Reflection by Anne & Martin Stewart
Over the Summer we have been looking at some of the fruits of the Spirit. We started, at Papanui, with kindness, then last week, at Bryndwr, we had a poke around patience, and today we finish this little series with some thinking about faithfulness.
It’s a funny word, faithfulness. The only time we tend to hear it used is around a relationship being trouble because someone has been unfaithful. The negative sense of the word is more readily used than the positive. A quick look at that fount of all knowledge, Wikipedia, told me that, “Faithfulness is the concept of unfailingly remaining loyal to someone or something, and putting that loyalty into consistent practice regardless of extenuating circumstances. It may be exhibited by a husband or wife who, in a sexually exclusive marriage, does not engage in sexual relationships outside of the marriage.” There is no mention of being full of faith, or what faith is. However, the idea of faithfulness as ‘remaining loyal to someone or something and putting that loyalty into consistent practice regardless of extenuating circumstances’ is helpful.
Wikipedia was useful too, in coming up with some other words for faithfulness, like these: loyal, constant, devoted, dedicated, true, staunch, steadfast, reliable, dependable, dutiful, trustworthy, genuine, incorruptible, firm in adherence, resolute, straight, honest, upright, honourable, scrupulous, firm, unswerving, unwavering, committed.
For us, as people of God, of course, faithfulness is about our relationship with God, or perhaps it’s better stated as, God’s relationship with us. It is God’s faithfulness to us that is, first and foremost, the basis of all we stand on. It is in God’s first and new covenants with us that we find a God who desires to remain consistently loyal regardless of extenuating circumstances. The first covenant with Abraham is “I will be your God, and you will be my people’. The Old Testament stories are full of God’s desire to be allowed to be in relationship with all that God has created. Then, when ready, God makes the ultimate statement of this commitment, in coming as one of us in Jesus. Jesus comes and shows us the full extent of God’s faithfulness, remember at the end of Matthew’s gospel, those words of assurance given in a new covenant, “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” [Mt 28:20]
But still, in our humanness, when we think about faithfulness, we tend to think about ours. Are we faithful enough? How can we live more faithful lives? These are all good questions, but the first base where our hope lies, is in the faithfulness of God whose mercies are new every morning. If you find that hard to get your head around or even to imagine, this might help: if you have ever had a dog in your life you will know what faithfulness looks like. Where humans do their ‘humanly thing’ and are inconsistent, unreliable, changeable, or just moody, a dogs affection never wavers. It is always the same every morning despite what happened yesterday. I think this is at the root of my horror of dogs being mistreated. You just know that they will faithfully keep loving the perpetrator of the mistreatment and fervently doing what they can to make themselves lovable. Often this is despite the fact that the mistreatment is not about anything they have done – they are just an easy target for the bully. If it goes on too long the dog will either have its spirit broken or begin to find ways to relieve its hurt like becoming violent itself. But when the relationship is faithfully formed, the dog is ‘doggedly’ trusting! In the light of that kind of unwavering trust in you, how can you ever treat the dog in any other way then to be kind, caring, and loving in return?
We learn to be this way because God has shown us faithfulness, and in our relationship with God, we find we are loved, valued and cared for doggedly, [or perhaps relentlessly is a better word]. Therefore, in light of how God is with us, how can we be anything other than faithful in return? The best indicator I can see is that we live a life in response to the faithfulness of God in how we treat one another. In 1 John 4:20, we hear that “Those who say, ‘I love God’, and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.” So, faithfulness to God is a whole lot more concrete that some nebulous theory. It’s played out in how we are with one another. As a fruit of the Spirit, it comes from us in response to the Spirit’s stirring within. It is the harvest of God’s faithful life at work in us.
Martin: To explore the theme of faithfulness a little more I am going to dart into the book of prophet Hosea. Be warned though, it is unusual. The prophet conjures a range of images around fertility, sexuality, and birth to contrast the nature of God’s faithfulness with the waywardness of Israel’s partnership in the covenant. It makes tough reading. Hosea appears to have been instructed to enter a troubled marriage.
