Summary: The Greek word pistis (πιστις) is usually translated “belief” or “faith.” This badly misses Jesus’ intent. A much better translation (and way to live!) is “trust.” Trust opens the doors to the Kingdom of God, here and now.
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(God has fled the scene!)
The first time it felt like God had totally abandoned me, I was in college. I was the summer youth leader at a big church in Richland, Washington. I had taken the youth on a waterskiing outing on the Snake River. When it was time to go, one of the kids was missing. After an hour and a half of searching, we began to fear the worst. We called the police who sent a diving team to search for the body. I will never forget the sight of the diver who raised his hand to indicate he had found my young friend’s body, or the sight of his corpse on the bank of the river.
My whole world got swallowed up by evil that day. I cried out to God but my voice was lost in the darkness. I heard nothing. God seemed absent. There was nothing in my understanding and no verse in the Bible that could explain it.
Some might say I have led a charmed existence but there is no such thing as a charmed existence. Life’s path goes along smoothly for a while and then, when you least expect it, a vast pit opens up and swallows you. It happens to everyone.
It happened to me again on January 10, 2015. I was happily eating Mexican food with my wife and youngest child, when out of nowhere, she had a grand mal seizure. I had never seen this before. I was terrified. I held her in my arms, stroking her hair and wondering if I would lose her. I spent the night in stony silence on a cold plastic chair by her bed in the emergency room. I didn’t pray that night. Not even once. I was furious with God. I figured that if God was so wonderful and could heal my daughter, surely he could have prevented her seizure in the first place. Obviously, God was not paying attention. Deus absconditus. God either didn’t care or are was unable to prevent this. He carelessly fumbled my child. Why would I ask him for help? He had already proven his incompetence.1
I have felt the same thing in protracted form over the past few years. In the first part of 2014 I heard God, as clearly as I ever have, telling me to resign my church. There were no further instructions. No picture of a bright future. No financial plan. Just instructions to take a crazy leap. That was three years ago. I’m still falling.
The One Thing Jesus Asks
So you have my proof that God is neither personal nor loving. I’m sure you have yours too. It may involve an ugly divorce, toxic parents, cancer, losing your job, chronic pain, being sued. Our cry reaches the highest heaven. My God, My God! Why have you forsaken me? In the face of all this, the one thing Jesus asks from us is to trust him. This is no small order.
In our optimistic American culture, it’s easy to think the tragedy that falls in our lap is a departure from the script, as if God promises a rosy existence for everyone except a cursed a few. But trusting God in the face of absurdity is the very center of the Scripture. It goes back to Abraham, the father of those who trust in God. Abraham packed up and left everything. If you think he went from victory on to victory you have not read the story. There were many dark nights of the soul.
Job is another example. Here is a man who did everything right and evidently was cursed by God. His “friends” try to get God off the hook by putting Job on it. Job must have done something wrong. Job does an exhaustive inventory of his life and finds no reason to explain the tragedy that has been heaped on his family. God’s “explanation”2 is no an explanation at all. God tells Job that he is out of his league. He simply cannot understand the ways of the Almighty and has no right to stand as the accuser. In the end, Job chooses to trust God in the face of absurdity. “Though God slay me, yet I will trust him.”
Most of the Psalms contain some version of white hot rage against God that goes something like this: “God! Why do good things happen to bad people? Why do bad things happen to me? Are you deaf? Are you blind? Where are you? Am I cursed? Don’t you care? Hello! Anyone home? Anyone home?? But like the book of Job, the Psalms pulse with trust in the face of inexplicable evil. Somehow, some way, in spite of all the evidence, God is good, and will prove himself faithful.
The most famous words of a Psalm are, “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?”3 These, of course, are Jesus’ words from the cross. The call to mind all of Psalm 22, which is a downright manic-depressive mix of railing against God and trusting him. Trusting God in the face of pain and uncertainty is not an aberration from the Biblical story. It is the center.
