Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit: Growing in Faithfulness

Three words appear repeatedly in the scriptures: faith, trust, and belief. They are like cousins. Faith operates with what the scriptures call “the eyes of our heart.”[i] We read in The Letter to the Hebrews, “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”[ii] Faith in God is a gift from God, not based on external evidence. Faith is a kind of inner knowing. Which is why so many people – even in the face of tremendous fear or overwhelming suffering, even now – have not lost their faith in God. Many people’s faith in God is awakened in suffering, which is such a paradox. Faith is a kind of inner seeing, which can even be counter to the evidence we actually see. Saint Paul says “we walk by faith, not by sight.”[iii] Faith is about how we are oriented in life, oftentimes our not being able to see clearly ahead, and yet moving ahead anyway in the direction of our trust.

Trust is based on the mind and the memory. Trust comes from evidence that can be seen, experienced, understood, and remembered. “Trust is the core conviction of judgment based on knowledge, instinct, and experience.”[iv] You know what you can trust, and who, and why. We build on the trust from our past, as we lean into the unknown future.

Faith comes from the future, from knowing that God is ahead of us. Jesus says, “Come, follow me,” and Jesus goes on ahead, inviting us to follow. He assures us of his presence, his provision, his power, the eternal place he is preparing to share with us. Faith comes to us from the future of God. Trust comes to us from the past: from what we have seen, known, remembered, and can recognize again.

Faith is a noun; faith is a belief. Trust is a verb; trust is an action. Trust is how we act, drawing on past experience to inform what we do in the present. We don’t wake up in the morning and decide whether we will navigate the day by faith or by trust. We are simply presented with an invitation to respond to God’s presence and God’s action in our life – our life as it has been, as it is now, and as it will be. Faith in God and trust in God come as gifts, God’s gifts, at God’s initiative, revealing God’s presence and God’s provision.

Every day we will be reminded that life is too much for us, that we are powerless to navigate the day alone. And God will greet us with a reminder from our past, to give us the clarity of trust we need for now. Or God will greet us with a visitation from the future, the gift of faith, often with faith’s companion, hope. Whichever way God comes, whichever word you use, God’s presence and provision makes all the difference. “Faith” and “trust” are words for our benefit. It’s all the same to God, who is as much present in the now, as God is in our past, as God is in our future. It is all present To God. Jesus assures us, “I am with you always”: past, present, future.[v]

The third cousin to “trust” and “faith” is “belief.” Belief may seem like a way to think; however historically “belief” is about how to live. The word belief comes from Germanic origins: “to hold dear, to esteem, to love” (liebenbeing the German word for love). Belief is what you live by and belove. Our beliefs lodge in the depths of our hearts and live out in our lives. Frederick Buechner says, “If you want to know who you are, watch your feet. Because where your feet take you, that is who you are.”[vi] Belief, faith, and trust – distinct in the dictionary – meld in our living. So we read in the Letter to James: “Someone will say, ‘You have faith and I have works.’ Show me your faith without works, and I by my works will show you my faith.’”[vii] The Greek word used for “faith” here and elsewhere in the New Testament could also be translated as “trust” or “belief.” [viii]  The point being that our faith, trust, and belief will be lived out in our lives and not simply be lodged in our heads. In the early centuries of the church, among the desert monastics of Egypt, a certain brother asked Abba Pimenion, “What is faith?”  The old man said, “To live ever in loving kindness and in humbleness, and to do good to one’s neighbor.”

Our faith, trust, and belief are all gifts to us at God’s initiative. Rather than our getting lost in hairsplitting the further subtle differences in these gifts, I want to now subsume all three – faith, trust, and belief – under the word Saint Paul uses when he names a fruit of the Spirit: faithfulness.

