One of the takeaways of the field of religious studies is that there are at least two ways that people think about this thing they call “faith.” Interestingly, one of those definitions is more important than another when we speak of the word faith as a crucial factor in healthy human relationships.
We’re not talking about the use of “faith” as a substitute for the word “religion,” but as an attitude. And though distinguishing what is meant by the word is helpful when analyzing religion, our concern here is its importance when discussing friendships and committed couples.
The faith that is least important in relationships is defined as belief about certain things related to the object of faith. In religion, this would mean believing the right doctrines.
In relationships, this means accepting certain facts about a friend or partner. Are they a redhead? What do they do for a living? How tall are they? How much do they weigh? What is their clothing style? What kind of music do they like? Do they or do they not have freckles?
By this definition, faith can be considered accurate, and even somewhat important, if the claims about its object in our mind match the facts about the friend or partner. And the accuracy of this kind of faith is, of course, easier to determine in human relationships than in religion – do we believe true things about…?
This type of faith, for example, might mean knowing the actual date of its object’s birthdate. Should one forget it, one’s friend or partner might feel offended, interpreting that memory failure as meaning we don’t somehow consider them important enough to remember it.
In many ways, it’s the easiest kind of faith – one can carry their picture or make a list of things we must not forget. And there would be some reason for concern if such things remain unknown the longer a relationship lasts. There are certain facts about our friends and beloveds that we usually come to know, some sooner than later.
But the other kind of faith, the one that comes closest to predicting the longevity of a relationship, is faith defined not as knowing true things about someone but faith as belief in someone. This faith trusts someone, not just accepting the right ideas about its object.
This means so trusting someone that you believe the best about them. It’s confidence in them.
The tests of whether we have such faith are our reactions when we hear something negative about the person, and whether or not our reaction is to assume the best meaning and motives of the other.
If I hear that a best friend robbed a bank, how do I react? Do I immediately think: Oh, no, here I had thought well of them and now they have betrayed my trust and let me down?
Do I jump to disappointment? Do I even go to others to soothe my disappointment? Those are signs of a loss or lack of this kind of faith.
Or do I respond with: Wait now. I know my friend, and they would never rob a bank. Do I then add: And, if they robbed a bank, they must have had a good reason.
Do I then go to my friend or partner with what I’ve heard, still believing in them, and ask them to help me understand “what really happened?”
This example, of course, exaggerates those everyday tests of our faith that are likely to eat away at a relationship. It’s more likely that they say something to us and we interpret it as an affront or somehow otherwise interpret what they have said in terms of its worst meaning and motivations.
When we find ourselves no longer reacting to what are often misunderstandings in the most positive way, then we’ve lost faith in our friend or partner. When that kind of faith dwindles, its loss tells us to wake up and begin the work that needs to be done right away – if our goal is to grow in that relationship.