Sunday, June 29, 2008

Faith and faithfulness

by John D Ramsey

Tonight we went to see The Tragedy of Othello, the Moor of Venice at the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. Lisa packed a wonderful picnic including a bottle of cava brut that has been chilling in our refrigerator since the night Lisa served dinner to the home-school coordinators. Lisa made sangria for the ladies, but she bought a couple cava as emergency backup bottles. The sangria was a hit at her party, but there was plenty, so the last bottle of cava was safe until tonight.
Before the play tonight started, we sat on the lawn of Southmoreland Park to eat and drink. Brio was serving dinner at the bottom of the hill, but Lisa's menu: spinach chicken salad with fresh basil, pineapple, grapes, fried pita, pimento spread, and sparkling wine was perfect for a summer evening at the park. I felt as though we had cheated Brio out of $30 a head by bringing our own gourmet dinner to their venue. Oh well, the theme of the festival is Free Will. Lisa gave, of her own free will, a contribution to a man in tunic and tights who was standing at the gate. I suppose, too, that no one compelled him to dress accordingly. Even though the event was free, it cost us something. It would have been ungracious to watch without contributing something, especially knowing that it cost the poor chap in tights his dignity.
Before the show began, Gabby and I walked below the stage to see the Paul Mesner Puppets perform their abbreviated version of Othello. We arrived in time to watch the end of the play, which might have been confusing to Gabby because puppet murder and suicide transforms tragedy into comedy. Perhaps our ability to laugh at tragedy is itself a great human frailty.
Shakespeare wonderfully constructs each of his characters with a frailty. His plot then unravels his characters in a dramatic style we know as tragedy. We did not get to watch the end of Othello — the murder and the suicide — because a thunderstorm came through the city near the end of the evening and they called the show. It is just as well, the puppets' version was disturbing enough.
Othello's frailty, by the way, was a lack of faith in his love, Desdemona. If he had trusted her, the outcome would have been better for all, mocking green-eyed monsters notwithstanding. Desdemona's frailty was her lack of faith in her father, Brabantio. Brabantio's frailty may have been racism, and he sets the tragedy in motion when he tells Othello, "Look to her, Moor, if thou hast eyes to see: She has deceived her father, and may thee." To which Othello fatefully replies, "My life upon her faith." Desdemona was faithful to Othello, but Othello lost faith in her in part because she deceived her father. Of course, Othello still would have been a happily-ever-after story without the villainous, Iago; but Shakespeare did not write many happy endings. Shakespeare's tragedies unfold from the varied frailties of the ensemble and not by the fault of one character.
I have been thinking lately about the relationship between faith and faithfulness. I have decided that in six or seven years, when I finish studying Kingdom in Context, I will have to study Faith in Context. Just as I hope to understand eventually what meaning Scripture encapsulates in "kingdom," I will also understand eventually what Scripture means by "believe", "faith", "faithful", and "faithfulness." All these words derive from the same Greek root. Until such a time as I can study every appearance and context exhaustively, I will have to take shortcuts and draw upon what I can glean from surveys and what I already know.
I do not recommend studying Christianity from Dictionary.com, but their definition of faith as it applies to Christian theology reads, "[Faith is] the trust in God and in His promises as made through Christ and the Scriptures by which humans are justified or saved." That is not bad for an online dictionary. When we define faithful, it appears that its meaning diverges from that of faith. Dictionary.com does not have a definition of "faithful" from the perspective of Christian theology but still they capture the essence of how we perceive faithful, "[Faithful means] true to one's word, promises, vows, etc.," and "reliable, trusted, or believed." It appears that faith addresses what we believe while faithful implies that we continue doing something. Faith is a noun. Faithful is an adjective; faithfulness is the noun form of faithful. When we refer to faith as a verb, we use the word believe.
We have four words mentioned in this context: believe, faith, faithful, and faithfulness. They are of type verb, noun, adjective, and noun. Faith (n.) encapsulates what we believe (v.), while faithful (adj.) and faithfulness (n.) define the quality of continuing in whatever we believe or do. That almost sounds tidy, but is it right? Jesus told the Pharisees, "You have neglected the more important matters of the law - justice, mercy, and faithfulness," (Matthew 23:23 NIV) Jesus was referring to Micah 6:8.

