Another frequently used word in our vocabulary is the word ‘faith’. “Do you have faith in Jesus?” we ask. He’s struggling with his faith. She has told me that she has doubts that challenge her faith daily. Faith can mean belief, trust, religion, or a plethora of other things. In this way, faith is a word that we need to figure out. What does this word mean? What does it have to do with following Jesus?
In the Old Testament, the primary word that is translated as faith, trust, or faithfulness is emunah (אמנח). The basic meaning of this word is firmness, steadfastness, and fidelity (Brown-Driver-Briggs Dictionary). Another form of this same word means a skilled worker, a tradesperson, someone who is firm and steadfast in their abilities. It’s root is aman, (אמן), or amen, the most basic word of affirmation that we have in the Old and New Testament, in the Jewish and Christian traditions. So, in some way, this word faith that has come to us from the Hebrew Scriptures contains the concepts of affirmation and steadfastness. It is a word of affirmation that leads to steadfast devotion.
In the New Testament the primary word for faith is pistis. The basic meaning of this word is “loyalty between those who have established an alliance,” and the “solidity of their promises.” O. Michel, in the Diccionario Teologico del Nuevo Testamento (Theological Dictionary of the NT) states that, in the New Testament, this term takes on a particular meaning of acceptance and confident recognition of what God has done and announced. Even so, faith, then, is our response to God’s working in the world. Will it be one of trust, of loyalty, of alliance, or will it be a response of negation and rejection?
I think that we have done a huge disservice to everyone by coming to equate faith with belief, in allowing faith to be the positive assertion that I accept as true a list of doctrinal statements. “Do you have faith?” we ask. The obvious implication is not if we are committed in our walk with Christ, faithfully serving him in our world by serving others. The thrust is, “Do you believe in X,Y, and Z.”
In this way, doubt becomes the opposite of faith. My struggle with belief throws my faith into question. If I struggle with doubt in a certain area, I begin to worry that my faith is not right, that I’ve fallen off the wagon and I’m being left along the way.
I’m not saying that there is no correlation between the words faith and belief. There is, but it isn’t the only correlation. Take for instance the story Jesus healing the possessed boy in Mark 9. Jesus stumbles upon an argument, and when he asks what is going on they tell him about a boy who has been possessed for his entire life. That father of this boy says that Jesus’ disciples couldn’t cast out the demon, and Jesus condemns them all, calling them an “unbelieving” or “faithless” generation (apistis).
The man then says to Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us.”
Jesus responds, “If? All things are possible for those who believe (pistis).”
The father exclaims, “I believe (pisteuo); help my unbelief (apistia).”
So throughout this story, and in the majority of translations, the Greek word pistis is translated as believe, but I want us to notice one thing here. The father was a mixture of belief and doubt. He brings his son to the disciples to be healed, belief. He says to Jesus, “If you can do anything,” doubt. He is a mixture, as most of us are most days. Very few of us arrive to such a point to where we are free of the murky mixture of belief and doubt. Often our prayers begin just like this father’s, “If you can….”
Note this, however, that even though this father was a mixture of belief and doubt, he still acted in faith. He still brought his son to Jesus’ disciples. He still asked Jesus to work in his life. He still exclaimed that Jesus help him with his doubt, his unbelief.
The faithful response doesn’t always require that my beliefs square up, but that my actions push me forward. Perhaps we need to rescue this part of the word faith. Faith is steadfastness, faith is loyal action, faith is dependence upon, faith is trust. My beliefs may waver; questions and doubts may arise. I may be insecure about many things, but I can still have faith.
Who knows? Perhaps our actions when our beliefs aren’t sure, when questions and doubts surround us, is a better measure of our faith than what we do when we have no doubts, no questions, no struggles. The father, in spite of his doubt, brought his son to Jesus.
That is faith.
Like this reflection? Check out the other posts in this series and be sure to be on the lookout for future posts!