Commentary: When all else fails, the bottom line of faith is truly a matter of trust
Have you all had a confidence crash? I’m sure you know what it is in theory, but I feel like dips in trust are like political complacency: we know it’s a thing, but very few have experienced it .
I come from a religious heritage where the word “faith” is heralded as perhaps one of the three most important words humans have to reckon with (unfortunately the other two are probably “sin” and “hell”, but we’ll save that for another day). However, in the specific tradition in which I was raised – Conservative Baptist – faith was used as a synonym for belief. In other words, when I was told to “have faith”, it was shorthand for “believe these particular statements”.
Yet there is another dimension to the concept of faith in the Christian tradition that I didn’t learn until much later, and it has more to do with trust than with belief. Seen in this light, faith functions more as a verb (something we do) than as a noun (something we own). For many Christians, I feel like our faith is like a fall of belief, where we stand there with our arms folded across our chests with the firm conviction that if we fall back then we would be OK. But that’s all. That’s all we do. Stand there and believe real hard.
A fall in confidence, however, is meant to put that belief into action. We don’t just to believe everything will be fine, we fall back in trust.
In my opinion, faith-trust is not only closer to the way the early Christians understood it, but it is also much more – how to say – useful? Useful? Good?
In order to say more about the idea of faith as trust, I am going to draw some stories from the Gospels of Luke and Matthew.
First, there is a Roman military leader who had the most powerful political empire in the world at his disposal, but when his beloved servant fell ill, he turned to a traveling preacher from the hinterland .
Second, there’s the story of a woman who’s been bleeding for 12 years and exhausted all of her medical savings to treat her, only to find herself broke and bleeding again. When neither money nor science could save her, in desperation she only reached the hem of Jesus’ garment.
Third, there is a mother whose child was possessed by evil spirits, and when her own (Canaanite) religion failed her, she risked crossing cultural boundaries to seek help from a Jewish rabbi. .
Finally, the last story concerns a woman known only as a “sinner”, rejected and labeled by her community, with no one by her side. She bursts into a dinner party one night and throws herself at Jesus’ feet to wash them with oil and tears.
In each of these stories, the storyteller describes the actions of the individual in question as “faith”. Additionally, each story ends with a healing or recovery event – or, as the word is sometimes translated into English, “saved”.
To the Roman centurion, Jesus said, “I tell you, even in Israel I found no such faith,” and the sick servant was healed.
To the bleeding woman, he said, “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace,” and her bleeding stopped.
To the religiously different mother, he says, “You have great faith. Your daughter will be healed,” and that is what happened.
And to the woman called “sinner,” he said, “Your faith has saved you.” Go in peace.”
We might hear these stories and think the connection is something like this: There is a mighty God who can snap his fingers and heal people. And sometimes, if you believe the right things, or believe hard enough, then God will break those divine numbers and blammo, you’re set.
But if I’m being honest, I find such explanations deeply unsatisfying and not at all consistent with my own life experiences. Not only does this put far too much pressure on us to do things right or better, but it also supports the vision of a God who box do the healing thing every time, but who holds back until we poor finite, limited creatures can make it right.
I would like to offer another way of understanding and dealing with these stories. Reading them, I can’t help noticing how each of the individuals involved is at the end of their respective ropes. They are exhausted by the perpetual disappointments and difficulties of life. More specifically, they are people who witness the limits of political systems, money, science, religion and society.
Sound familiar? Can you relate?
For me, this is an example of the particular (i.e. those stories that happened 2,000 years ago) illuminating the universal (i.e. the things that happen to all of us ). I bet we all know what it’s like to feel completely abandoned by the powers that be. I know some of you have seen with your own eyes how serious the limitations of the medical world are. Who among us hasn’t felt like there was never enough money to fix things? I cannot be the only one who has exhausted so many resources in search of answers and satisfaction and yet I still feel trapped, attached and empty.
What about religion? Have you given your life to a certain set of rules and rituals only to encounter shame, rejection and loneliness? And I’m sure many readers know all too well the pain when your own community slaps you with a label as a way to exert power and control over you. In doing so, they avoid you and remind you of your place, which always seems to be outside by looking inside.
So I wonder where this leads us. What do we do when the systems and institutions of life and other humans make promises they can’t keep and give us sand under our feet to stand on while calling it stone?
Going back to our four stories, I’m struck by how the four characters did the only sane thing left: they let go. They let go and threw themselves into a posture of trust. They stopped trying to control it – which is always just an illusion anyway – and instead turned to Jesus. Which, another way of saying this is that they turned to unconditional love. To compassion. To honour.
And after encountering such love and compassion, they were greeted with healing. Integrity. Or what the Bible simply calls “salvation.”
I used to believe that believing good things was faith. And I used to believe that this faith would save me (i.e. grant me eternity in heaven after my death). But the more I read the gospels, and the more I understand faith as trust and salvation as wholeness, the more I think heaven is the experience of living life as a great fall of trust, throwing me down on love and compassion of a God who will always catch me, always hold me and always bring me back to wholeness.
Colby Martin co-founded Sojourn Grace Collective, a progressive Christian church in San Diego. He is the author of “UnClobber: Rethinking our Misuse of the Bible on Homosexuality” and “The Shift: Surviving and Thriving after Moving from Conservative to Progressive Christianity”. You can reach him at [email protected]