He has showed you,
O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
 and to walk humbly with your God.
(NIV)

Faithfulness then, according to Jesus, is walking humbly with God; is it not? Consequently, faith tells us what we believe, faithful and faithfulness describes our commitment to walk with God. We understand that we are saved by faith — by what we believe. Paul quotes Joel 2:32 when he says, "Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved." (Romans 10:13). Moreover Paul tells the Ephesians, "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith — and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God — not by works, so that no one can boast."
Faith describes our beliefs. Faithful and faithfulness describe our commitment. Am I right? The trouble with this theory is that there is no word in Greek specifically meaning faithfulness. Pistis, meaning faithfulness, is exactly the same word we translate as faith. Faith among evangelicals has come to mean a momentary decision — a conversion. Moreover, faith as it relates to prayer seems to have little correlation to the faith that saves us. Either way, faith is momentary while faithfulness is an enduring quality. Are we right in making this distinction?
Othello did not swear on Desdemona's faithfulness; he said, "My life upon her faith." In another Shakespeare title, Pericles, the character Antiochus addresses Thaliard saying, "For your faithfulness we advance you." Shakespeare uses both words to mean the same thing! In 17th century English, consequently, there does not appear to be a distinction between faith and faithfulness. Likewise, when we quote Jesus saying "justice, mercy, and faithfulness" an equivalent translation is simply "justice, mercy, and faith." Yet in modern Christianity, we seem to make a distinction between faith and faithfulness against the evidence in the Greek and even the history of the English language. By doing so, we distort the plain meaning of Scripture.
Would we quote Ephesians 2:8 to say, "By grace you have been saved through faithfulness?" If not, why not? Even in Shakespeare's day, the word faith demonstrated the same endurance as we now ascribe to faithfulness. If we are saved by faithfulness, then the rest of the verse is still true: our faithfulness is not from within us, but is rather a gift of God. Our faithfulness is not by works so that no one can boast.
When we realize there is no distinction between faith and faithfulness, then the word "believe" takes upon itself a connotation of commitment and not merely intellectual acceptance or emotional trust. This correlates very well with the book of James. James was the brother of Jesus and he was an elder among the church in Jerusalem. He writes, "You believe that God is one. You do well; the demons also believe, and shudder." Intellectual assent is not enough. God requires faithfulness. The heroes of faith in Hebrews 11 exhibited constancy because while they persevered in faith through hardship, "none of them received what was promised."
If we referred to a prayer of faithfulness rather than a prayer of faith, it might change our attitudes regarding our conversations with God. We seem to think that faith in prayer is the mere belief that God is going to do something whereas if we substituted faithfulness we might remember that for our prayers to be faithful, they must be offerred according to his will. Understanding that faith is faithfulness unifies the meaning of faith in Scripture. When we consider faith to be the same as faithfulness it no longer sounds momentary. It sounds like commitment.
Lisa chuckled more than once when she read a blog about the cost of discipleship. The line that captured her was, "Sure, it cost them everything, but they budgeted for that." Such is our faith. Saving faith is not merely simple belief; it is commitment. God requires faithfulness; yet according to Ephesians 2:8, faithfulness is what he provides to us by his grace.
When we look to Jesus' definition of faith and faithfulness in Micah 6:8 we understand the simplicity of God's request. God wants us to walk humbly with him. We cannot do so apart from trusting him. Sure, it will cost us everything, but we have nothing (other than our sin) that he has not already given us. What God wants from us is for us to live humbly in relationship with him. For us, what is the downside? Christ bore our frailty on his body upon the cross so that we might live with him in glory. God offers the gift of eternal life freely; we cannot earn it.
The beauty of this is that God's grace provides the faith. It is nothing that we can muster, it is the work of the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:22, 23 reads, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control." (NASB) Here again is the word faithfulness, e.g. faith. The faith that saves us is the same faithfulness that holds us. Even if we differentiate between them, they are still the work of God in our lives. It is God's faithfulness that saves us and God's faithfulness that holds us. Paul wrote to Timothy saying, "Here is a trustworthy saying,

If we died with him,
we will also live with him;
if we endure, we will also reign with him.
If we disown him,
he will also disown us;
if we are faithless,
he will remain faithful,
for he cannot disown himself."
2 Timothy 2:11-13 (NIV)

Today the faithfulness of God compels us to budget our whole lives to walk humbly with him. Yet in the mystery of our salvation, we commit to this relationship of our own free will. God provides eternal life freely, but it will cost us all that we are. In exchange, God will make us all that he wants us to be. Do we trust him to do it?

1 comment:

  1. AnonymousJune 30, 2008

    "When we consider faith to be the same as faithfulness it no longer sounds momentary. It sounds like commitment."

    Wow! This is an amazing post. Faith is an action. You're really doing good work here!

    ReplyDelete