Have you ever really looked at an autumn leaf? Have you thought about God’s faithfulness as you looked at it?
A leaf. Behold a single leaf. So fragile, it tears like paper, crushes in your hand to a moist stain, sharply fragrant. Dry, it burns swift and crackling as newsprint, pungent as gunpowder. Yet a leaf may withstand hurricanes, stubbornly clinging to its limb.
Hold it open in your palm. It is perfect as a newborn’s smile.
Pinch its stem between thumb and forefinger and hold it to the light. Eden bleeds through. Its veins are like bone work in silhouette.
This single leaf, joined to the tree, drinks poison from the air, drinks it serenely as Socrates downing his cup of hemlock, and refuses to return in kind, instead spilling out life-giving oxygen. This leaf tilts to catch the sun, its warmth and radiance, to distill the heat and light down to the shadows, down to the roots, back up to limbs. To shade the earth. To feed you and me.
A leaf. God makes these season after season, one after the other, billions upon billions, from the Garden to the New Jerusalem, most for no eye but His own. He does it faithfully, or else I would not live to tell about it, or you to hear.
Now let me reflect for a moment on students.
Students come in many shapes and sizes. Their smiles, their ideas, their thoughts touch mine every day. Their diversity touches me very hour I teach.
The general hum and roar in the hallways is from exhausted students struggling with homework. They are trying, they are putting in the effort, they are learning to be more. Their effort is a thing of beauty. Their effort is work in faithfulness.
Perhaps of all my many sins against heaven, this ranks with the worst: Until this moment, I have never thanked God for a single leaf. Until this moment I have not expressed my thankfulness for the faithfulness of my students. I have expressed gratitude for the few that have come back and thanked me, but not for all the students that I have taught over the years.
Which is the problem with faithfulness: We hardly notice it.
Faithfulness is, by definition, the predictable, the habitual, the sturdy, the routine. It is the evidence of things seen, but seen so often we’ve grown blind to them.
It is the substance of things expected, expected so unthinkingly that we now take them for granted. It is the air we breathe, the ground we walk on, the skin we inhabit, the way our insides tick and pulse and spin all on their own, in season and out, whether we sleep or work or play, without asking us or us having to ask.
It is these myriad amazing things—toes and eyes, leaf veins and cloudbursts, bedrock and ozone, seed and sap—that by their very constancy and durability have worn familiar or become invisible. The sheer steadfastness of things that surround and uphold us are dull with the caking of the ordinary.
We live amidst surpassing wonders, but most of it has become run-of-the-mill. We dwell among endless miracles that, repeated day after day, have grown tedious. We are lavished with gifts that we now expect or ignore or begrudge.
Faithfulness bores us.
Who among us leapt up this morning as the sun rose, exclaiming, “Look! Look, everybody, look! The sun! Here it comes! Hallelujah, it’s here again!”?
Or who ran through the house shouting, “Ha ha—air! Behold! Air! Clean air, fresh air, air to fill my lungs, air to shape my words, air to move the clouds, air to lift the birds”?
Not me. I woke up groaning.
In both creation and relationships, faithfulness is the most amazing yet least captivating trait.
It is one quality—in the cosmos, in God, in others—that we can’t live without, but that we don’t much live with, either, mindful of it, thankful for it.
Look how we use the word itself in everyday speech. “My husband. How can I describe him? Let me say this: He’s faithful.”
Code language for he’s a drudge, a bean counter, a plodder. He gets the job done, but with no aplomb or pizzazz.
If we call a car faithful, we mean it’s functional, not fast, not flashy. It’s drab and boxy, an old dray horse.
Faithfulness is not only boring. In some contexts, it’s almost embarrassing.
J. Allan Petersen, in The Myth of the Greener Grass, tells the story of a dozen married women at lunch together. The conversation got more and more intimate, under the skin, the sharp tip of inquiry corkscrewing into inmost places, prying loose tightly held secrets.
“How many of you,” one woman asked, “have been faithful to your husbands?” Only one woman out of the twelve raised her hand. At home that evening, one of the women who didn’t raise her hand told her husband about the lunch, the question, her reaction. “But,” she quickly added, “I have been faithful.” “Then why didn’t you raise your hand?” “I was ashamed.”
GOD’S FAITHFULNESS IS one divine characteristic that we rest in so completely that our rest has become apathy. “In him,” Paul declares, “we live and move and have our being.” We just hustle in, heads down, duty-bound, and clear the table.
So our dilemma: How do we rest in God’s faithfulness, but never take it for granted?
Maybe the best way to begin is to examine how God describes His own faithfulness. Allow me to summarize the biblical texts on this theme.
He abounds in faithfulness, and by faithfulness He keeps His covenant of love to a thousand generations. Because of His faithfulness, He does no wrong. He shows Himself faithful to the faithful. He’s faithful in all He does, and by it He guarantees that His words are right and true. His faithfulness reaches to the skies, is sent down from the heavens, and is appointed to protect us like a shield and a rampart. God’s faithfulness surrounds Him and goes out before Him. He will not betray it, and it endures forever.
In faithfulness, God disciplines His children. Because of His faithfulness, He will keep all His promises. His faithfulness is great. It is not canceled out by our lack of faith. Because of it, He forgives us and cleanses us from confessed sin, and He will not allow us to be tempted beyond what we can bear. By His faithfulness, God sanctifies us and keeps us blameless until the coming of Jesus, and by it He gives us strength and protection from the evil one.
Faithfulness is one of Jesus’ names. What’s more, the faithfulness of God is connected with His love, righteousness, truthfulness, steadfastness, compassion, mercy, peace, grace, slowness to anger, creative power, mightiness, justice, deliverance, relief, and holiness.
Old Faithful indeed.
There’s a common thread in all this: you and me.
The touchstone of God’s faithfulness is His way with people.
It is mostly about a journey He took, His house to yours, in order to bring you all the way back again to His. Behind the drama of the incarnation, the atonement, the redemption; behind the drama of Jesus calling Zacchaeus down from the sycamore tree, calling Peter away from his nets, calling Matthew away from the tax booth, calling you from wherever you were when He found you; behind all that is simply this: God is true to Himself.
God is faithful.