At the beginning of this series I described the path of discipleship as one that seeks to develop a number of virtues and ideals. For the past few weeks I have been writing about compassion and the works of justice and mercy that flow from compassion. This week I want to start by talking about the virtue of loyalty and faithfulness.
Earlier in this series, I wrote several posts about the virtue of love; how the love of God, especially for Christians the love of God as seen in Jesus, can inspire love within us, a love that extends from us back to God and to the world around us. The important realization is that this love begins with God. A common image is the Christian life as akin to the moon, shining with a light that is not of our origin, but a reflection of the love of God. “We love God because God first loved us.” (1 John 4:19).
For many decades we have used the language of love as the primary description of our relationship with God and God’s relationship with us. However, for much of the Hebrew Scriptures, the primary description of our relationship with God is not about love but about loyalty and faithfulness.
There is a phrase that is used several times in the Hebrew Scriptures as a formulaic description of God. For instance, in my congregation, during Lent, we prepare to hear the gospel text with a quotation from the prophet Joel:
“Return to the Lord your God, for God is gracious and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.” (Joel 2:13)
When I was in seminary I had a Hebrew professor who strongly disagreed with the translation, “steadfast love.” He told us that the Hebrew word (chesed) is related to loyalty and faithfulness. He translated it with the fancy phrase, “covenant fidelity”. Chesed is more about the nature of God keeping God’s promises than it is the warm, fuzzy feeling that sometimes gets associated with love. Joel presents a God who will be faithful to Israel, not because Israel is great or perfect or loving, but because God is a God who makes and keeps promises. This is a significant idea because the covenants that God makes with Israel are often one-sided and unconditional. God does not say to Abram, “If you are good, I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you.” God simply says, “I will make of you a great nation.”(Genesis 12:2) God is and remains loyal and faithful.
In his letter to the Galatians, Paul lists faithfulness as one of the fruits of the spirit. It is more than simply holding a set of beliefs. Faithfulness is an attitude of being invested in those beliefs. This is not an argument for blind faith, accepting things without question. My understanding of faithfulness is the ability to stand in faith despite questions and struggles. For me, the image of faithfulness is the image of Jacob wrestling with the divine and refusing to let go. (Genesis 32:22-32)
Faithfulness in practice is also well-described by many of the Christian mystics. The 16th century Spanish nun, Teresa of Avila speaks of periods of dryness in prayer. At the beginning of the new practice, the disciple is thrilled and comforted by the action of contemplative prayer, but one day she sits in prayer and discovers nothing: no feeling of warmth, no sense of nearness to God. Faithfulness is what continues the practice through such dry spells. For John of the Cross, a dear friend of Teresa, faithfulness is what allows Christians to endure the “dark night of the soul,” a period when all the trappings of faith lose their meaning. It is the virtue of faithfulness that turns the dark night into a transition period to a deeper relationship with God.
Unfortunately, the church moved from a message of faithfulness to a message of guilt. Rather than saying that we take part in the practices of discipleship out of a sense of loyalty to God, the church taught that we observe these practices out of a sense of guilt or fear, avoiding an angry God. In some ways I think we overcorrected when we then put all of our focus on love, often arriving at a place of saying, “Take part or don’t; God loves you anyway.”
I hope that we can find a way to hold loyalty and love in balance. Growing in loyalty and faithfulness can be a powerful way to deepen our relationship, helping us grow in disciplines which in turn help us spend more time paying attention to God. I believe that an emphasis on faithfulness can also help create a realistic faith practice, one that does not assume that we should always feel great or we should never have doubts or things will just get better and better. Faithfulness and loyalty are what can carry us through the troubling times.
But love is also constantly present when we do slip up or slip away. God’s love is always there to sustain us, comfort us and welcome us. Like love, our faithfulness is not our own, but a reflection of the faithfulness of God, who stands waiting to receive us when we turn away and to welcome us when we rediscover the beautiful relationship that is faith.