Of God’s traits, I believe in his faithfulness the least. I know his loveliness because snowdrops bloom in the dearth of February, and I see his reasonableness because winter comes to rest the ground but doesn’t stay forever. I feel his mercy like water because what washed me at my baptism is the same that bathes me, one reminding me of the other every day. I hear his compassion in the voices of my church and I taste his grace, tangibly given, through bread and wine, broken and poured for me.
Of course, I have heard testimonies of his faithfulness, and they are testimonies that I trust. That, however, is not the same as feeling the weight of faithfulness drop like a ball into your cupped hand—light enough to hold but heavier still to shift your balance. I’ve heard it said that mana and quail fell from heaven and fed the wandering people of God. As they wondered the next day if their bellies would be full again, they felt the plop of faithfulness from the sky into their palm. They could wrap their fingers around it, and their tongues knew its texture.
But I nearly choke on the word faithfulness. Saying that I’ve seen God’s faithfulness seems like a lie that cakes my throat, something I can’t choke down and can’t cough up. I can hear every pastor, Sunday School teacher, and bible school professor tell me I know better than to say all of this. And that is true, and they are right, and that is the problem.
There are plenty of bible verses wedged into the wrinkles of my brain, plenty of trite placations, and plenty of prayers. Each holds its own weight but crashes and crumbles when intersecting with lived experience. The verses become shells, placations turn sour, and prayers vanish. Our bodies tangibly sense the world around us, tasting, feeling, seeing, hearing, smelling. And seldom does knowledge out-sense the brine of tears and blood.
I know better, but I cannot say that I have known better. In moments when all I saw was the ever-lengthening shadow of death at my side, the only consolation I was taught to retrieve is that God is faithful. An attribute the well-meaning linked to the sleepy lions that spared Daniel and cold furnace flames that licked up the legs of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Was it not these three exiles who declare their belief in God before also acknowledging he might not choose to save them? “If he does not . . .” they say. There is an entire world hidden in the letters of “if he does not,” but I’m not sure faithfulness lives there. I want to believe that God would save me from tooth and flame the way I believed when I was told so as a child. Try as I might, I rarely can. What have I encountered of God’s faithfulness but any various calamities and a laundry list of languish? I want God’s faithfulness to mean a softer world for me but time and again it feels gritty and sharp instead, catching and shredding my skin when I brush against it.
Others know that too, how many in the cloud of witnesses are those who knew no reprieve from suffering, no respite from the blight of earth? How many unhealed, unseen, and unknown? When a friend, full of faith and heart, tells a tragic story of how nothing ended the way it was supposed to, I edit their sentence, slashing “supposed to” from it and scrawling “needed to” in its place. I’m not brave enough for much, but I am unafraid to say this: God isn’t threatened by our honesty. I’ll concede that maybe this is part of his faithfulness that I know well.
If we are honest, I think we will admit that the idea of faithfulness is an amalgam at best. It is nebulous and enigmatic and any number of other strange and scary adjectives, nondescript in a thousand ways. I don’t know what the faithfulness of God is, but I know what it isn’t. I know it isn’t answered prayers—that is kindness. It isn’t ease or abundance—that’s grace. I know it cannot be something that is given to some—healing or life or luck—and withheld from others. I can better describe what love is—or compassion or blessing or generosity. I can say what I have seen firsthand in this life: grace and forbearance, solidarity and consolation, mercy, and generosity. But there’s a gaping hole where faithfulness should be.
I won’t bemoan every way that I’ve felt failed by God because this is only partially a commentary about God’s faithfulness, or lack of it. It’s also the story of mine. Or lack of it. I choke on the word faithfulness when it’s mine I speak of too. Foolishness, fool heartedness, hardheartedness—I whisper these instead.
Here is the bedrock of the faithless house I’ve seemingly built for myself: I cannot see the forest of God’s faithfulness through the trees of feeling failed by him. And I’m afraid that I’ve been failed because I have failed him myself. I fear my own skepticism exists as evidence of God’s lack. I wonder if I were to peel away the scales that cloud my eyes, which would be more painful than leaving them be, I’d have a shot at seeing God’s faithfulness in the land of the living.
Reaching inside myself, grasping and grabbing at all I find, I recognize my fear to define faithfulness because I know it is something that I am not. It’s easier for me to hope that God is inattentive than believe I lack his favor, easier for me to not reconcile God’s faithfulness with my lived reality, and easier still to believe his faithfulness doesn’t exist. While believing faithfulness is unfindable doesn’t give me the gift of optimism, it at least gives me the freedom to let myself off the hook when I know I cannot give God, or his people, or this earth the faithfulness that they are due. Because really, what I want to be true of God’s faithfulness to me is to be favored like Daniel or David or Deborah. I want to be taken care of like Elijah on the run. I want to touch Christ’s robe and be healed of twelve years of bleeding. I want the Son of Man to look on me with pity and raise my brother from the dead. I want him to raise me from the dead, too. I don’t want to experience the less miraculous categories for how his faithfulness shows itself.
So, for now, I’ll simply color God’s faithfulness as truth. That he does what he says he will do and nothing less than that. Sometimes, nothing more than that, too. Candidly, God didn’t promise me any single thing that I inevitably felt failed by. I think this is what I’m prone to miss: he cannot be faithful to something he never said he’d do in the first place. It’s not quite a definition, but it’ll keep me company for now and curious for later.
There is one thing I can say without reservation about God’s faithfulness: I believe I will taste and see God’s faithfulness when I’m called heavenward. If clear, tangible evidence never drops in my palm while I walk through this life, I remain confident that he won’t withhold that experience in the next. Maybe my own faithfulness is an exercise of remaining tenacious in that belief and resolved should I not see God’s faithfulness in a way I can recognize in the rest of my life’s terrain.
It seems that faithfulness might be something we only know in retrospect, something that no amount of hunting can find in anything but ages past. And I wonder if our own faithfulness can only be actualized at our final sigh of life. Because what else can prove that we are who we say we are, that we did what we said we would, then the completion of time? And when our eyes gaze back through the throes of life, what else could there be to say but “God was faithful and I tried to be too”?
Cover image by Drew Murphy.