The first followers of Jesus were under no illusion that if they followed Jesus that their businesses would flourish, their pets would be healthy, and their children all have straight teeth. They knew that like their Master, they would face a cross in this life. Following Jesus meant facing a frowning world with hope. God would prove faithful, despite appearances to the contrary. There was something invisible going on beneath the surface, creating a greater good. Though it be Friday, Sunday was coming. They felt the groans of Adam’s fallen world as labor pains, ushering in Christ’s new one. They believed in the Kingdom of God, that “though the wrong seems oft so strong, God is the ruler yet.”4
An analogy might help here. Imagine that I gave you the best novel ever written. You open it to page 312 and it’s ugly. The hero is in despair. The bad guys are winning. You read the page and things go from bad to worse. You hand the novel back to me and say, “That’s a horrible story!” But your verdict on the story was based only on page 312. You really don’t know anything about the story until your read the whole thing. When you do, you see that page 312 was necessary part of an ending that left you satisfied and cheering.
I am on page 312. Trust in the Kingdom of God means that I believe Christ is working in ways I can’t see to do something glorious beyond my comprehension. My job is not to try to explain it but to trust Christ, fill my lungs with hope, and take the next step.
God is working in this world in ways I cannot see. The one thing God wants from me is to believe this and lean on him.5 is to trust him. From Genesis to Revelation it’s the same story. God’s role is to prove himself trustworthy in the end. My role is to trust. Sadly, this central truth has been lost, largely due to a horrible translation if the word pistis (πιστις). To show you how this happened I’ll have to get a little geeky on you. Hang in there. It’s worth it.
How Trust Got Lost in Translation
Lots of people are aware that our English word “love” has such a vast range of meaning that it’s nearly useless. “I love Skittles.” “I love God.” “I love the Dodgers.” “I love you.” We like to point out that in Greek there are more than one words translated “love.” Philos (φιλος ) describes the warm affection among friends. Eros (ερος) is erotic attraction. Agape (αγαπη) is sacrificial love, dripping with commitment. In this case, Greek is more precise.
What isn’t as well known is that sometimes it’s the other way around. Sometimes Greek is less precise. Sometimes there is a single Greek word that is translated by multiple English words. One of these is the word pistis (πιστις).
Pistis is translated two main ways.
1. Belief, as in John 3:16.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.”
2. Faith, as in Mark 11:22
“Have faith in God.”
Pistis is one of the most important and abundant words in the New Testament.6 “Pistis” is the key to our salvation. Getting its meaning right is no small matter. I spent about an hour looking for a verse that translated pistis as “trust” and came up empty. This is exceedingly strange since in the standard scholarly Greek dictionary, the primary definition of pistis is “trust.”7 The one thing Jesus wants from us is trust and we have turned this into “belief” and “faith.”
The problem with “belief” is that it is something I do with my head. When Jesus tells me to believe (pistis) in God, instead of hearing an invitation to trust, I hear that I am supposed to believe in God’s existence, sort of like believing in Santa Claus. Or maybe I hear it as a command to believe some stuff about God. I respond, “What stuff?” and come up with a list of “essential beliefs.” Everyone has a different list so we argue about what belongs on the list of necessary things to believe about God. Thus begins the church’s bloody history of sectarian wars. By translating pistis as “belief” we have replaced trust in God with mental abstractions and completely missed the point.
The problem with the translation “faith” is that we think it means “belief with no doubt.” If I can muster up enough faith and squash out all my doubt, God will do what I ask. If I doubt, the deal’s off. I remember as a kid testing this definition of faith on Moscow Mountain. I stared at the mountain and tried really really hard to believe that God would move it. Luckily for the residents of Moscow, I didn’t have enough faith. The mountain stayed put. On a darker note, sometimes critically ill people are told they are not healed because they “didn’t have enough faith.” This is downright cruel.
Both “belief” and “faith” miss what the Bible means by pistis. Pistis is not believing in the existence of God; It is trusting God. It is not believing a set of “truths” about God, it is trusting the person of God. It is not erasing all doubt so you can twist God’s arm. It is trusting that God’s arm is already moving on your behalf in ways you cannot see.
