SOURCE: Michael Card
God’s Disturbing Faithfulness
What in the world is God up to?
“You are not the God we would have chosen,” Walter Brueggemann prays in his book Awed to Heaven, Rooted in Earth.
That troubling prayer resonates in my heart. For the truth is, most often I would have chosen (and indeed do choose) a god other than Him.
Most often, I would rather not learn the hard lessons the hard way. I would rather not have to worship in the wilderness, where God continuously calls me to find and be found by Him. I would rather God simply meet my expectations, fix my problems, heal my hurts, and be on His way.
I want a God who is faithful to me in ways I understand and expect, who expresses faithfulness in the ways I choose.
The good news is, there is such a god. In fact, there are many of them. Constructed of small snippets of Bible verses, glued together with human reason and need, these gods always move in expected ways, according to the given formula. Their faithfulness always feels good. It almost always ends in bankable results. That is the good news. The bad news? None of them represent the God of the Bible.
This is faithfulness?
The faithfulness of God is celebrated throughout the Bible, especially in Psalms. It is one of the psalmists’ favorite reasons for praising Him (36:5; 71:22; 86:15; 89:1-2, 5, 8; 100:5; 138:2). And why not praise God for His faithfulness? When we think of all the wonderful promises He has made and realize that because of His perfect faithfulness He will perfectly keep each and every one, how glorious! Who wouldn’t want to give their lives to such a God as this? Who would not choose Him to be their God?
Yet as we enter more deeply into a relationship with the God of Scripture, we increasingly discover—to our great annoyance—that, despite the reports to the contrary, most often God refuses to act in simple, easily understandable ways that coincide with our definition of what His faithfulness should look like.
We ask Him to be faithful by answering all our prayers for healing. Isn’t Ps. 103:3 crystal clear? He “heals all your diseases,” it says (emphasis mine). So we beg and plead, and yet the cancer rate among Christians remains virtually the same as among those outside the faith. We respectfully request financial help; after all, Phil. 4:19 explicitly promises that “God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (emphasis mine). When the looked-for check does not appear, what are we to think? Either God is not being faithful to His promise (unthinkable!) or else we do not understand what that faithfulness means.
So what is the missing piece of the puzzle? What is God’s faithfulness supposed to look like?
This is surely the question that troubled Job.
The religious world he inhabited believed God’s faithfulness should look like doing, fixing, judging (even cursing), answering, healing, and ultimately providing. That, at least, was the point of view of Job’s friends. In return for their works-righteousness, they believed that God was obliged to make things right for His people.
Yet Job, whom God Himself declared righteous, is beset with every sort of suffering and loss. A thousand years or more before the man of sorrows, Job became acquainted with all our grief. In return for his righteousness, Job received unimaginable suffering. Where was God’s faithfulness? Had He forgotten His promises? Was He hiding? Was He asleep? As I spend more and more time in the book of Job, I begin to wonder if the deepest source of Job’s pain was not the murdered children or his wrecked health, but rather the terrifying prospect that the true God might indeed be nothing like the god of his old definition.
In Job’s world, God was a question-answering god who faithfully provided wisdom. Yet when the God of Job finally appears, He only asks more questions. How disappointing for Job’s friends. The God of Job clearly has more in mind than meting out justice. His faithfulness is expressed in a way that no one could ever have imagined: He showed up! Nothing could have been more disturbing for the lot of them.
“My ears had heard of you,” stammers Job, “but now my eyes have seen you” (42:5).
A God whose faithfulness is more a matter of presence than provision. A God whose faithfulness is made visible simply by showing up . . . sound familiar?
In His own time, as well as ours, many who came close to Jesus were disappointed by His disturbing revelation of the faithfulness of God.
There were those who wanted Jesus to judge and condemn. In John 8, the scribes and Pharisees hounded Jesus for a judgment against an adulterous woman. If Jesus were to be faithful to their notion of God and the law, they reasoned, He had no other choice but to pronounce her fate. After all, she was caught in the act.
Others wanted healing, and certainly Jesus healed people by the thousands. But faithfulness for Jesus didn’t always look like healing. In John 11, after hearing of the life-threatening illness of one of His closest friends, Jesus appears to loiter for two more frustrating days. As a result, Lazarus dies. Martha and Mary appear with the same disappointed accusation on their lips (though I believe in different tones of voice). “If you had only been here, he would not have died,” they both say. If only . . . you had fixed things, healed him, answered our prayers the way we wanted them answered.