You will undoubtedly go through various stages of faith as you live out your relationship with God amidst “the changes and chances of life.”[ix] As a very young child, I came to understand “faithfulness” from my stuffed toy, a little lamb: “Lamby.” I loved Lamby. And when I learned in Sunday School that Jesus was my shepherd, I made the kind of connection that a three-year-old can make between a shepherd and a lamb: what I would now identify as love, protection, provision, and of never being left alone. Lamby was my icon. So was my paternal grandmother, who exuded love. She adored me, and I her. These two realities – Lamby and my Grandmother – reflected my three-year-old’s systematic theology. And then there came a tragedy: my baby brother died. This was, for me, my first “wound of knowledge” which I could not understand. Mysteriously, God was undeniably present to me, a three-year-old, in this very sad death.[x] … And life went on. I grew up, as have you, and in the best of times and in the worst of times and a lot of time in the middle.

It is important that we stay on speaking terms with God’s revelations in our past, the “Lambies” who helped us to meet God where we were, when we were there. These memory points will be important anchors for our formation. They will be “iconic” windows from our past through which to see the present. In God’s becoming fully human in Jesus – the “incarnation” – God stoops to us, meets us on the plain we can apprehend. If you wake up, some season of your life, having lost the scent on the trail – the gift of faith in God’s presence, power, and provision in your life – go backwards. Retrace your steps back into your experience of God’s faithfulness in your past life. Open the eyes of your heart, which is where God’s gifts of faith, hope, and love abide.[xi] In the 11th century, Saint Anselm of Canterbury described faith as coming from the heart, not the mind: “faith seeking understanding.”[xii] What we believe, we belove. In the SSJE Rule of Life we say: “These hearts of ours are not empty vessels but inner worlds alive with images, memories, experiences and desires.”[xiii] The gift of faithfulness lodges in your heart. Look for it with love.

We hear Jesus saying quite repeatedly that we are to become again like children. What does that mean to you now, child of God that you remain?[xiv]  We may speak of our past, going back even to our childhoods: how we were formed and deformed, how we were encouraged and discouraged, how we were rescued and imprisoned. And yet “time” is a creature. Time, as we know it, is an act of God’s creation. What we call “past” is always present to God, and God to us. Reclaim, retrieve, recover how it is that God caught your attention in your past to be able to live faithfully and fully alive in God’s presence, now.

As you grow into this present moment, cultivate the gift of faithfulness, whose seeds were sown into your soul at birth:

  • Even if you have not been faithful, God is faithful. If you explore the psalms, you will discover that God’sfaithfulness is named twice as often as our The psalmist prays, “Your love, O LORD, reaches to the heavens, and your faithfulness to the clouds.” Our faithfulness is in response. The psalmist prays, “For your love is before my eyes; I have walked faithfully with you.” [xv] In matters of faithfulness, the most amazing revelation is God’s faith in us.
  • You may live through a season where you sense you have lost or misplaced your faith. These times are hard, but they are not necessarily bad. They are often necessary as God weans us from worshiping our experience of God. God is always More. God will give us recurring invitations not to clutch at our past experience of God, but to hold the experience reverently in open palms. This is so that God can take our experience, convert it, and return more to us, oftentimes in ways “beyond what we could have asked for or imagined.[xvi] Peter said to Jesus, “Lord, I believe. Help my unbelief.”[xvii] God is always More, and God invites us to participate.
  • An important way to live faithfully is with confidence. The English word “confidence” comes from the Latin, confidere: “to have full trust or reliance,” Confidence is not cockiness. Confidence is living with both the freedom and power God has bequeathed upon you. Do not live with fear; do not live with apology. Live with confidence, God’s confidence in you.
  • Our confidence need not come at a cost to others. Nor should our faithfulness be a threat to theirs. We now live in a world where we have increasing access to people of other faith traditions: Native and First Nation People, Jews, Sikhs, Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, Jains, Zoroastrians, Baha’i, and more. For so many of these people, who are our neighbors, “faithfulness” (or some synonym) is also a word in their soul’s vocabulary. Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, Chief Rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations of the Commonwealth, spoke to the Anglican bishops from around the world at the Lambeth Conference in 2008. Rabbi Sacks said, “We don’t share a faith, but we surely share a fate. Because whatever our faith or lack of faith, hunger still hurts, disease still strikes, poverty still disfigures, and hate still kills.” Rabbi Sacks continued, “‘So it is with faith, if we cherish our own, then we will understand the value of others’. We may regard ours as a diamond and another faith as a ruby, but we know that both are precious stones.”[xviii]  I am suggesting here that our posture in the presence of those faith traditions different than ours must be reverence. Revere the dignity of their faith – their faith practices and their faith pillars – and recognize, whatever their beliefs, we are all children of God, seeking to be faithful.[xix]

