A Tale of Two Whataburgers: Referential vs. Non-Referential Beliefs

Scenario 1.

You and your friend are in the epic struggle of a lifetime: Where to get a bite to eat. Fortunately, you’re from Texas, so the answer is Whataburger.

(For those of you who are unfamiliar, Whataburger is the best fast food ever.)

You say, “There’s a new Whataburger right by my house on the corner of 2nd and Oak.”

But your friend says, “There’s no Whataburger on the corner of 2nd and Oak.”

You stare in disbelief. Maybe she didn’t hear you. “No, they just built it. I pass by it every day on my way to work. It’s new. Maybe you haven’t seen it yet.”

“No,” says your friend, more forcefully. “I know exactly where you’re talking about. I drove through that intersection yesterday. There’s not a Whataburger there.”

So maybe if you’re a nicer person, you would be like, “Oh, ok maybe you’re right. Let’s just go to the one at Park and Maple.” And avoid all the potential drama.

But not me. Me, I’m like, “Um, no. You must not have seen it. It EXISTS. I PROMISE YOU. I will bet you actual money. YoU aRe InCoRrEcT. Get in the car and I will proooooove it to you.”

Can we all just take a moment to celebrate Russ?

And the reason you can be so sure about that you know it’s there is that you’ve seen it multiple times. You go past there every single day. You can remember seeing it. You have even visited that Whataburger before.

You drive to 2nd and Oak, and sure enough, there it is. You know what almost tastes better than a A1 Thick and Hearty? Being right.

Ok let’s go through another senario.

Some time passes, and your friend and you are again in the epic struggle of where to eat, but since you’re Texans, that answer is still Whataburger.

But the Whataburger at 2nd and Oak is closed for renovations, so you don’t have your go-to restaurant where everybody knows your name. “Oh!” you say, “My other friend told me last week they built a new one across town at 5th and Walnut. Let’s go eat at that one!”

“Um, no,” your friend says, “I drive past 5th and Walnut every day, and there’s no Whataburger anywhere around there.”

“Oh, ok.” You shrug. Guess you heard wrong. “Guess we’re going to the next town! Mini road trip!”

So what’s the difference between our scenarios?

In the first scenario, we KNEW the location of the Whataburger because we have been there. We’ve seen it. We have first-hand knowledge we can refer back to.  So, it’s very difficult for our friend to talk us out of believing that knowledge because we have experienced it to be true.

In the second scenario, we don’t have first-hand knowledge of the Whataburger in question, we’ve only heard about it from our other friend. We haven’t actually seen it with our eyes. So, it’s easy for our friend to talk us out of believing there’s a Whataburger at that particular intersection.

This is the difference between referential and non-referential belief. In referential belief, I have a concrete reference for my belief. I have seen the Whataburger. I have been to the Whataburger. In non-referential belief, I only have an abstract knowledge of my belief. I heard about the Whataburger from a friend.

It’s much, much more difficult to talk someone out of their referential beliefs. It’s somewhat, almost too easy sometimes, to talk someone out of believing something non-referential.

Ok, so if we are not talking about hypothetical trips to Whataburger, but like actually life and stuff that matters, WHO CARES? How does this apply to ME?

So once we make this distinction b/t referential and non-referential beliefs, we can get to the root of the things that probably nag us about our own Christian life.

TRUTH TIME! Have you ever thought, “Ok, yes, the Bible says healings happen and my church says they do, but I don’t know if when I pray for healing, it’s really gonna happen for me.”

(Feel free to replace “healing” with your particular unbelief….whether that be grace, provision, joy...just be honest, I won’t tell anyone.)

(Ok, further truth time, does the above confession send anyone into a small but very real and embarrassing attack of anxiety over the fact that you’re not as “Christian” as you should be? (No, just me? cool.))

Once I learned about this distinction, it made it clearer to me that maybe I didn’t have problems with belief because I was a terrible Christian, but only because my knowledge of the subject was non-referential. I was worried because my belief wasn’t as strong as I’d like, but what could I expect? I haven’t ever SEEN or EXPERIENCED a healing, so all my knowledge is from what other people have SEEN and EXPERIENCED. A non-referential belief just isn’t as strong as a referential belief.

I’m not saying non-referential knowledge is necessarily bad just because it’s non-referential. Early on in my Christian life, a huge part of my knowledge was from what other, older Christians told me about God. Others’ testimonies of prayer, for example, fueled my faith that maybe God would answer my prayers. I’m just saying that before I had experienced God answering my prayers, it probably would have been a lot easier to make me believe God didn’t answer prayers.

But that was then. This is now. I got some prayer, and some testimonies, under my belt. It’s easy for me to believe and tell others with assurance about the power of prayer because I’ve lived it. I’ve gone down that road. I’ve literally seen it work. I have testimony after testimony after testimony. I don’t have to question whether or not it does work; I’ve witnessed it. I have referential belief that prayer is powerful and effective. Now, I can’t imagine a way you could talk me OUT of the belief that God answers prayers today.

So hopefully I’ve given you a definition of what referential and non-referential beliefs are, and how they differ from each other, and maybe given you an insight into how it works in the life of a believer. Now, I’m going to go over how we USE this knowledge tomorrow to work out our Christian life and hopefully, help some other people with theirs along the way.

For Us:

Just as this information helped me to take a sigh of relief and not take myself so dang seriously, I hope it does the same for you. Additionally, it gave me a little understanding where other people were coming from when they would confess to me they had doubts about some of the basic things about the faith we both claimed to have.  It wasn’t as if they were proclaiming those things weren’t true, but they hadn’t experienced them being true. Just like it helped me cut myself some slack, it helped me cut other people slack.

For Ministry:

To go back to the original analogy, when we meet someone who isn’t sure that Whataburger is really there, as someone who has experienced it, it’s our job to offer that person a ride in our car, show them how to get there, and treat them to a burger. That’s ministry. Now, of course, replace the Whataburger for Jesus, and you’ve got an air-tight analogy going on here. Use the resources available to you and your knowledge of Jesus to help others to get where you’ve already been. A person who’s having doubts because they’ve never experienced God’s provision probably doesn’t need your best theological essays on the subject. They probably don’t need more “tough love” that they “just need to believe because that’s what the bible commands.” By the definition of their situation, they are trying to get to a place they haven’t been before, so they need a map. They need someone to help them get there. They need someone to share how to experience God’s provision, along with some helpful stories of success to keep them motivated along the way.

Happy cruising <3

Disclaimers: I do not have a psychology degree. This blog shouldn’t be used to diagnose or judge why other people do things. People do lots of things for lots of different reasons. You know what happens when you assume.