Belief and Behavior: What’s the Relationship?

Not too long ago, I asked my senior students to describe the relationship between belief and behavior. As I was reflecting on their written answers, a question kept popping up that I later asked them. Here’s the question: does behavior follow from belief, or does behavior display belief?

Splitting hairs? I don’t think so.

I think this rather minute question has implications. Ideas, after all, have consequences. I found the most common answer to the above question was something like this: belief and behavior are related in that you behave according to what you believe. This is not necessarily wrong, but it got me thinking. Do my behaviors always follow along with my beliefs? In my case, I don’t think so.

For example, I profess a belief in the radical power and importance of prayer. But, here’s my confession: I struggle to pray much. Does my lack of prayer (behavior) affirm my professed belief that prayer is important? No. Rather, I think my behavior displays my words about the importance of prayer are merely words, a collection of the “right” church things.

I would argue that our behaviors actually demonstrate what we really believe behind all the fancy jargon. Or, as James K.A. Smith so eloquently put it in his book You Are What You Love, you are (do) what you love (true beliefs).

What’s the point?

I believe we as broken humans in need of redemption are masters of deception. We have ourselves fooled into thinking countless false ideologies. I deceive myself into thinking I have all the right beliefs, and therefore, I’m okay. But, my habits evidenced in my behaviors show my beliefs are rather different than what I say I believe.

I believe Jesus put this same idea forward by saying, “You will know a tree by its’ fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” (Matt. 7) An apple tree can trick itself into thinking it makes the best oranges in the world. It might have a wonderful resume of orange production and study. But, it’s bushels of apples shows what is true.

Or, 1 John 2:15 tells us that love for the Father and love for the world are antithetical. If we are filled with the lust of the eyes, the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life, and these things are proven true in our day-to-day behavior, we are by behavior identified with lovers of the world, despite saying we “Love God.”

This is good news that I need to hear over and over again. Rather than being content with mere right thinking, I have a means of spiritual assessment by tracking my behaviors. Does my behavior look more like Christ or the world?

Behaviors, I believe, do not follow from beliefs, but display true beliefs. May the Lord grant us eyes to watch our behaviors and then grant us the grace necessary to move towards Him.

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