She was only three or four. Her large doll hung loosely in her tiny hands. She was fascinated by the two elderly pensioners in the next queue. They seemed to be the same distance from death as she was from birth.
Her tall father had to bend a long way down to speak to her, especially as the checkout line was crowded and the shop busy. I couldn’t hear precisely what he said to her but the import of his instructions and explanation was quite clear. He was going back for something and she had to stay with the trolley in the queue. He wasn’t going far. He wouldn’t be away very long. But she had to stand by herself with the trolley, surrounded by strangers and unable to lift the food from the trolley to the counter, if dad didn’t get back in time.
So, there she stood – the very epitome of faith. She didn’t cry or moan. She didn’t complain or panic. She stood still, patiently waiting for her father’s return. She was the epitome of faith, for she trusted her father; and because she trusted her father, she also trusted his word. Trusting his word meant obeying his instructions and looking forward to him fulfilling his promise to return.
It wasn’t her doll that protected or helped her. It may have given her some psychological sense of security; but it was of no real help. Like all idols, it needed her more than she needed it. She would protect it, but it could not protect her. Faith in the idol was of absolutely no value. Faith in her father and his word was essential, for her father was her helper and protector.
It wasn’t her faith that protected her but the object of her faith – her father. If he had not returned, her faith in him and his words would not only prove to be misplaced but also of no use.
However, her faith was not misplaced. He was faithful. He did return, and quite quickly. Her minutes of solitude in the crowd were not drawn out. They may have felt long for her, but in fact not long by the clock.
Her faith was not irrational. She knew her father. She had learnt to trust his words. Her security in that moment came from the experienced security of the loving relationship she manifestly enjoyed with this man. She understood what he had said, what he had promised and what was required of her.
This little girl’s actions are the epitome of what the Bible means by the word ‘faith’. It is a precious word for Christians. It was the rallying cry of the Reformation: Justification by faith alone. It lies at the heart of our response to the covenant-making, speaking God. We are not called upon to enter into some spiritual euphoria or supernatural or miraculous experience, but to trust him, and so trust his word and his promises. We are to wait for him to fulfil his promises to us. That is what we mean by faith. It’s not a particularly religious activity because faith is something we all have most of the time. Faith is the normal experience of relating to people. We trust people and promises, institutions and organisations, bus drivers and surgeons. Trust is essential to life. It is why the sceptic knows nothing and the cynic has no friends.
Sadly today, such faith is no longer understood in modern English. People use it of a special religious, irrational experience, or if they are rude – ‘superstition’. It is said to be beyond reasoning, something that works for ‘people of faith’ whether or not it has any basis in fact. Furthermore, modern English differentiates between ‘faith’ and ‘belief’, whereas there is no difference in New Testament Greek. The real difference is that English has a verb form of belief (to believe) but only a noun form of faith (we can’t say ‘to faith’).
If we wish to communicate Biblical truth with our neighbours, we need to change our vocabulary. ‘Faith’, even ‘belief’, needs to be replaced with ‘trust’, ‘depend’ or ‘rely’ and ‘faithful’ replaced with ‘trustworthy’, ‘dependable’ or ‘reliable’. These are non-religious words that have no bias towards irrationality but will express more of relationship and response than simply knowledge words.
The little girl in the queue trusted her father, so relying upon his word she waited for him to fulfil his promise by returning to deal with the checkout and provide the food upon which she depended. Of course, you can push any image too far and liken the father to God, asking why he was so short sighted as to need to return for the blueberries and why leave the little girl amongst the strangers etc. I’m not commenting on the father, just observing how much of faith this little girl epitomised.