Four Examples of Trust
Example 1: The Demon-Possessed Boy
Once, Jesus encountered a desperate father with a demon-possessed son.8 He asked, “Do you believe in God?” He was not asking whether the man believes in the existence of God. (He did.) Neither was he asking the man to squeeze out all doubt, as if Jesus’ compassion depended on a mental feat like trying to move Moscow Mountain by believing really, really hard.
The verse should be translated “Do you trust God?” Jesus is asking the question at the heart of the Bible, the question at the root of human existence. In the face of the ugly fact of your son’s convulsions, throwing himself into the fire, and foaming at the mouth,9 do you trust God? This is the same question I was asked when I was faced with the youth’s drowning and my daughter’s seizure. It is the question I was asked this morning when I took a look at my bank account and wandering career path. In the face of a seemingly random life, peppered with tragedy, do I trust God?
The father’s answer to Jesus’ question is so honest it makes me laugh: “I do believe! help my unbelief!” A better translation would be: “I trust you! Help! I don’t trust you!” That’s all of us.
The miracle that followed was not based on the man’s faith but on God’s faithfulness. And, by the way, God’s faithfulness is the biggest part of pistis. The word is not focused on a person “screwing up enough faith.” It is focused on the faithfulness of the one who promises. The first four translations in the Greek lexicon show this: faithfulness, reliability, fidelity, commitment.10 The emphasis of pistis is not so much the faith of the believer as the faithfulness of one believed.
This miracle, like all of Jesus miracles, is a live demonstration of the Kingdom of God. We are on page 312. Damn that page! I’m ruined! Where is God? The child’s healing is a peek a the final page. The faithfulness of God will indeed move mountains.
Example 2: The Faithfulness of Christ Jesus
Here’s an interesting example from one of Paul’s letters. Consider two translations of Galatians 2:16.
“A man is not justified by the works of the Law but through faith in Christ Jesus.” (NASB)
“A man is not justified by the works of the law, but by the faith of Jesus Christ.” (KJV)
In this case the King James version is better.11 However, why not go ahead and use the primary definition of pistis? Not “faith” but “faithfulness.” So the best translation of this verse is,
“A man is not made right with God by the works of the law, but by the faithfulness (or trustworthiness) of Jesus Christ.”
The point is that being made right with God is not a matter of believing that God exists or believing the right creed or screwing up enough faith. Being made right with God is first and foremost a matter of God’s trustworthiness. God is trustworthy. Our role is to trust.
Example 3: John 3:16
We looked at John 3:16 in the last chapter, but I didn’t focus on the word pistis. Here is the standard translation:
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life.” (NASB)
Watch how much changing one word shifts the meaning.
“For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever trusts in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life [life of the coming age].” (NASB)
Again, the translation “belief” leads down the wrong trail. Do I just have to believe in the existence of Jesus? No? There’s more? Then what is it that have to believe? Pretty soon we’re parsing statements of faith and focusing on a list of beliefs rather than the Master. Going back to the father of the demonized boy, how developed was his understanding of Jesus? At that point, he had no idea who Jesus was! It was not his understanding of Jesus that saved his boy. It Jesus himself.12
The translation “trust” points in the right direction. We live in a world that seems to deny the existence of a powerful, loving God. It’s easy to conclude we’re on our own. Trust in the Son means that we believe in God’s ultimate triumph through Christ. We trust in “the rest of the story” even though we haven’t seen it in our own lives. Christ was raised to the right hand of the Father. The Messiah is on his throne. We have stolen a peek at the last page. The age to come has begun, though we still long for its complete unveiling. In the meantime, we live by trust and pray “thy Kingdom come!”
Example 4: The Trust Chapter, Hebrews 11
No passage makes the point more clearly than Hebrews 11. Hebrews 11 is a laundry list of people who trusted God when it didn’t make any earthly sense.
- Noah built an ark before it rained.
