things to focus on, or even that one is somehow superior to the other.

In studying the teachings and words of Jesus, however, I’m coming to embrace the sense that “Orthopathy,” or right-heartedness, is a critical third leg of the proverbial stool. Further, I have the growing sense that this right-heartedness actually helps lead us to the path we’re seeking for the other two.

Consider the Greatest Commandment, which Jesus claims is foundational to all other laws and commandments. He’s not saying that the Ten Commandments are irrelevant, or that the 600-plus Jewish laws should be cast aside. Far from it, in fact. By focusing on Loving God with all we are, loving all of our neighbors (all really does mean ALL) and even loving ourselves in kind, everything else falls into its proper place.

He doesn’t say that the Greatest Commandment is to claim a certain set of beliefs, get baptized or go to a certain church.

He doesn’t say that the virtues of action to which we are called in the Beatitudes are paramount.

But at the same time, he’s not diminishing or undermining these. Rather, he’s helping bring them into greater fullness (perfection) by focusing first and foremost on loving. Not just love as a claim or feeling, but as a verb, a worldview, a lens through which we understand all of creation. When we are driven by such all-encompassing, consuming, perfect and sacrificial love, the beliefs and actions fall into place.

In this way, the teachings of Jesus dovetail elegantly with the teachings of the Buddha; right hearts lead to right minds, and right minds lead to right actions.

Perhaps we focus on orthodoxy and orthopraxy more because, in many ways, they’re easier to measure. Also important is that they are easier to wield over others, in assessing whether or not they are worthy of salvation, inclusion, or (fill in the blank). But the act of living into perfect love is terrifying, partly because it is perpetually unfinished business. Also, it is radically subversive, because the rule of Love (rather than the rule of Law) cannot be used to consolidate and exert power over one another.

Whereas our application of the Old Laws – or Orthodoxy or Orthopraxy – can be used to control or conform, Love inherently releases and liberates. And in the best ways possible, it subverts the very systems of power we have built to contain, control and even marginalize those without power and privilege.

I know for some, this is a significant shift in understanding about what is at the heart of following Jesus. It is shockingly simple, but never, ever easy. It is accessible by all, and yet controlled by none.

It is the way, the truth, the life. And it is so much bigger than any church, denomination or religion. To me, that is good news; that is Gospel.

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What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Heather McAuley

    I couldn’t agree more.

  • Alan Christensen

    Maybe that’s why Paul says “the greatest of these is love” rather than faith (=belief/orthodoxy?).

    • Try convincing Christians of that, even St. Paul himself.

  • BrotherRog

    Fair points, but love is shown by others and felt via our actions. They’ll know we are Christians “by our love” – isn’t an observation of our affect, our feelings, or our passion, but how we tangibly put our love into action. In this sense, agape isn’t a feeling, but a verb- an action.

    That said, orthopraxy for it’s own sake, without loving feeling, is cold and sterile. But I’d rather be fed in a soup line by someone who doesn’t exude a loving feeling, than to sense love from someone – who doesn’t feed me if I’m starving.

    Roger Wolsey, author, “Kissing Fish: christianity for people who don’t like christianity”

    • Christian Piatt

      Agreed, which is why I try generally to talk about LOVING rather than love. It is a call that demands a response.

    • If you want to show love, do it like an elephant, or any other non-religious animal. They’re really good at it. Ask you dog.

      • When Elephants Weep: The Emotional Lives of Animals. (1994) Delta
      • Good Natured: The Origins of Right and Wrong in Humans and Other Animals. (1996) Harvard University Press
      • Rational Animals? (2006) Oxford University Press
      • Primates and Philosophers: How Morality Evolved. (2006) Princeton University Press
      • Wild Justice: The Moral Lives of Animals (2010) Chicago University Press
      • Moral Origins: The Evolution of Virtue, Altruism, and Shame. (2012) Basic Books

  • Rojnut

    One of my favourite Bible verses is “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love”, which in my mind means loving actions (flowing from trust in Jesus), as others have said in the comments here. That verse seems to sum it all up!
    I love this article. Thank you, Christian.

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  • Jesus is Buddha. To understand the Gospels, one must really understand Sanskrit.
    Christian Lindtner, Ph.D.

    • Yonatan


      The language spoken by Shaykyamuni was close to Pali. The Pali language though close to Sanskrit predates it.

      • From Dr. Lindter’s website I referenced, right at the top of the main page:

        “The use of this method of “transcreation” from Sanskrit and Pâli into Greek has been firmly established by Christian Lindtner.”

        (Michael Lockwood, Buddhism´s Relation to Christianity, Chennai (India) 2011, p. 250)


        • Yonatan

          There are issues here, lots of them. There is as much of a connection between the tri ratna or tri pritaka as that of the Trinity which is none. The three jewels or baskets identify the basic structure of all religions:
          1) Buddha or Christ or Torah of Moses or Mohammad and in our day the equivalent would be our teachers — the priest or monk or rabbi or imam
          2) Dharma or New Testament or Torah or Qur’an
          3) Sangha or Ecclesia or Kehila or Masjid

          The Trinity is, for the Christian, God.

