Defining Faith—Part 2
Last time we talked about the evolving nature of “belief”. Once upon a time belief credited things we did not understand. In modern parlance, it means agreement with things we do understand. This shift in meaning has polluted the waters when it comes to faith. Today we’ll try to re-translate the word to more accurately describe the proper relationship between us and God.
Whatever belief means in our modern culture, “belief” in God cannot—MUST NOT—mean, “I have twisted my mind up in such a correct way that I can see, understand, and accept him.” Faith is not knowledge. Faith is not comprehension. Faith is not opinion…not even reasoned opinion. Faith is not a choice that you can make on your own with your mental faculties through observation.
The best word to translate “faith” in our modern society is not belief, but trust. Belief only happens for us when most or all of the things listed in the previous paragraph are present. Trust happens precisely when they’re absent. Trust happens when we’re not sure, when we don’t understand, when our opinions can’t inform us properly, when all the evidence proves inconclusive.
In our culture belief is seen as an individual choice. It requires no other person. You can believe anything you wish without consulting anyone. You can hold onto that belief no matter what anyone else says. It’s all about you.
Trust requires something to trust in. It’s a relationship with something outside you. You cannot control trust. You cannot moderate it. It’s a surrender of self. Trust acknowledges your dependence on something outside of yourself, something with the power to affect your life.
Anyone who’s ever been married understands the difference between trust and belief. You can believe in the institution of marriage. You can believe in an idealized definition of the roles of husband and wife. You can even believe that you know your spouse before you marry them. If the reality of your actual spouse doesn’t match your pre-existing beliefs, those convictions cannot keep your marriage together no matter how strongly you hold onto them. Many marriages founder on those rocks.
Belief won’t keep a marriage together. Only trust does that. When you understand that you don’t understand—that everything you thought you knew about marriage and roles and your spouse might prove wrong—but that you can still place yourselves in each other’s hands anyway…that’s how marriages survive. People who hold onto “knowing” their spouse (read: defining as they please and remaining rigid in those definitions) end up killing their marriages. People who trust their spouse build relationship.
This is exactly how it is with God, times infinity. Knowing God is fine. Insisting that you know exactly who God is? That’s cosmically foolish. That’s not faith, but arrogance.
We modern folks will be a million times closer to relationship with God the way it was meant to be if every time we read “belief” or “faith” we hear the word “trust”. This is true everywhere from John 3:16 (“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who trusts in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”) to the Apostle’s Creed (“I trust in God the Father, Creator of heaven and earth. I trust in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord…”)
We are also called to live lives of faith based on that trust. We are not “believers” by virtue of our superior knowledge of God. If that’s the pattern for faith, why are the gospels full of stories of Jesus condemning the scribes and Pharisees but eating with tax collectors and sinners? The former had the correct knowledge and belief. The latter had nothing but trust that despite their shortcomings, their relationship with God would turn out OK. The Pharisees spent all their time condemning everyone they felt didn’t believe or act right. The other folks who had been targets of the Pharisees’ condemnation just spent their time being grateful for God’s mercy and love.
Many people and many churches get angry about this definition of faith as trust. That’s a sign that there’s something to it. It robs us of our self-centeredness, our religious superiority, and veneration of practices that point more to us than to God. It exposes the exact hypocrisy (denying God while proclaiming him, substituting ourselves for God) that detractors accuse us of. Those detractors are right! There’s also something more to our faith than we’re showing: the relationship lived out through trust rather than the cheap convictions of belief.
If we wish to follow Jesus in lives of faith, our words, actions, and decisions should reflect our trust in him. No matter what goes on in our head, God is still God. God cleans us, redeems us, and makes us more than we ever believed we could be. In this we trust, even when we can’t believe.
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