Fruits of the Spirit: Faithfulness

17 Oct

The Spirit nurtures the fruit of faith, to produce faithfulness, or shall we say, 'faith-full-ness'.
To understand faithfulness, we need to think about what faith is. There's a lot of confusion here, but if we can get some handles on this, it becomes a really affirming and helpful thing.

It's easy to say what faith is not.

People confuse faith with belief, especially belief without evidence or any kind of basis. Sometimes people even admire the idea of believing something with no reason, or against their reason, as if this is a holy thing. 'This seems crazy, it must be from God.' I find this really problematical. Why on earth did God create us with minds, if we are not meant to use them?
The populist opposition of faith and reason is a misunderstanding of each. It has a long academic history, deep in the recesses of the modernist era. But it's time we got over it.
Faith is not about believing something with no reason. Faith is about a trusting belief, in response to an encounter with or an engagement with something we may understand, a bit, or even quite a bit, but also something we recognize is more than we understand, yet we judge, we reason, we decide to trust it. We believe in it. In Christian faith, what we trust and believe in is not an 'it' but someone, the person of God, made known to us in Jesus.
The Spirit of God enables us to have faith in Jesus and be faithful to his way. That means, to live in the light of his message and ethic, and to trust our very lives to the meaning and reality of God as he has revealed them to us.
This helps us to see that faithfulness is about a subject and an object.
In one sense, we are the subject of faithfulness. This is the grammatical sense: we have the faith, we do the 'faith-ing', the trusting, the believing, the living in the Jesus way. We are faithful.
And in this sense, God is the object of our faith, the one in whom we trust. We believe what God has made known to us.
And in this sense, the important thing here is that the strength of faith is not in the subject, the person who has faith, but in the object, the one in whom we have faith. Too many people worry about how strong their faith is, and struggle to have 'a stronger faith'. In the end, I think this is misguided, because it puts the focus on ourselves rather than on God. When Jesus said that if you have faith as little as a mustard seed you would be able to 'move mountains', he was not inviting us to obsess about the measure of our faith. He was inviting us to see just how good God is: to help us even when we are spiritually poor, people of 'little faith' (Matthew 17. 20 & 21).
In the light of this, I have found it so helpful to distinguish faith and belief. To believe is part of faith, but that does not mean that faith is all about belief. On the contrary, a faithful response can sometimes or in some aspects involve questioning, doubt, exploring, or not knowing what to believe. A faithful response to God can include the courage to explore, to value mystery rather needing always to have all the answers, or to claim to know everything. As I say to my students, if we knew it all, about God, we would be God!
Even more, it is so important to turn all this around and recognize that before we ever have faith in God, God has faith in us. God is faithful. In this sense, God is the subject of faith.  It is the faith of God in us that produces and makes possible our faithful response to God.

A faithful response to God includes questioning, sometimes, and believing, sometimes; it includes exploring and wrestling and speaking and acting and hoping. It also includes times of rest, rejoicing, worshiping, celebrating, and times of agonized prayer for something or someone in great need.

Through this series of reflections, I have emphasized that the harvest of the Spirit has both its individual and its communal dimensions. I have tried to show that to expect all this in a single individual is misleading, and indeed harmful. So it is with faithfulness.  A faithful community is one which welcomes and holds together all the dimensions of faith we have just described—perhaps at the same time. Some may be rejoicing, some resting, some interceding in anguish, others engaged in exploration and others in clear declaration of their belief. And individuals move through these different elements, within a journey of faith. All of this can be faithfulness, and to affirm it all in one community is part of what it means to be a community of faith.

How, then, does the Spirit produce the fruit of faithfulness? It is not by 'stamping out' questions or doubt, or by denying the realities of our struggles. It is not by insisting on doctrinal uniformity or stringent conformity to a specific way of worship or practice. Rather, the Spirit evokes faithfulness by invitation: the Spirit draws us into relationship with God, making Jesus known to us, as invitation. 'Come and see.' 'Follow me'. Second, the Spirit draws us into faithful community by evoking openness: a receptivity and honesty, that allows us to be genuine with God —'Lord, I believe, help my unbelief' (Matthew 9.24) and to name our needs before God, like children asking for food from a parent. This openness or receptivity has another dimension as well. If we really accept that it is the Spirit who gives this faithfulness, then we must allow that this is something God does, not something we produce. Faithfulness is as much a happening, or even a gift, as something we do or try to do. It is not an achievement, it is a fruit of the Spirit. I would say the most we can do is to put ourselves in the way of it, to make ourselves available for this gift. We do not achieve it, but we can endure, in trust and hope. We can trust that the Spirit will produce the fruit, in season. This trust is part of our faithfulness.

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