Sunday, October 16, 2011


Recently I’ve been pondering the difference between trust and faith. Though similar (and each can be expressed as a noun or a verb), they aren't exactly the same. Trust is defined in Websters this way: firm belief in the reliability, truth, ability, or strength of someone or something. Faith is defined like this: confidant belief that does not rest on logical proof or material evidence. It would seem some kind of trust has to develop before authentic faith can occur, the kind that flings itself into the care and keeping of another for no logical reason.

Both trust and faith are elements critical in intimate relationships: a marriage, a best friendship, between a man and his Maker, even that between a horse and rider. Trust is built over time in a million big and small ways that test and refine the relationship. When someone has proven themselves trustworthy a “leap of faith” is possible because the relationship has a “trust account,” sorta like money in the bank.

It is humbling to be the object of someone’s blind faith. I think of my children, when they were very young. They simply believed I had the answers to all things, could find all things, could fix all things. They are now 13 and 18 and, sadly, that sort of faith no longer exists. They know now that I am all too human and prone to mistakes and bad judgment. Like this summer, for instance.

Eli and I had gone out for a “short ride.” This is code for, “I feel somewhat guilty about abandoning my duties to go riding so this will be short.” Short being relative. On this particular day my neighbor couldn’t go so it was just me and one handsome chestnut stallion. It was sunny and humid and the late summer bugs were annoying so we tried to say in the shade. It didn’t take long to decide the mosquitos were intolerable and we’d do well to head home. I chose a particular stretch of trail only usable in the summer for the route back. It is a favorite of dirt bikers and prone to deep ruts, mud, and somewhat technical hills. But it had been dry for weeks and the path was shady and cool.

We’d only been on the trail a few minutes when I noted the bikers had carved an unusually deep, narrow slash in the single track. Eli disliked the deep rut as it was difficult to place his feet without slipping. As we went deeper into the trees we frequently had to go off trail to go around sections that weren’t safe. The ground off the track was brushy and filled with slash, stumps, and rocks. As I removed my sunglasses to get a better look at the footing, that sensible inner voice began speaking: “Hey, this is sketchy; you should turn around.”

“Not much farther,” I told Eli, stroking his sweaty neck and ignoring the voice. “Good boy.”

After navigating a particularly dicey downhill section, Eli and I found ourselves looking up a curving hillside that used to be easily manageable. It now consisted of the ugliest rut I’d ever seen, the width of a dirt bike tire and about a foot deep. On one side of the rut a few inches of space gave way to a steep wall of brush and trees, on the other side about two feet of packed, dried mud dropped into more brush and trees. Ahead the rut ran up the hill and disappeared around the corner that would lead us to the trail head. So close and yet so far away. I dismounted and looked around at my predicament. It was challenging to turn Eli around and I knew the way back, around all those bad places in the trail, would be nearly as difficult as the hill ahead. Eli was sweating profusely in the humidity and stamping his feet constantly as the mosquitos descended. Not good.

I’ve never owned a horse that made me work as hard as Eli has to earn trust. He loses confidence in people easily, is highly sensitive, and, like most stallions, will immediately assume leadership if he senses hesitation. A horse that once didn’t trust me enough to accept hand feeding, we’d come a long way in nearly three years. Still, he wasn’t good about standing calmly and thinking through touchy situations. He likes to rush forward when the going got tough instead of trusting me to tell him when to go or, more importantly, stop. Now I was stuck on a trail with ruts so deep he could break a leg at speed.

I tried a couple of times to get him to walk in the rut but he kept slipping and floundering, swinging his hind end off the trail and becoming agitated when he couldn’t find a way to place his front feet side by side. Afraid he’d fall off the track entirely, I finally stopped and we just stood there, wondering what to do. I spoke to him the whole time, telling him I was sorry and assuring him he’d done a good job, the situation was entirely my fault. Many times in the past Eli had gotten upset and impulsive in similar situations, but to my surprise he had adopted a look of surrender and stood calmly, waiting on my move. After about 20 minutes of staring blankly into the forest around me, I looked up the hill and decided there was only one thing to do: trust him to walk quietly, right behind me, on the edge of the trail and hope the place where it disappeared from view would be passable. He’d have to have faith in my ability to get us out of the situation unharmed and not rely on his own devices which might include stepping into the treacherous rut, leaping over me and up the hillside or, worse, down into the ravine.

“Let’s go son,” I told him and began walking briskly up the hill while he followed.

When we got to the top—with minimal scrambling, my backside unharmed by a stampeding horse—I breathed a sigh of relief and spent several minutes just scratching Eli’s neck and telling him how awesome he was. He loves praise and adoration. Later I thought of our journey of building trust that enabled him to depend on me in a difficult situation. I didn’t deserve his faith, but he gave it anyway.

A few weeks ago I visited a friend who has a mysterious illness—one that gives her intense pain in her neck and renders her entire right side almost useless some days. Only 38 years old, she now owns a walker. While we talked, the right side of her mouth often had difficulty forming the words, like a connection between her brain and the facial muscles was shorting out. Her faith in God during an ordeal that makes no logical sense brought tears to my eyes: “I don’t know why this is happening, but I know God has a purpose in it, somehow.”

I want that kind of faith; the surrendering-of-my-own-devices kind that walks quietly behind God during the sketchy situations in life.