God’s faithfulness (when God appears unfaithful)

  • Question from MF, USA

    Why do we call God “faithful” when the #1 fact we know about him is that he is unpredictable – that we don’t ever know what he is going to do? How is it possible to reconcile these two notions of reliability and unreliability?

    To say that the prime fact we ‘know’ about God is the unpredictability of the divine nature is perhaps an interesting starting point. But certainly, the experience of many Christians is that there are no formulas, scientific or magic, for determining the outcome of events in which God is involved. Much creative theology has been expended in this area, for example, justifying the existence of evil in a world created by a good God (or at least a God that Christian theology postulates as good).

    A simple answer as to why Christians call God faithful is because of the self-declarations of divine faithfulness recorded in the Bible (see Deuteronomy chapter 31, verse 6, which is reiterated in the New Testament in Hebrews chapter 13, verse 5: “Never will I leave you, never will I forsake you.”). Accepting the Bible as the ‘Word of God’ naturally results in ascribing faithfulness to God, because the Bible describes God as being faithful.

    On a practical level, it can be hard to reconcile those Biblical assertions with day-to-day Christian experience. Empathy-based understandings of God, revolving around the crucifixion event, aid an appreciation that sometimes Christians feel abandoned. The empathy comes from recognising that the revelation of God found in the Incarnation, directly reveals God’s own experience of abandonment. The cry from the cross, echoing the psalmist, ‘My God, why have you abandoned me’ (Matthew chapter 27, verse 46, cf Psalm 22, verse 1), indicates that this human experience of abandonment, is also experienced by God.

    An interesting aside to this is that at the crucifixion, God not only experiences death within the divine nature (therefore neutralising the limited power of death by absorbing it into the unlimited Godhead), but also experiences the pain of bereavement, separation and loss caused by death, as the Father sees the Son die on the cross.

    Ultimately, believing that God is reliable, despite what appears to be evidence to the contrary, is a matter of personal faith. It can seem trite to say that God works ‘for the good’ in all circumstances, regardless of appearances. It is a Biblical standpoint (see Romans, chapter 8, verse 28), but can lead to some interesting difficulties if pushed.

    For example, it reduces God’s moral activity to ‘the ends justify the means’ and it can also be used to ascribe harm or evil to God. Not commenting on God’s ‘mysterious ways’ of working, is often a similar cop out used to avoid the tough question of what God is actually playing at. There are a number of other theological reasons (or excuses) for God’s inactivity. The tension between the coming of the kingdom of God now and the fulfilment of God’s intentions in the future is often used to explain why God has not healed, or intervened in a situation.

    A final option is that the universe operates in a way that gives human beings a choice. What humans see as ‘unreliability’ is actually the workings out of probability. Some people are ‘luckier’ than others, if their life experiences are plotted out on a probability graph. (This idea has been popularised by Dilbert author Scott Adams in his serious book, God’s Debris). Living in an unreliable universe could be both the result of human sin – in choosing to no longer operate under God’s direct rule, humans become subject to the vagaries of chance – and the means by which human beings are brought to a realisation that they need God. The unreliability of life produces a ‘vale of soul-making’ designed to stimulate human expressions of free will that would not occur in a reliable universe. God’s withdrawal from this universe, and occasional interactions with it, add further to the unreliability of life, increasing the chances of human beings making free choices about whether to trust God or not.

    Thanks for your question, MF.

    Posted on