Most of us live by default or by reaction. There's a better way.
I have a conviction about living by conviction: I'm convinced that I ought to do it.
Every day, I'm faced with choices that will put me in one of three streams: life by default, in reaction, or by conviction. And though living by default is easy and reaction feels good in the heat of the moment, I realize more and more that only a life of conviction is consistent with my faith. It is the life God is calling me to embrace.
I was born in the strong and comfortable flow of a defaulter's life. As a child I simply fell in line with the culture and expectations around me, allowing myself to be carried along. Sometimes the flow caused discomfort, scraping as it did through shallow waters or taking me in over my head, but it is easier to go with the flow than to fight it. Such a life is peaceful, though it lacks depth; it is a life of tradition, of security and happiness in the world as we find it, of avoiding difficult questions.
Many seem to stay in the default stream all their lives. Others break away — often in the teenage years — and begin to live in reaction. I did this, too, for a while: I thought about life according to that which pushed against me. I never rebelled against God or my parents, but I made decisions and set standards by responding to triggers and emotional hot buttons.
Reactionary living can feel very good, as most of us know; we feel alive when we live this way. But ultimately it is just as shallow as default living. As a reactionary, if life stops pushing me, I stop responding. My passion does not live apart from its impetus.
Both streams are very human — both may even be necessary for growth into adulthood. But neither was meant to be a permanent way of life. The more I grow, the more I live with the uncomfortable realization that God wants me to step out of the flow, to lay down my reactions, and to live by conviction.
Merriam-Webster defines conviction as "the state of being convinced of error or compelled to admit the truth; a strong persuasion or belief; the state of being convinced." Conviction is not based on stimulus, rebellion, or going with the flow. It requires thorough exploration of a matter, concentrated thought, and committed practice. Living by conviction means living in accordance with what I believe to be true — according to what I've been convinced is true.
I took my first step into a life of conviction when I first put my faith in Christ. Convinced that I couldn't save myself, that I needed to be reconciled to God, and that Jesus alone could save me, I deliberately placed my trust in Him.
But conviction, I'm coming to realize, shouldn't stop there. It ought to permeate my life as I seek to live in God's reality. In Romans 14, Paul speaks of Christians who were divided over issues of diet and date-keeping. He defends their right to hold differing beliefs, but doesn't defend slack thinking: "Let each man," he says, "be fully persuaded in his own mind" (Rom. 14:5).
That Scripture shook me one day as I read it — it showed me how many things I had let slide, not bothering to examine them or seek out the truth. In the core issues of life — in morals, personal standards, lifestyle choices, spirituality, family, faith — I should seek to live deliberately. Rather than living as a habitual conformer or rebel, I should do things because they line up with what I believe; I should believe because I have sought out the issues, wrestled with the questions and been convinced of the truth.
As I spend time in the four Gospels, I see how radically Jesus lived by conviction. A default life could never have led to the cross; a reactionary life could never have saved others. Jesus lived first with the conviction of His own identity, choosing to lay aside social mores and expectations for the sake of following God's path. His moral standards were absolute, neither in conformance to the culture nor in reaction to it. Jesus' convictions were so strong that He could not be swayed, baited, or tricked, no matter how hard His enemies tried. To His followers, He promised many things — but chief among them is the understanding needed to walk a well-lit path. "I am the light of the world," he said in John 8:13. "He that followeth me shall not walk in darkness, but shall have the light of life."
To live by conviction requires several things of me.
First, it requires a recognition of authority. My personal preferences and opinions are not convictions. To live by conviction requires that I recognize objective truth as God defines it. If I want to live by conviction, I must regularly seek out the ultimate authority on all of life's issues — I must learn Scripture and apply it soundly to my life. If I wish to be fully persuaded in anything, I must put time and effort into studying the Bible.
Second, a life of conviction requires a commitment to thought. As Gary Thomas wrote in "Ignorant Christians," "The Christian church has thrived for more than 2,000 years because it has largely out-thought its opponents." Christians should be people who think. Believing that all truth is God's truth, I should have the freedom and curiosity to ask questions, of God and of life, tracking down answers wherever I can. As one who is committed first to God's reality, I should question my culture, my education and most especially my own assumptions.
And, I remind myself as I begin to be carried away by the grandness of it all, I should ask questions not out of rebellion, pride or love of debate, but out of a sincere desire for truth — especially when it challenges me.
Finally, conviction is not conviction until I live it. I am fully capable of forming strong thoughts on all sorts of matters, even expressing them freely — all the while stopping short of putting my "conviction" into action. Ultimately, that's not conviction; it's just talk. Faith without works is dead, as James reminds us; what we do not live, we do not really believe.
Bringing my convictions into the realm of action also provides me with a good litmus test: If I find that my convictions cannot be practiced, I may need to reexamine my thinking. God's truth corresponds to reality — if my convictions do not, they may not correspond to God's truth!
Living by conviction, I find, is hard. It bruises my pride, challenges my brain, requires work. It's an ongoing process of reexamination and deliberation that stands in opposition to the ways I used to live. But ultimately, I know that true conviction will infuse my life with power and purpose.
When I'm committed to seeking out truth and living it, to being fully persuaded in my own mind on all matters of life and conduct, I'll find myself living life in a way I could not when I was content to be pushed or carried. By cultivating conviction, I will discover what matters and what doesn't, will begin to live out my faith, will find the heart of God in many areas I didn't think to look before. I'll sharpen my mind and my spirit. I'll become a woman of God amidst men and women of God, adult in my thinking, no longer a child, tossed to and fro by every sleight of men and wind of doctrine (Eph. 4:14).
In a time when many around me are willing to forgo thought and simply feel their way through life, I know I've been called to follow the light of the world — to find the light of life — and to live a life of conviction, fully persuaded in my own mind of all that God has called me to do.
Copyright 2009 Rachel Starr Thomson. All rights reserved.