What Faithfulness Means

I have been meaning to write a very long piece for the last several weeks to finish up my musings on sex and marriage in scripture. (See here and here for my starting points.) But things have gotten in the way.

And then today, as I was writing an e-mail to someone, it occurred to me how to think about faithfulness. The most important thing we as Christians can do is to bear faithful witness to the promises of God. To be a witness is not just to see something, but to speak of it as well. To testify openly and publicly. We don’t just encounter God’s grace, we testify to its reality — above all things. “My love is all that matters, and this is who I am.”

I always think of Abraham in Genesis when I consider what it means to be faithful:

1 Some time later, the word of the Lord came to Abram in a vision. He said,
“Fear not, Abram,
I am a shield to you;
Your reward shall be very great.”
2 But Abram said, “O Lord God, what can You give me, seeing that I shall die childless, and the one in charge of my household is Dammesek Eliezar!” 3 Abram said further, “Since You have granted me no offspring, my steward will be my heir.” 4 The word of the Lord came to him in reply, “That one shall not be your heir; none but your very own issue shall be your heir.” 5 He took him outside and said, “Look toward heaven and count the star, if you are able to count them.” And He added, “So shall your offspring be.” 6 And because he put his trust in the Lord, He reckoned it to his merit. (Genesis 15:1-6, JPS Tanakh)

Abraham (at this point, God hasn’t yet given him his new name) trusts God. Trusts a promise from God that he will never, ever, see. Now, Abraham and Sarah spend Genesis 16 trying to accomplish this themselves in a passage that strikes me as oddly parallel to what Adam, Eve, and the serpent do in the garden in Genesis 3. They try to fulfill the promises of God through their own effort, because it is not enough in the moment to have the promise of God. They want the fruit of that promise in their own hands, and it is in their power — kind of — to make that promise “come true.” To the extent human beings are capable at all of fulfilling the promises of God.

And later, in Genesis 17, God promises Abraham that Sarah will, in fact, bear him a son of his (and her) own. Ishmael is blessed, but he is not the child of promise.

This is what it means to be faithful — to trust the choices God makes for us, rather than the choices we can make for ourselves. This goes against everything in what I think we understand as human nature. Scripture is full of stories, from the Garden onward, of human beings failing to trust God and the things God does for us, and gives to us, and attempting to do or achieve or acquire those things on our own. This desire to choose for ourselves is human, and those who wrote down this encounter with God understood that. This is, I think, what makes idolatry so compelling. Because “God” becomes a thing we can see, and touch, and even control. God becomes a thing we can choose.

This is amplified a thousand-fold by modernity, by notions of equality, by the power of science and mass production to bend (if only temporarily) the very creation to our will. In modernity, human beings no longer choose God. We have chosen to become God. And so suffering, want, inequality — all the horrific things God seemingly at random chooses for us — are problems to solve. The choices God makes for us, and our ability to bear witness to God, to speak of “the love that matters” in in the midst of all that happens to us, are now irrelevant. If we cannot undo the choices of God now, we can avoid them altogether, or work for an eventual solution at some point in the future.

Once, when I was a reporter in Utah, I got a call from a local nursing home. A very special Mormon wedding was taking place between two quadriplegics. She was in her late 20s, and had broken her neck in a skiing accident when she was 21, I think. She was once quite pretty, but the years and the injury were wearing on her. He was in his early 50s, had broken his neck many years before in an auto accident. He was charming, but not the most handsome man you’d ever meet.

They were getting ready for a proper temple sealing ceremony as part of their marriage, to be wed for “time and eternity.” And they were going to live together in the nursing home — they both needed that much care.

“So, you two are happy, then?” I remember asking awkwardly.

He smiled. Oh yes, very happy.

She echoed the sentiment. But her weak smile and her wide eyes said something else. This is not who she would have chosen to marry. This was not the life she would have chosen. It’s not that she was settling for “Mr. Right Now” as opposed to “Mr. Right.” It was more than that. Her eyes told me that she wished in that moment she could undo the awful thing that had happened, so that she could be anyone other than the person sitting in a complex piece of machinery in a room smelling vaguely of urine and disinfectant that would forever be her home making this choice.

But she didn’t get to choose her life. It was chosen for her.

Now, if technology could undo her injury (and his), give them working legs and arms and lives free of the kind of permanent, full-time care both needed, give them the ability to make different kinds of choices, well, who am I to argue? Who would consign anyone to such a life? And yet, when the focus becomes what our technology can do — when we become Sarai, foisting our handmaidens so as to make possible to promises of a distant God who hasn’t bothered to do yet what He clearly said He would do — then we only see these things as tragic and awful. The only thing we end up witnessing to is what we as human beings can, and cannot, accomplish. This is fine when we “solve” problems. (Though the solving of problems is itself terribly unequal, betraying yet another beguiling promise of modernity.) But it leaves us disappointed, frustrated, and angry when we find that so many of the things we’ve decided are problems are things we cannot yet solve. Or simply end up being completely insoluble no matter how much money and technology we throw at them.

Modernity promises an end to the tragic. It will fail. But not before it lays waste to our ability to be truly human. Which is to live in hope and to love each other in the midst of the awful and the horrific.

One of the callings of a faithful Church in post-Christendom is to witness to the choices God makes in our midst. As hard or painful as it may be. It means stepping away from technology and economy to fulfill wants and desires, and trusting the promises of God. Especially in matters of life, love, and death, in dealing with children, the old, the difficult, and inconvenient. Because they are more than things to be managed, more than objects of desire, more than problems to be solved. It also means letting go of the idolatry of choice, that it is our choices, and our ability to choose, that matters above all things.

It is the life which chooses us is what matters.

And this is where I reminded of my very favorite encounter with Jesus in scripture.

27 After this he went out and saw a tax collector named Levi, sitting at the tax booth. And he said to him, “Follow me.” 28 And leaving everything, he rose and followed him. (Luke 5:27-28 ESV)

Because, in the end, we do not choose God.

God chooses us.

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