Krister Stendahl was a Lutheran New Testament scholar and Bishop of Stockholm, Sweden, who also taught for many years at the Harvard Divinity School.[xx] Bishop Stendahl articulated “Three Rules of Religious Understanding”:

  1. When trying to understand another religion, you should ask the adherents of that religion and not its enemies.
  2. Don’t compare your best to their worst.
  3. Leave room for “holy envy.” By that, Bishop Stendahl meant our being open to discover something beautiful, noble, exemplary, inviting that we may find in another faith tradition. “Holy envy.”

As a gift from God, faith is as universal as it is unique, so very personal. Like with all the Fruit of the Spirit, faithfulness needs to be cultivated to bear more fruit.

Here are some questions for your own pondering and prayer. You also may find this meaningful to share in conversation.

  • How would you describe the gift of faithfulness (and trust, and belief) you have been given? What life experiences have caused your faith to change and develop?
  • In your younger days, how were you shaped in faithfulness? Who were the people, what were the experiences, what were the metaphors and symbols from life and from the scriptures that helped form your faith?
  • Beyond your personal experience, what faith tradition or practice intrigues you? Why? What faith tradition or practice repels you? Why?

Saint Thomas Aquinas, the great medieval theologian, left us this prayer for faithfulness:

Grant me, O Lord my God,
a mind to know you,
a heart to seek you,
wisdom to find you,
conduct pleasing to you,
faithful perseverance in waiting for you,
and a hope of finally embracing you.  

[i] “The eyes of our heart,” a phrase from Ephesians 1:18.

[ii] Hebrews 11:1.

[iii] 2 Corinthians 5:7.

[iv] This quote attributed to Nolan Dalla, sometime member of the diplomatic corps, Congressional speechwriter, and poker expert.

[v] Matthew 28:20.

[vi] Frederick Buechner (1926-   ), Presbyterian minister and prolific author, in Alphabet of Grace.

[vii] Letter to James 2:18.

[viii] The Greek word is πίστις.

[ix] A phrase in a prayer from “Compline” in The Book of Common Prayer (1979); p. 133.

[x] A riff on a poem by R. S. Thomas (1913-2000), Anglican priest and Welsh poet.

[xi] The language of Saint Paul in 1 Corinthians 13:13.

[xii] Saint Anselm of Canterbury (d. 1109) was an Italian-born Benedictine monk and abbot, becoming Archbishop of Canterbury 1093-1109.

[xiii] Chapter 20: “Holy Scripture,” in The Rule of the Society of Saint John the Evangelist.

[xiv] The English words “wholly” and “holy” come from the same etymological root.

[xv] Psalms 36:5 and 26:3.

[xvi] A riff on Ephesians 3:20.

[xvii] Mark 9:24.

[xviii] Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks in The Dignity Of Difference; How to Avoid the Clash of Civilizations (2002); pp. 208-209.

[xix] 1 Timothy 2:5, 6.

[xx] Krister Olofson Stendahl (1921-1984).

[xxi] Saint Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

1 Comment

  1. Jaan Sass on September 15, 2021 at 20:41

    Lots of experiences I look back at the people that challenged my fundamentalist world when I was a good the christian rock movement that opened up to me the arts music in General CS Lewis and Tolkien that opened my imagination. My mental illness with all the destruction that went with it deepened my understanding of faith and opened the world of psychology and human pain. I no longer believe in easy miracles and know how wretched I am but God is still holding my hand on this Journey. The discovery of liturgy and daily prayer continue to guide me forward. It is trust is a verb and I am still learning.

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