2 When the Lord first spoke through Hosea, the Lord said to Hosea, ‘Go, take for yourself a wife of whoredom and have children of whoredom, for the land commits great whoredom by forsaking the Lord.’ 3 So he went and took Gomer daughter of Diblaim, and she conceived and bore him a son.’ Hosea 1:2-3
Unusual eh! Whether this is true or Hosea simply uses it as a literary device is a bit unclear, but the prophet does hear God describing Israel as that prostitute. There is no mixing of words… they are harsh and crystal clear: Israel has been selling herself out and failing to live out her side of the faithfulness relationship with God. God’s love has been faithful but the partners in the covenantal relationship haven’t been. The people, chasing after lesser gods, have betrayed the promise.
You can imagine the feelings of anger and despair and judgement if this was indeed what happened to Hosea. But Hosea hears God expressing this anger and despair and judgement on quite another scale and the implications are catastrophic. What might an ending of God’s covenant of abiding love look like? These people would no longer know who they were, and they would be bereft of the great mysterious power of knowing whose they are. A world without God’s love actually looks bleak. Aloneness is perhaps the worst form of hell. It is one thing for the people to be unfaithful to God, but what if God was no longer faithful to the people?
The readings we heard this morning are later in the piece. The threat of withdrawal of the promised love has passed – now the Lord is describing the dimensions of the love and faithfulness held for the people, be they wayward or not. Chapter 11: 1When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son. 2 The more I called them, more they went from me; they kept sacrificing to the Baals, and offering incense to idols. 3 Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; they did not know that I healed them. 4 I led them with cords of human kindness, bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them. 8 How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?… My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. 9 I will not execute my fierce anger… and I will not come in wrath.
There’s a curious little verse in between the two readings we heard: In Hosea 13:13 God says of Israel: ‘The pangs of childbirth come for him, but he is an unwise son; for at the proper time he does not present himself at the mouth of the womb.’
At the proper time he does not present himself at the mouth of the womb. In other words, when the pulses of labour have reached their crescendo, Israel wants to stay in, and resist, and remain out of the light.
I guess that is as apt a description of unfaithfulness as any.
We are not meant to hide in the dark – we are not meant to hold back from the light – we are made to find our way in the light. In the light of God’s faithfulness, we are called to be open, and free, and whole, and faithful in response. Israel was called to be a light to the nations, so people of faith, are we. You can’t do that when you are stuck in the dark!
Israel was being called back to faithfulness. So are we! Israel was being called to be open in their trust and faithfulness by the one who is open and faithful. So are we!
In what ways to we chase after lesser God’s and resist the life of God among us? In what ways do we hide in and cling to the dark? We are called into the light. Things are best in the light. ‘I am the light of the world,’ says Jesus, ‘Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life.’ [John 8:12]
Anne: In our current culture I think that faithfulness can be the butt of the joke, and looked down on as a weakness. For instance, why would you loyally give your time on a Sunday morning to sit in, and be part of, church when you could be at a cool café enjoying great coffee? The easiest way to get to the café is to write off church as boring and something that no longer fulfils my needs. It’s an easily accepted way out these days. Why would you spend time visiting people who can’t get out so easily, or singing songs with toddlers, or making crafts, or meeting people over their clothes purchases, or a badminton or bowls game, when you could be away doing something for yourself? Being committed to something that means you can’t just do whatever you like can be seen as something that limits freedom. But faithfulness to God requires commitment and putting someone or something else first. The fruits of faithfulness are enormous though. I can’t see how it’s possible to have real depth in a relationship which you are not committed to, or you only participate in when it suits you. It’s quite possible to just skate across the surface of life if you don’t put faithfulness as a priority. But is that a fulfilling way to be fully alive? Loyalty might not be as trendy as it might once have been, but our trends are a passing whim to God. They don’t change how God is with us, because we have God’s promise of relationship in Jesus, to be “with us until the end of the age.”