Sustaining Grace, How Sweet the Sound
During a full time-out at a local high school basketball game, I watched the cheer squad spread out along the sideline facing the home crowd. Before the game, my daughter, a freshman member of the squad and a flyer—the cheerleader in the air during a stunt—told me she might try a new skill she’d been learning. As the cheerleaders took the court, I saw an unflinching look of determination on my daughter’s face. And I knew she was going for it.
Four teammates formed a base and seconds later they had sent my daughter eye-level with me rows above the gym floor. Smooth and steady, the bases held my flyer’s right foot and she raised her left to the knee of the stationary leg. The final exclamation point was arms extended overhead in a high “V” position as the squad’s voice chanted encouragement for its team. The group executed a “Liberty” with seeming ease. When the buzzer sounded, the bases popped my daughter into a cradle and the squad exited the court as I let out some proud mom whoops.
Later, as I looked at the photo I captured of my daughter at the top of the Liberty, I saw a picture of dependence. Her confidence was rooted in the people who held her high. It made me remember my own dependence.
For the last three years, the idea of faith in God’s faithfulness has been a comfort in difficult circumstances. I began to consider his faithfulness anew in 2020. It was the first year of the pandemic and each night before bed I was reading Vaneetha Rendall Risner’s book, The Scars that have Shaped Me: How God Meets Us in Suffering. Suffering didn’t arrive for me with the onset of the pandemic, but as a knowingly high-risk family, the uncertainty and politicization of the health crisis added yet another layer to my pre-existing experience. While reading Risner’s words, I found myself underlining with increasing fervor the further I progressed in the book. As I neared the book’s conclusion, I came to the chapter called “Sustaining Grace.”
In the chapter, Risner shared about a time at Bible study when she confided in the group that some of her prayers had “remained unanswered for decades.” She said her disappointment felt “so unspiritual, so faithless, so shallow.” But then Risner explained that something a woman said following her admission stuck with her and, through her retelling of the story, with me. Risner wrote: “But then Florence says something that refocuses my attention. Immediately I know that her words are for me. ‘You never hear anyone in the Bible complaining about the parting of the Red Sea,’ she says. ‘Everyone loves the grace that delivers us. But the Israelites, like us, were dissatisfied with daily manna. We all complain about the grace that merely sustains us.’”
I read the paragraph again. I underlined it. I read it again. Like Risner, I wondered if my prayers for help in circumstances that felt uncannily like the wilderness were being answered “with the gift of sustenance.”
Risener’s story led to a time of personal processing including an in-depth study of Exodus 15–17. In this section of scripture, the Israelites set out from the Red Sea—a miracle of deliverance—and into the wilderness that will eventually bring them to the promised land. In Exodus 16, as the people set out for Elim, “the whole congregation of the people of Israel grumbled against Moses and Aaron in the wilderness, and the people of Israel said to them, ‘Would that we had died by the hand of the LORD in the land of Egypt, when we sat by the meat pots and ate bread to the full, for you have brought us out into this wilderness to kill this whole assembly with hunger.”
God responds to the complaints by saying, “Behold, I am about to rain bread from heaven for you . . .” and the remainder of chapter 16 talks about the provision of manna, the disobedience of the people, and God’s continued faithfulness. In these moments, as the Israelites learned to trust God for their needs, stumbling and failing in the process, I was captivated by the God who didn’t wait to show his faithfulness. God’s faithfulness didn’t depend on the degree of the Israelites’ faith.
The apostle Paul’s description of Jesus in 2 Timothy 2:11–13 describes the faithfulness the Israelites experienced: “The saying is trustworthy, for: If we have died with him, we will also live with him; if we endure, we will also reign with him; if we deny him, he also will deny us; if we are faithless, he remains faithful—for he cannot deny himself.”
I recently reviewed my notes from that time of study in 2020 and chuckled at the number of times I wrote a version of “God’s faithfulness isn’t dependent on mine. Praise the Lord!” It felt wonderful to become more dependent on God. God’s faithfulness doesn’t depend on my faith or lack of it. God’s faithfulness doesn’t depend on your faith or lack of it. God’s nature is faithful. He doesn’t lie. He doesn’t deny himself.
It’s been a comfort to trust that no matter the decisions people make—even people of the church—their choices won’t change God’s faithfulness. He remains faithful. He can’t deny himself.
It’s a comfort to know I can’t change God’s faithfulness either. I know if it were left to me to earn God’s faithfulness by somehow proving I have enough faith, I would fail. This is not to say I don’t believe in the perseverance of faith—the verse from 2 Timothy warns as much as encourages. Believers are called to endure. But ultimately, where my expression of faith might appear strong one day and weak another as I persevere to the end, I do not have the power to change who God is. Even on days when all I can cry in prayer is “God, help,” or “God, you know,” I can rest in his faithfulness.
It was the faithfulness of God, not just my daughter, the cheerleading stunt brought right to eye level. After pushing upward off the bases’ shoulders, the flyer’s job is to keep her body locked and tight using an abundance of core strength, and then, let the bases do the work of lifting, adjusting, and holding. To execute the stunt well, the flyer holds focus and trusts the bases to provide the structure. If the flyer tries to take matters into her own hands, attempting to adjust herself, she becomes unstable and her flailing body begins to feel heavier to those holding her, potentially to the point of stunt failure. Like the flyer, I must be mentally and physically prepared to stunt, trusting the foundation of my faith who has promised to save and sustain me with unfailing faithfulness.
Cover image by Rojan Maharjan.