What’s in a Word?
Last year, I preached a similar sermon in two different churches. It was titled, What’s in a Word? It looked at the biblical boundaries of faith, hope, and love. Three words that we Christians bandy about on a regular basis, but three words that several Christians tell me they are not entirely clear on.
In her elegant and incisive book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn McEntire writes:
“Caring for language is a moral issue. Caring for one another is not separable from caring for words. Words are entrusted to us as equipment for our life together, to help us survive, guide, and nourish one another.”
McEntire goes on to reflect how we have lost the power and purpose of language. She emphasizes that good conversation used to be inextricably wedded to building strong communities. In other words, the loss of care with language means the loss of community.
Christians ought to be caretakers of language, but sadly many of us have abdicated our responsibility here. We are lax with some of the most important words in the Christian lexicon.
Clarifying the Faithfulness of God
I agree with J.I. Packer and others that catechesis is a desperate need for the church in America. When many Christians have murky notions regarding the biblical boundaries of faith, hope, and love, how can we declare a consistent and compelling message?
Sadly, there is confusion about many foundational, Christian truths. Consider the faithfulness of God. I’m sure many reading this article have heard the same thing I’ve heard on many occasions. I’ve heard it during times of “sharing” in church, Sunday school classes, home studies, or even in one on one interaction with a fellow Christian. Some well-intentioned Christian is thrilled to declare how God favorably answered their prayer. Then comes the popular refrain of “Isn’t God good?!” or simply “God is faithful.” God’s faithfulness has seamlessly come to be understood as a prayer being answered in the way we desired.
Sometimes when I am teaching, I ask the following question to fellow Christians: If God answers a prayer in the way we wanted, does that mean the answer was God’s will? There is usually a fair bit of silence as folks realize it probably is not the case, yet most have difficulty in finding the biblical support. Numbers 11 provides a good example. Israel was tired of eating manna. They wanted something else to eat. God granted them their request. Quail dropped in abundance, but it was not God’s will.
God’s faithfulness is not synonymous with prayers answered in the affirmative nor is it undercut when the answer is in the negative. God is faithful to His promises. The Bible makes it clear that all “the promises of God are yes in Him.” (II Cor. 1:20). He has promised many things and will be faithful to all of them.
Should we then pray for a spouse who is sick? Absolutely. Should we assume it is God’s will to heal them? No. Is God any less faithful if He does not heal our spouse? No. So, is it okay to say God is faithful if He answers our prayer in the way we desire? It can be if we make it clear God would not be any less faithful by choosing not to grant our request. The latter is something I hardly ever hear. There are those rare and wonderful occasions where someone says, “God is faithful,” even though their desired request was not given. This gets my attention.
Knowing that God will be faithful to all He promised is a great comfort and it should make us desirous of growing in our understanding of His Word, so we know what is truly promised. Among many things, I constantly remind myself that “God is righteous and kind in all that He does.” (Ps. 145:17, NASB and ESV; The NIV translates it as “faithful” instead of kind).
I’ve heard Christian leaders encourage people to keep journals so they can “remember all the times God was faithful.” Again, these times are when God came through in the ways we wanted. Don’t misunderstand here. I have kept a regular journal for about forty years. They are full of answers to my desired requests. They are also full of rantings, questions, frustrations, doubts, despondency, and sadness. And those don’t diminish God’s faithfulness to me in the least.
God certainly answers prayer in the ways we desire at times, but what about when He doesn’t? He is still faithful. Encouraging others to think about God’s faithfulness by recalling when He answered a prayer in the way one desired, results in at least wondering whether God is faithful when the favorable answer never comes.
I try to steer clear of using the word “when” with God’s faithfulness other than recalling the completed work of Christ or one of His clear promises. Asking about “when was God faithful?” at least raises the question of when He might not have been faithful, which is an impossibility.
Yes, we look back, but we look back to the finished work of Christ. That is where we anchor our confidence. Christ’s work on our behalf demonstrates God’s faithfulness. What God has done for us in Christ is the greatest act of faithfulness for it fulfills His promise, even though Jesus struggled in the Garden of Gethsemane with all the implications of that promise. Nothing or no one can take our salvation from us no matter how bad things get (Hab. 3:17-19). It is also why we need not fear those who can merely hurt our bodies but can’t touch our souls (Mt. 10:28).
By all means know that God is faithful but remember to keep clear that His faithfulness is tied inextricably to what He has promised.
Some of Dave’s teaching videos can be accessed at www.mooreengaging.com. Dave’s next books are Stuck in the Present: How History Frees and Forms Christians (Fall 2021, Leafwood Publishers/Abilene Christian University Press) and with Michael Haykin, Odd Couple: Ralph Waldo Emerson and Jonathan Edwards Talk about what Matters. Dave can be contacted at www.twocities.org.