          • The biggest issue: you don’t know Sanskrit. Let me know when you do, and then we’ll talk.

            No, really. When such evidence is provided how Hellenistic Jews copied, yes “copied” word for word, texts from India, Sanskrit is just as important as Greek. Catch up, if you can.

            P.S. Don’t forget the Pâli.

  • I would certainly agree that Orthopathy in the broad American Evangelical context is the neglected part of this trinity of Orthodoxy, Orthopraxy, and Orthopathy (much like the Holy Spirit is the neglected person in the Godhead in the same context). I would also submit that, like Father, Son, and Spirit are understood as three distinct persons of One glorious whole, these three should be understood as inseparable elements of a faithful apprenticeship to Jesus the Christ. In that sense I like the image of Orthopathy being the source from which Orthodoxy and Orthopraxy flow, much as Christian Worship flows from the Spirit, through the Son, to the Father.

    I would, however, say that at it’s core, their inter-relationship is perhaps to mysterious a thing to fully pin down. I think, for example, that Orthopraxy, understood rightly, can be a formative enterprise, that helps to mold our hearts into something resembling Orthopathy while grounding us in Orthodoxy. Similarly, Orthodoxy helps to form the other two and so on; thus their inseparability and the challenge in seeing one as exclusively foundational to the other two.

    Having said all of that, I think we have a long way to go in terms of our approach to belief and action so as to not use them as means to fence people out, but as embodied invitations into a journey of apprenticeship to Jesus that is extended to all, exactly where/as they are, and promises not to leave any of us unchanged, but instead walks us towards right-heartedness, expressed in loving God and our neighbors.

  • Yonatan

    Why is love placed in opposition to obedience (law)? Love without law is passion without commitment. It implodes. Or perhaps it could be stated this way: undisciplined love evaporates.

  • Jerry Lynch

    Oh, what a relief it is…to hear someone talking about this point This has been my feeling and my theme for a while. How we believe (orthopathy) is at least as important as what we believe and what we do. For me it centers on “be as a little child,” which I see as the main foundation of faith. Those five words are one of the biggest statements in the Bible…if realized (“to find and manifest”). I mentioned just this point in another blog this week, “Radical Jesus 101.” The reception I have received over the years by pastors and congregants has either been a doubting puzzlement or a clear dismissal. I have not the time right now but a realization I had a few decades back sums up my point. ‘Love is our only true knowledge of God.’ Or, ‘Love is the whole purpose of truth.” Rojnut hit on the verse that has fired my faith: “The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love.”

  • Josh Magda

    There are times in Life when we can truly do nothing to help. It is in these moments, when all we have left is the Will to Love, that we discover that Love is deeper than even the ability to act.

    Which is why, orthopathy is the only way left for humanity. Now, as always, the Heart is our way, truth and Life. Surrender to Love while you still have the chance. It will all be over soon (thank God). The constrained Sandy Hook Universe is a (precious) blip in the house of Spirit. We are not nearly as weak, fragmented, and alone as we appear. Things as they really are, are better than they seem. All the power and freedom etc. we crave will return in due time. For now, to choose Love is to always choose wisely. Along with having a Good time (when we can), learning how to Love is what we’re here to do.

  • Josh Magda

    A friend once said that Love is ambiguous, but went on to say that Love is the clearest symbol of the Infinite. Another way of saying that may be: Love is the optimal synthesis of the finite and the Infinite.

    If Love is the optimal synthesis, then so long as we’re here in this ambiguous situation called Life, “unless we see a thing in the light of Love, we do not see it at all.” (1) It’s as if the Spirit of Creation was dickering around on an old radio set, searching for a station. Once we clearly hear Love, we know it’s what we’re here to do.

    If Love is the optimal synthesis, then our Lives are amateur chemistry sets. We have all the ingredients, but we don’t know what to make. Wisdom shows us that Love is the philosopher’s stone, the source of Eternal Life (2). We are to “build our Lives as a work of art,” (3) remembering that “the task is not ours to complete, but neither are we free to desist from it.” (4)

    If Love is the optimal synthesis, our Lives are Easy-Bake Ovens. We’ve got the oven, the lightbulb, and the packet of chocolate brownie mix. Life is not about making anything that will taste like an actual brownie; there’s not enough wattage for that. Instead, it’s about finding the courage to flick on that lighbulb and make something.

    And if you guessed “Love is the lightbulb,” then you got it!

    In Life it’s important to know what you want and then go after it with all your Heart. I want my Life to look like this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bpb9EbmvM5M

    That’s all.

    (1) Kathleen Raine
    (2) John’s Gospel
    (3) Rabbi Heschel
    (4) Pirke Avot