- Abraham set out, not knowing where he was going.
- Abraham nearly to sacrificed his only son.
- Moses abandoned the pleasure of Egypt to live in the wilderness and never made it to the Promised Land.
- Joshua marched around Jericho before the walls fell.
All these died trusting God, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth. For those who say such things make it clear that they are seeking a country of their own.13
These “heroes of faith” trusted God in the face of absurdity. They believed in the heavenly country, a brighter world, the happy ending—in spite of page 312.
The one thing Jesus asks that we trust him. We take his hand with childlike simplicity and let him lead. This is the very core of the Bible.
To Trust or Not to Trust
There are really only two options.
Option 1: Don’t Trust (Curse God and die.)
The world is a crazy place. If there is a God at all, he/she/it is a lunatic. We’re on our own. Welcome to a story with no plot. Wring what little pleasure you can from your life while you still can. Build your sand castle before the tide comes in.
“Belief in the existence of God” doesn’t help. God exists. So what! Clearly he’s uninterested in my plight. In the face of my life’s tragedies and absurdities, “beliefs” are no use either. Try as I might, I can’t get my “belief system” to make any sense of the data. And if doubt-free faith is what God wants, I’m in serious trouble because I have plenty of doubts. “Belief” and “faith” leave me shaking my fist at heaven, cursing God. Been there. Done that.
Option 2: Trust (I’ll trust God even if he kills me.)
Page 312 stinks. I don’t understand why my daughter has epilepsy or why my career seems so aimless. But there is more to the story than I see. There is an invisible glory beneath the surface. I trust God and take the next step. With Abraham, I “go to to a place God will show me, seeking the city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God.”
What do I expect my life to be like? I expect it to be like Abraham wandering Canaan in search of a home, like Moses wandering in the wilderness, like David fleeing to a cave, like Elijah running from Jezebel, like the disciples caught in a storm, like Christ on the cross.
Trust doesn’t explain this crazy world, let alone fix it. Trusting God does something even more wonderful: it opens the door to a new world, the Kingdom of God. When I trust God, I experience God with me in the darkness. My suffering becomes the fellowship of Christ’s suffering. I say with Job, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust him.” I say with David, “though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for Thou art with me.” I say with the hymn writer, “It is well with my soul.”14 Not because I can explain things. Not because I expect a quick fix right around the corner. I say these things because I trust the Hand that guides me. “I know whatever befalls me, Jesus doeth all things well.”15
I take Christ’s hand and trust. This is all he asks. It changes everything. It opens the doors to the Kingdom of God.
Oh how sweet to walk, in this pilgrim way, leaning on the everlasting arms.
Oh how bright the path, grows from day to day, leaning on the everlasting arms.
Leaning, leaning, safe and secure from all alarms
Leaning, leaning, leaning on the everlasting arms16
- My daughter has now been two years seizure free, although we hate the medication she is on. Thankfully, Taryn’s trust in God is stronger than mine. We are very proud of the way she has faced her challenge. I have much to learn from her.
- Job 40-41
- Psalm 22:1
- From the great old hymn, “This Is My Father’s World.” It’s worth reading the text in its entirety.
- While I’m suggesting old hymns, how about “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” to describe this life of trust?
- Pistis, (πιστις), the noun, appears 243 times. Pisteuō (πιστευω), the verb, appears 241 times.
- Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 818). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- Mark 9:14-29
- This hits home for me because the symptoms of this boy are exactly those of a grand mal seizure. Ancient people described sickness as the work of the devil and his demons.
- Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., p. 818). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
- For you Greek lovers, the KJV translates it as a subjective genitive. The NASB as an objective genitive.
- As we grow, our understanding of who Jesus is develops. This is rich and exciting. But it is never our understanding that saves us. It is Jesus himself. We are to “Trust in the Lord with all our heart and lean not on our own understanding.” (Proverbs 3:5)
- Hebrews 11:13-14
- From “It Is Well with My Soul”
- From “All the Way My Savior Leads Me”
- From “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms”