What is faith?

“Faith is believing what you know ain’t so” – Mark Twain


When I was a kid we used to go camping as much as we could. Dad was a huge fan of camping but it was always difficult to drag Mum along, as her version of camping was more like staying in a motel. One of the things I was always sternly told when we went camping near water was not to jump into water when I couldn’t see what was under the water. After all, there could be anything – stones, old logs, crocodiles, or just plain old shallow water.

One of the problems with English as a language is we often have one word to describe something that has a complex, layered meaning, and we then use that same word in a huge number of different situations. For example, I can love soccer, but what I mean when I say that is very different from what my parents mean when they say they love each other. And that’s different again from what I mean when I say I love an old friend. And don’t even get me started on emoji. Basically, English has a tendency to simplify big ideas into little words, and we lose a lot of the depth of meaning that came with those words.

Let’s return to the original question – what is faith? If I blindly jumped into that water when I was a kid and couldn’t see underneath, would that be an example of faith? After all, isn’t faith a blind leap in the dark? I wouldn’t have any knowledge of what was underneath and I jumped in the belief that all will be fine (remember this is kid me!).


What is it? Where does it come from? What does it mean?

A full exploration of faith would be too big for what I want to talk about here, but I want to highlight one aspect of faith that you maybe haven’t thought much about before.

The word faith, as used in the New Testament, is based in the Greek root word called pistis, and when it is talked about positively, it refers to persuasion – more than 240 times!

Now the atheist or skeptic here might cry foul and jump at this point might jump to an online dictionary and point out that in some dictionaries faith is referred to as ‘spiritual conviction’ rather than proof, or as a blind leap in the dark, or belief in spite of evidence. Some might even use Mark Twain’s old definition from the top – faith is knowing what you know ain’t so. The Oxford English dictionary defines it differently, however. It says that faith is,

“Firm trust or belief in or reliance upon something (e.g. the truth of a statement or doctrine; the ability, goodness, etc., of a person, the efficacy or worth of a thing); confidence; credence”;

“Belief based on evidence, testimony, or authority”.

See here

The reason these definitions are so different is because language changes over time. As Christians began to decrease their influence and engagement in universities and academia, Christian faith became a subjective endeavour – more about what you felt than what you thought. And as this changed, the way that people used the word faith changed. Personally, I believe a better translation might now be trust. Trust in him who is trustworthy – who has proved himself over time. When you trust someone you do so based on your previous experiences of them, but also on what you know about them. American philosopher J. P. Moreland defines faith as, “a trust in and commitment to what we have reason to believe is true.”

Now as I said before – I am just pointing out one aspect of faith many may not have considered before. Faith is also a gift from God, and it has an outworking in the lives of Christian believers that should lead to a genuinely transformed life.

Lastly, whilst reasons and evidence is important in our understanding of faith (especially as it has been neglected for a long time), faith is more than that. If I just thought that God existed, it doesn’t necessarily mean I have faith or am even a Christian – even the demons believe. Rather, we commit to him who we trust. Faith is more than intellectual assent to an idea of God, and it’s not just a blind leap in the dark. Faith is an invitation to trust God and be willing to have your life changed. I know that I’m glad I did.

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