I can be a pretty flaky guy. I say I’ll do something, and I have the best of intentions to do it, but then it falls off my radar and I never get around to it. It’s easy to say that I’m busy, and that’s a common refrain these days. But at some point, I’m just making excuses, and that bothers me.
One of the things that gives me great hope and confidence in my relationship with the Lord is that, while I’m not very faithful in many ways, he is the very definition of faithful. Many people confuse faithfulness with loyalty or steadfastness; these are related, but they aren’t the same thing. Faithfulness is doing what you say you’ll do and being who you say you are.
Let’s look at some instructive Scripture.
In Galatians 5, Paul contrasts the “works of the flesh” with the “fruit of the Spirit.” Fruit is something that is produced, so “fruit of the Spirit” is the various character traits that are produced in a believer by the Holy Spirit. When examining the fruit of the Spirit, we see that these character traits are also attributes of God himself. So, to appreciate the fruit of the Spirit, we must look at God’s character.
One of the clearest declarations of God’s character in all of Scripture comes from his own mouth. In Exodus 34:6-7, Moses is on Mount Sinai and God “declares his [God’s] name” to Moses: “The Lord, the Lord, [is] a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (ESV).
There’s a lot of truth to ponder in these few words. However, the task at hand is understanding faithfulness, so let’s look at that.
Being “great in truth”
In Hebrew, the phrase translated as “abounding in…faithfulness” is rav emet, which literally means “great in truth” or simply “true.”
The word for truth, emet, comes from the root word “amen,” which means “it is certain.” So why is it rendered “faithfulness” in the ESV? Biblical Hebrew has less than 10,000 root words, so many Hebrew words have a range of meaning which may result in translating the same word more than one way. Each English translation relates closely to the primary meaning of the Hebrew word, though. When God describes himself in Exodus 34 as rav emet, it can be translated as “true,” but many translators prefer the word “faithful” because the larger context of the passage deals with God’s covenant with the people of Israel. One who is true to a covenant can also be called “faithful.”
However, I prefer the simpler translation of “true,” because like the Hebrew emet, “true” is both more broad and more concise. How can it be both? Consider these examples:
- A bicycle wheel is “true” when the rim and the hub are in perfect alignment. A casual observer can see when a wheel is “out of true.”
- A person’s aim is true when he hits exactly what he aims for. Anyone can see the arrow in the bullseye.
- A man’s word is true if he says what he means and means what he says. Quite often, even children can detect when someone is playing word games to hide what he really means.
So even though the word “true” can be used broadly, its meaning can still be quite clear.
The value of a covenant
What I find so fascinating about God is that before he enters into a covenant, he always tells people in plain words what he’s going to do first. For example, In Genesis 12 God tells Abraham exactly what God is going to do with him and for him. Abraham goes along with the plan, but after several years, he begins to wonder if he heard God correctly. So, God makes a formal covenant with Abraham in Genesis 15.
Likewise, in Exodus 34, God is in the process of making a covenant with the Hebrew people at Mount Sinai. But a year prior, he told them plainly that he would deliver them from bondage and take them to be his people, and he would be their God. (Exodus 6:6-7). Right away the Hebrews doubt him. God has every right to go find another family to bless instead, but he doesn’t.
At Mount Sinai, he formalizes his statement with a covenant. This covenant doesn’t make his previous statement truer, but he makes the covenant for the sake of the weak and doubting people. The Israelites need the assurance of a formal contract because they are wishy-washy humans, used to people not doing what they say they will do.
So, if God wants to produce God-like trueness in us, what does that look like? Well, he touches on that in the Sermon on the Mount: “Let what you say be simply yes or no; anything more than this comes from the evil one” (Matt. 5:37). I think what God is saying is a godly man speaks truthfully and follows through on what he says. In our human context, that isn’t entirely possible, but it is a goal to shoot for. There will always be circumstances that prevent us from doing what we intend to do (hence the advice in James 4:13-16 about being careful when we state our intentions), but we should strive to be the perfect example of faithfulness.
Frustrated by faithfulness?
Now here’s where it really begins to hit home for me. Long ago, I told Jesus that I would love and serve him with all my life. My mouth said it, and my heart intended it, but more often than not, my actions don’t bear that out. I haven’t done what I said I would do in my spiritual life. And I suspect I’m not alone in that. I’ve talked to many people who are frustrated with their own inability to be faithful in the daily practice of their Christian faith.
So, if you are like me and struggle with faithfulness, I offer two encouraging thoughts. First, when we recognize our shortcomings and failures, rather than beating ourselves up about it, we should turn to God and receive grace. I’m not saying grace is cheap and we ought not be concerned about failure. I am saying we ought not dwell on our failure. Instead of looking down when we fail, let’s look up toward Christ and see the light of his grace shining brightly.
“But what about doing better and trying harder?” you ask. Well, that leads to the second encouragement. Remember this: Faithfulness is a fruit of the Spirit not a fruit of “trying harder.” That’s why Paul asked the Galatians, “Having begun in the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?” (Galatians 3:3). Becoming godly by human efforts is impossible. Developing such sweet fruit is God’s work in us.
If we are in Christ Jesus, we have the Holy Spirit dwelling inside of us, and the evidence is those small gradual changes he is producing in us. So, we keep our eyes on Jesus, take God at his word, and in his time, he’ll grow us into people that others can take at their word too.
Dan Copeland is a former Bible teacher and occasional preacher who currently participates in the Celebrate Recovery ministry at Bethesda Church in Huron, S.D. He and his wife, Tanya, have been married for 18 years and have a daughter. Copeland invites readers who struggle with hurts, habits and hang-ups to visit www.celebraterecovery.com to find a recovery ministry in their community.