Faithfulness is not necessarily a characteristic of God that I often dwell on. While in the New Testament, the word faith is used over 200 times, there are only three occurrences of “faithfulness.” The first is in Matthew 23 where Jesus is admonishing the Scribes and Pharisees for neglecting justice, mercy, and faithfulness. The second is in Romans 3 where Paul is writing to tell us that unbelief in God does not nullify his faithfulness, and the last comes from the famous list of the fruit of the Spirit.
We often think of the first word, faith, in conjunction with trust, or belief in God, or our historic Christian faith. But faithfulness takes on a different emphasis. It is easier to point out than to define, you’ll find us using it as a descriptor of what someone is like than encouraging someone toward it. Faithfulness is an enduring presence of love no matter what comes. The hymn “Great is Thy Faithfulness” describes the actions of our faithful God with lyrics like, “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide.” The fruit of a Faithful God should ripen in his people.
Faithfulness in the Early Church
For Christians in the early church, faithfulness was a defining characteristic. It was the thing that even Julian, the Emperor of Rome noticed and found frustrating. They had a radical commitment to one another that was bereft of any selfishness. Their focus wasn’t on growth, expansion, or political power, but on a radical commitment to their neighbor: a lived faithfulness.
In Alan Kreider’s book The Patient Ferment of the Early Church he examines the life and culture of early Christians who lived faithfully despite constant marginalization, discrimination, and persecution. Kreider says, “The Christians’ focus was not on “saving” people or recruiting them; it was on living faithfully—in the belief that when people’s lives are rehabituated in the way of Jesus, others will want to join them.” Living faithfully was a result of their lives being properly oriented around the way of Jesus and that radical commitment to one another is what made Christianity appealing.
Much like a patient ferment, faithfulness isn’t typically very quick or attractive. It’s a long obedience in the same direction, type of thing, not, Chat GPT can do my work for me type of thing. We’ve become accustomed to speed, efficiency, and quick fixes, and faithfulness is the exact opposite of that. It’s neither quick nor efficient. It’s not self-focused and isn’t contingent on how someone else might respond (see Romans 3 above). A lived faithfulness sits quietly and listens. It’s not rattled when there isn’t reciprocity. It’s steady regardless of the situation or how someone might respond. Sometimes you might spend months or years being faithful to someone or something without feeling like you’ve made any real progress.
Faithfulness in “A Hidden Life”
In the deeply moving movie “A Hidden Life,” writter and director Terrance Malik crafts a 2 hour and 53 minutes tribute to the characteristic of faithfulness. “A Hidden Life” follows Franz Jägerstätter, an Austrian farmer in the 1940s who doesn’t swear an oath of allegiance to Hitler. It goes for him how it went for most dissenters during that period.
Malik is known for his long, lingering shots that can be described as visual poetry and underscored by narration from his characters. The entire film is visually astounding and completely gut-wrenching. Franz’s faithfulness is displayed throughout the movie at the expense of family, career, and—spoiler—even his life. You sit squarely in the tension of watching Franz in a lived faithfulness; while simultaneously hoping he’ll defect only to soothe the tension we feel as a viewer.
The movie leaves you reflecting on the beautifully horrific things you just watched and what you would do in a similar situation. You feel the weight of his lived faithfulness but are unsure how to navigate what you’ve seen; especially considering we will likely never be in a similar situation. The final scene fades and the screen goes dark; but, before the credits, Malik places a quote from George Eliot for final guidance:
“The growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”
Faithfulness finds it’s expression in the unhistoric acts. It’s in the faithfulness of a mother feeding her infant in the dark, still hours of the night. It’s the faithfulness of a daughter caring for her aging mother. It’s the faithfulness of a friend calling when you’ve lost a job or significant relationship. Living faithfully might be unhistoric but it is absolutely essential. It’s in the moments most every possible spectator will miss that our enduring presence of love crafts the very culture of the kingdom of God.
A life of hidden fidelity isn’t overwhelming; it doesn’t garner fame or attention. But the strengths of it is undeniable—it can handle the weight of the growing good of the world.
Cover image by Jonny Kennaugh.