But, like His Father, Jesus has come to show us that God is faithful to us in ways we never could have dreamed. Jesus refuses to condemn the woman caught in adultery because, as Frederick Buechner once said, He knew He would be condemned for her (Jn. 3:17, Ro. 8:1). “I pass judgment on no one,” Jesus will say to His critics (Jn. 8:15). Later, in the face of His hearers’ disbelief, He will declare, “I did not come to judge the world, but to save it” (Jn. 12:47). The disturbing faithfulness of Jesus does not look like condemnation. Instead He showed up to save!
And before Jesus moves on to the tomb of his friend Lazarus to call forth the “dead man” from the grave, He enacts what most of us never regard as a miracle. But it may be the most miraculous miracle of the whole story. The miracle? Jesus wept.
He showed up and entered fully and painfully into the suffering of His friends. Moments later He would indeed provide the resurrection miracle none of them could even have imagined asking for. Yet Lazarus would eventually die once more, wouldn’t he? Death would remain a reality, even as it is for us today. But what had changed forever was the image of the face of faithfulness. Not judgmental; not with anger in its eyes but rather a tear. God incarnate enfleshed and gave form to faithfulness.
Faithfulness was Jesus fully present.
Present in their redemption and ours.
Present in their suffering and ours.
Present in their loneliness and ours.
Acquainted with their griefs and ours.
This was a faithfulness no one expected—so deeply personal, so fully satisfying. Jesus didn’t always faithfully give people answers or healing or judgments, but He did give them Himself.
The Promise of Presence
Who is God for you? What do you think His faithfulness should look like? Is He a predictable theological entity, frozen on the throne? Is your greatest hope for Him that He might appear someday and pass judgment on your enemies? Or could He possibly, unimaginably, be the God we meet in Job who descends from the throne room where He has been dealing with the accusations of Satan, the God who shows up, having been moved by Job’s tears.
Who is Jesus for you? How is faithfulness written on His face for you? Is He merely a caricature walking three inches off the ground? Or might He impossibly be the very image of the God whose disturbing faithfulness looks like simply showing up to make His name “Immanuel” true in the fullest way it could ever be true. Could it be that the best show of faithfulness is not the healing or the unexpected check that saves from bankruptcy, but the unthinkable truth that God has chosen to be “with us” through it all? Could it be that the miracle is not provision, but presence?
Faithfulness most resembles the God who showed up and, in the process, became acquainted with all our sorrows. His promise of faithfulness is heard in His parting words, “Surely, I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Mt. 28:20, emphasis mine). It is the best promise any bridegroom can possibly make to his bride.
In our frustration we cry out to the heavens. We shake our fists at the sky, demanding that God act, move, fix, heal. We insist that He be faithful according to our expectations of faithfulness. My mentor, Dr. William Lane, used to say,
We want the God of the magic wand. The God who makes the cancer go away. But more remarkably, He is the God who comes alongside us and suffers with us. He is the God who never leaves us.
Ask yourself, how did God Himself speak of His faithfulness? What are the words He most often used in both the Old and New Testaments to describe what it would look like? How about:
Never will I leave you. Never will I forsake you.
—see Dt. 31:6; Heb. 13:5
Now the dwelling of God is with men and women, and He will live with them.
—see Ex. 25:8; Rev. 21:3
No doubt I will go on forgetting all this and doggedly keep demanding God to provide.
I need money.
I need health.
I need happiness.
And when the sky remains silent I will likely fume at Him in frustration, “Where are You?” I will doubt Him and His promised presence with and in me because what I think should be His provision has not shown up on time.
And He will continue to pursue—passionately and patiently—my foolish, forgetful self.
If, like me, you find yourself disturbed by what sometimes appears to be a lack of faithfulness on God’s part—if you, too, are beginning to feel that He is not the God you would have chosen—then perhaps it is time to wonder if God is up to something else, something other than trying to become our pie-in-the-sky god.
Just maybe He is working a more miraculous miracle than we ever could have asked for or imagined. He, the God of the universe, has determined to do a work in (not for) us. Paul declares in Phil. 1:6 that He has promised to do this interior, spiritual work until He is finally finished, and that will be on the day Jesus shows up fully, finally, and completely, once and for all time.
Brueggemann is right.
This is not the God we would have chosen.
But neither could we have dreamed up nor imagined such a God: a God the immediacy of whose presence is incarnate in us by His indwelling Spirit, a God who is committed to the throes of completing this labor of indwelling us, of being born in and through us. It is His deepest desire. It is the greatest of all His wordless miracles.
He is not the God any of us would have chosen but, as Brueggemann marvelously concludes, He is the God who has chosen us.
MICHAEL CARD is an award-winning musician, performing artist, and songwriter. His many songs include “El Shaddai” and “Immanuel.” He has also written numerous books, including A Violent Grace, The Parable of Joy, and A Fragile Stone. A graduate of Western Kentucky University with a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in biblical studies. Michael lives in Tennessee with his wife and four children.