Trusting Is Believing
Twenty years ago, when I was in the deepest throes of depression, I was not sure I believed in God anymore. I was 18, and my cousin had just been killed by a drunk driver. I crumbled underneath the weight of my pain, confusion, and doubt. Like many who have suffered tragic loss and pain in life, I was not sure I could believe in a God who would let such things happen.
My religion had been the foundation of my being, I had built my life on it, and now someone was taking a sledgehammer to the stone. If I didn’t believe in God anymore, then nothing else made sense either. I didn’t even know why I was here. In my anger, all doubts and misgivings I had ever had about the historical truth of scripture came front and center in my brain, mounting the evidence in my case against God.
Then I saw something that stopped me cold. A kitten poster. A poster of a tiny striped kitten, hanging by its front paws from a tree branch, just seconds away from falling. Printed at the bottom of the poster was this: “I choose to trust in God.” Can you imagine a worse cliché than a kitten poster with some platitude about how God loves you? Well, there it was, staring back at me, daring me to wait and see what would happen next.
How can you “choose” to trust in God? I sneered. Trust is a feeling — you either do or you don’t. How could you choose to feel something? So I thought it through logically, and I noticed a pattern: the people in my life that I respected the most, admired, and wanted to emulate were all believers. They were all Christians who walked the walk. So if they believed and trusted, shouldn’t I too? They kept telling me,
“Life will get better and you will be happy again.”
I did not feel that that was true, but they were asking me to trust them. I finally decided to take the leap and try on this choosing-to-trust thing. I switched, “Do I trust in God?” to “Today I choose to trust.” Day by day, ray of light by ray of light, hope pierced the dark veil. When I could not muster belief on my own, I relied on the belief of others to pull me through, and in an ironic twist, I used logic to find faith.
Or so I thought. I thought logic and faith were opposites, but they’re not. I thought “to believe” was a decision you came to after carefully examining the evidence, a true or false question. What I didn’t know — what most people don’t know — is that the meaning of the word “believe” has changed drastically over the centuries. It meant something very different to the scripture writers. In fact, “believe” and “belove” have the same root, and in early English the two were synonymous.
As Christian historian Diana Butler Bass explains in her book Christianity After Religion, “To ‘believe’ was to ‘belove’ something as an act of trust or loyalty. Belief was not an intellectual opinion.” Drawing on the work of many other experts in language, religion, and scripture, she concludes that the Biblical meaning of belief
“had nothing to do with one’s weighing of evidence or intellectual choice. Belief was not a doctrinal test. Instead, it was more like a marriage vow — ‘I do’ — as a pledge of faithfulness and loving service to the other. Indeed, in early English usage, you could not hold, claim, or possess a belief about God, but you could cherish, love, trust in, or devote yourself to God.”
Butler Bass attributes the shift in the popular meaning of “belief” largely to 18th century philosopher David Hume. And she points out that our modern misinterpretation stems from the translation of the Bible’s original Greek into English. In Greek, there is a verb “to faith,” (pisteuō) but in English “faith” is a noun, opening the door to a world of lost-in-translation trouble that allowed us to forget the original meaning of the word.
So, actually, to choose to trust in God would make perfect, logical sense to someone 2000 years ago, even 300 years ago. It’s only in modern times that we think of belief as checking off boxes on a list of assertions.
When I chose to trust God 20 years ago, I didn’t know why exactly, scientifically, and it bothered me, really intensely bothered me. In school I was taught to think critically and analytically, to find proof.
So how I could I just give the story of God or Jesus a pass on critical examination?
I was fighting myself in a classic brain versus heart battle. My metaphorical heart would tell me that God was near. But then my brain would butt in with “Prove it!” A small, still voice inside would tell me I was trying in vain to understand God in a way that was impossible for my human brain to wrap itself around. And then my brain would say, “That’s just what people say to convince you of something ridiculous.”
All that time I was struggling with the fact that I could not academically prove what I believe about God, and now I’ve found academic proof that I don’t need academic proof! And it is such a relief! The kitten was right! The small, still voice inside me was right.
When people told me, “You have to believe things will get better,” they were right. I made a choice with my brain to give my heart, and it has made all the difference.
No, the Gospels cannot be verified as actual historical fact, they don’t measure up to current journalistic standards. Of course not. They weren’t meant to. They were, as John says in his Gospel, “Written so that you may believe.” And that is the ancient meaning of believe: to pledge our love and trust to it.
And who do the Gospels tell us Jesus is? The Word made flesh. A man who can perform miracles, heal the sick with his touch, raise the dead. A man who challenges laws and traditions, answers questions with questions, and speaks in parables. A man who gives a new commandment that stands above all others: To love one another as he loves us — and the choice to believe it, to give our hearts to it.
About the author: Tara Dix Osborne is a mom of three in the Chicago area. She writes about family life, spirituality, and travel, and wishes her children would brush their hair.