Words are funny. Language is a cool thing. Sometimes you can say something, mean something entirely different, and have the receiver understand something entirely different still. I have a really good story about one of my most infamous misunderstandings that involves the Jim Carrey version of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, Pancho’s Mexican Buffet, and my academic performance as a first grader. But I’m not going to tell it now, because I believe in rationing stories for their most effective uses, and that story is best suited to some lesson about being a brat (albeit a brat who could pull straight A’s in 1st grade, holla atcha boi!).
But you can get the idea that a small child, disoriented by the tarnishing of his favorite holiday tale, may find himself in the midst of a misunderstanding or two when thrown into a world of bilingual cuisine and the pressure of service industry interaction.
The thing is, though, that some of language’s quirks don’t have completely to do with misunderstanding so much as shifts in what words mean. This is easily seen today since millennials appear to get paid every time we change the meaning of a word. “Literally” doesn’t mean something is happening in actuality anymore, but rather that it may be occurring in a more figurative sense.
You know, the opposite of the definition of “literally.”
Now I’m going to stop sounding like the caricature of an old man waving his cane at the young’ns in his yard, and smoothly shift into my point. Don’t believe me? As Bruno Mars would say: don’t believe me, just watch.
The New Testament was written in both a different language and different culture than the one we speak and live in today, respectively. These are both important to notice because they lend themselves to the vital element of connotation in words. For anyone who doesn’t know or is actively trying to wipe the slate of what they learned in English class to make more room for this semester’s courses (I feel you), connotation is all the baggage that comes with a word. It’s the reason people look at you weird when you describe a mass homicide as “terrific,” even though it, by definition, might truly be so.
In the past couple of weeks, the topic of the words “faith” and “believe” has been brought up a couple of times in a couple of classes. In each, we talked about the same general thing, and that is that, by and large, belief is not something that’s terribly difficult for us. I believe a lot of things. I believe that Spider-Man’s suit is red and blue. I believe trees are a thing (not a good thing, but a thing. We can talk about that some other time.).
So it was brought up that, whether we realize it or not, belief to us is predominantly an ontological statement. That word was admittedly new to me, so to clarify to those whom it may also be new to, ontology is the philosophical nature of being, existence, or reality. When a kindergartener points to a square and says “SQUARE!” they’re making an ontological statement. This is interesting, though, because “believe” language is so widespread in the Church and religion as a whole.
Ok, so Greek. There are two words we gotta talk about because they’re important. The Greek word for “faith” is πίστις (pistis) and the Greek word for “I believe” is πιστεύω (pisteuo). So here’s the thing, the former, pistis, is used pretty frequently as the noun form of the latter, pisteuo. But here’s the catch: these words didn’t mean to their original audience what they mean to us now.
Belief is a head statement to us. An example we used was in traditionally baptismal language, someone is asked something like, “Do you believe Jesus is the son of God?” etc, etc. And yes, sure, we do. I identify Jesus as the son of God. But if someone in the NT days were asked, “Do you pisteuo (and it would be a different form because conjugation, but you get it) that Jesus is the son of God?” it would be a different question, almost altogether.
Because to them, this wasn’t a head, ontological statement. They weren’t identifying. This was a heart statement. Belief to these people was trust and confidence.
Maybe that’s where we find some of the disparity that occurs in pursuing Christ in our lives. Whether or not Christ is king is seldom the question. The thing that affects us most deeply, perhaps, is our trust in all that comes with Christ being king. To put it like one of my teachers did, when these people said they believed, they were putting their trust in Jesus that they’d be ok “when the bad juju came down.” And living under Roman rule and breaking out of a Jewish tradition into a new one like Christianity? There was indeed some bad juju in the mix.
But I encourage you to spend some time on a site like biblestudytools.com and look where these words occur. In the healing of the paralytic and the blind man, and when Jesus tells the disciples he can’t tell them he’s Christ, lest they not believe.
I’ve gotten into The X-Files recently. Trust me, that’s not a sentence I really ever saw myself saying, either. But I am really, really digging it. I’m talking about it to everyone I meet, which is awkward because I am 20 years late to this conversation. There are a lot of things I love about The X-Files, and one of them is the philosophy and pseudo-tagline of the show “I want to believe.”
One of my favorite instances of “belief” in Mark is when Jesus is about to purify a young boy from an unclean spirit, and his father is pleading with Jesus to help, and Jesus calls him out on his language. He tells the man that everything is possible for those who believe. And the man replies “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!”
I’ve heard many a sermon about this story. Many have said the same thing: that this is a great instance of how we are always battling doubt, and how we need to come clean about that and Jesus will walk with us through it. Not a bad message, all in all, but maybe not all there is to that. Trust is the foundation for these people. This belief they display is founded in trust, and it allows them to flee from disability, pain, and helplessness in the world. That’s the result of trust. That’s what belief has to offer.
I’m not going to label this as spoilers because, like I said, this is 20 years after the fact. The first time you hear “I want to believe” in X-Files, if you’re invested in the show at all, will tear you to pieces. We find out that Mulder, the FBI agent who is advocating the possibility of UFOs and paranormal activity, has been searching his whole life for his sister who disappeared and may have been abducted. At the end of episode 4, Scully is listening through recordings of Mulder’s hypnotic therapy sessions from after his sister’s disappearance. The therapist is walking him through a scene, and the conversation goes as follows:
DR. HEITZ WERBER: Are you scared?
MULDER: I know I should be but I’m not.
DR. HEITZ WERBER: Do you know why?
MULDER: Because of the voice.
DR. HEITZ WERBER: The voice?
MULDER: The voice in my head.
DR. HEITZ WERBER: What’s it telling you?
MULDER: Not to be afraid. It’s telling me no harm will come to her, and that one day she’ll return.
DR. HEITZ WERBER: Do you believe the voice?
MULDER: I want to believe.
When the bad juju comes down, you’re going to be ok. When your sister disappears and you don’t think you can make it without her, you’re going to be ok. When the world is a scary, broken, and evil place, you’re going to be ok. We seek trust to escape brokenness, but much more importantly, to strive toward goodness and the perfection that is Christ.
I believe that. I trust that. And I have confidence, because of that, that trust and hope are interwoven intimately.
I don’t want to simply know and identify that Jesus is God’s son or that he died for my sins. I want to trust that wholeheartedly. I want to have confidence in the fact that that is unshakable. I want to know that when everything in the world is bearing down on my shoulders, it was on his first. I want to know that he’s waiting for me to place that trust in him everyday, knowing I’ll struggle to, wishing that I could see that I am in the most capable of hands. I want that kind of trust in my heart that doesn’t make things easy, but makes things worth it.
I want to believe. Help me overcome my unbelief.