Faith is a slippery word today. Often it’s used to mean nothing more than wishing. We have this “faith” in our favorite teams, the weather for Saturday, or the outcome of an exam we didn’t prepare for. Sometimes we muster up faith as a last resort when life’s a tough climb, but this faith disappears just as soon as our road smooths out. Faith is also used as shorthand for the power of positive thinking. Think of how many times you’ve heard people say, “You just have to have faith in yourself!” When used of religion, faith is often equated with blind faith, where you check your mind at the door and accept something you know makes no sense.
One of the challenges when translating the Bible is that there isn’t always a word in your language that has exactly the same meaning as the word in the biblical language. That can make it hard for the author’s meaning to come through in just the way he intended. Further complicating the translation task is the fact that every language changes over time. For example, think of the ways cool and hot now have a broader range of meaning than was the case in earlier English. A sun-baked sports car is cool. What?
In the case of the word faith, both of these translation challenges come into play. The biblical word translated as “faith” doesn’t easily translate into English, plus the meaning of the English word has shifted over time. As a result, faith, as many of us understand it, doesn’t convey the same meaning as the biblical word for faith.
The Greek word in the New Testament that is translated as faith is pistis. It means “trust, firm persuasion, or conviction.” What do you need in order to be persuaded? Reasons. And what do you need to become convicted of something? You need evidence. Our culture’s idea of faith doesn’t include reason or evidence. Those things aren’t needed to make a wish, but they are needed for trust. Unfortunately, sometimes even Christians think of reason and evidence as actually being contrary to faith, as if having faith without reasons or evidence makes it more pure in some way, more pleasing to God. But the truth is that without reasons and evidence you can’t have biblical faith; you just have wishful thinking.
Wishes and faith are essentially polar opposites. Wishes are about the person doing the believing. When you tell me what you wish for, I don’t learn about the true value of the money you wish you had, the beauty or fame you long for, or the friends you hope to gain. Instead, I learn about your heart. You describe for me the things you feel will make you complete, and so I form an understanding of your insecurities and the things upon which you build your identity.
Faith—defined biblically—points in the opposite direction of a wish. Faith points at the value of its object. If you tell me you have faith that the bridge will hold the weight of your car, the focus isn’t on you but on the merits of the bridge. Is it worthy of your faith? Is it built and maintained well? If you put your faith in something that isn’t true, then your faith is worthless no matter how sincerely you believe it. Believing a lie doesn’t make it true, and truth is true even if no one believes it.
Jeremy Royal Howard is Publisher of Bibles & Reference Books at LifeWay. He is General Editor of the HCSB Study Bible. Dr. Howard is author of Understanding Jesus in the QuickSource Guide series and General Editor of The Gospels and Acts in the Holman Apologetics Commentary on the Bible series. He is a contributor to the Apologetics Study Bible, the Apologetics Study Bible for Students, and general editor of and contributor to If God Made the Universe, Who Made God? Dr. Howard was educated at Tennessee Technological University (B.S.) with a major in biology and The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary (M.Div. and Ph.D) with emphases on apologetics and worldview, philosophy, and theology.