Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives
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The Divine Attributes Retreat
The Attributes of God
The Faithfulness of God
by Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.
The moment we hear the word fidelity we think of a promise that one person makes to someone else. It is assumed that once a promise has been made it should be kept. I may be free, and in most cases I am, not to make a promise; but if I make it and I realize what I am doing, then I am obliged to remain faithful to the promise I've made.
Given all that we know about God, it is hard for us to think about God making promises to human beings. Actually the whole idea of a divine covenant, which is another name for testament, underlies the relationship of God with his chosen people, first in the Old Testament, what we call the old covenant, and in the New Testament, the new covenant. We see immediately that both the old and the new covenant are the old and the new contract which God makes first with his people the Israelites and then the sacred covenant or contract that God has made in the person of Christ with his chosen people of the New Law.
In order to better understand what we mean by the faithfulness or fidelity of God, we should look at the profound mystery of God's fidelity both on God's side toward us and on our side toward him. Let's first look at the Old Testament, because there are so many passages, so many occasions of God having first chosen those who became his chosen people: he promised them. And then in the New Testament God made a covenant or an agreement with the new Israel, which of course is ourselves.
In the Old Testament, from the Book of Genesis, where God made a covenant with Abraham, on through the whole Old Testament, God promises to be faithful to his side of the covenant. He promised the Israelites protection from their enemies, prosperity in a promised land; he promised them growth as a nation; and he promised them that they would eventually people the whole earth. God said to Abraham: "I will make my covenant between you and me, and will multiply you exceedingly." It was at this time that we know God changed the name of Abram to Abraham. "For I will make you," God promised, "the father of a multitude of nations." Then on Mount Sinai God spelled out the conditions of his agreement, called the old covenant. God gave Moses the Ten Commandments, which we believe synthesize or summarize the old covenant, in which God on his side made extraordinary promises to his people finally on one condition that they remain faithful to keeping the Decalogue. And that's really all they had to do.
It is well to keep in mind, when we talk about the faithfulness of God, that God is faithful on the basis of commitments which he makes. In the Old Testament God committed himself to remaining faithful to his chosen people provided they remained faithful to the Ten Commandments. We know however what happened. From the time of Mount Sinai, generation after generation, the Jewish people broke their covenant with God, were unfaithful, and God punished them. He sold them into slavery; they were in so many ways dismembered, made to suffer wars, famine. But always no matter how unfaithful they were to him, he then to bring them back to him, would punish them. If there is one thing that comes out of the Old Testament it is that God was never unfaithful to his promises.
Before we go on to the New Testament and draw the implications that we need for our understanding of God's faithfulness to us, what in the last analysis, was the promise that God made to his chosen people? It was that they of all the people on the face of the earth, they were the ones who even though they had been unfaithful to Yahweh, nevertheless it would be of them, of the Jewish people that the promised Messiah would be born. And this is what both our Lady in the Magnificat and Zechariah in the Benedictus say: God has remained faithful to his people, faithful to the promise he made "to our fathers, to Abraham and to his posterity forever." That's the heart of the Magnificat and the heart of the Benedictus.
The proof of God's fidelity to his promises is in the Incarnation of the Son of God of the chosen people. Christ made sure that the only ones among whom he chose his apostles were among the Israelites. Christ did not leave the geography of Palestine. For two thousand years, more or less, from Abraham to Christ, in spite of the constant, massive infidelity of the chosen people, God remained faithful to his promises. And it was under divine inspiration that over the Cross on Calvary would be the inscription "Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews." Talk about Israel's infidelity to God! When God became Man, spoke like God, acted like God, behaved like God, his own people rejected him, in a word, they were unfaithful; and the crucifixion is only the culmination of twenty centuries of infidelity.
As we get into the New Testament it is well for ourselves to be profoundly conscious of how incredibly faithful God has been and will be: the limits that God will go to keep his part of the covenant. Pope Paul VI on one occasion publicly declared: "When I retire at night the only thought I have is that I am lying down with a crown of thorns like my Master." And in spite of the widespread massive infidelity of so many of the chosen people of the new Israel, God will remain faithful.
With the coming of Christ began what we call the new covenant, now between the Son of God become Man and the chosen people, the new Israel. As we look back at the two thousand years of Hebrew history we need to reassure ourselves that in spite of the infidelity of the old Israel, the God of the old covenant never failed in his fidelity. So in spite of the infidelity of the new Israel, God, now become Man, will not fail in his fidelity to the new Israel.
In the old covenant the summary of God's covenant with his people is in the Decalogue. In the new covenant the summary of God's covenant is in the Beatitudes. It is, of course, Christ's entire Sermon on the Mount; but the essentials of the new covenant are in the eight beatitudes. What are the beatitudes? The beatitudes are eight promises that Christ the Son of God made with his new chosen people. He promised them not just happiness but beatitude. Peace and happiness in this life, perfect happiness in the life to come, that's the promise. Christ promised to provide us with the graces we need: light for the mind, strength for the will, in order to have that peace which the world cannot give. There is peace and there is peace. And what a difference between what the world promises and what God become Man promises us!
How did the promises of the Son of God become Man differ from the promises which Yahweh made and to which he remained faithful over the centuries in the Old Law? First of all in this life Christ promised, and he will remain faithful to his promises, blessings that are awfully important. How many people want God to turn back the pages of history, to give them the kind of blessings that he had promised the ancient Israelites. No! Christ's promises are interior; they are spiritual; they are supernatural; they are eternal. More than one of the beatitudes promises happiness but the happiness of hope: the happiness of the beatitude that God will give us; and we are to be happy in the anticipation of the fulfillment of God's promises in the life to come.
In other words God's faithfulness in the new law is his fidelity in assuring us that he will keep his promises; but we have got to be able to read God's vocabulary; we must be able to understand his language. This is the God of the New Law. This is not a promised land flowing with milk and honey. In other words the promises to which God become Man has remained faithful to are the promises that we must believe he is already fulfilling in this life and will satisfy in the life to come. This is the deepest meaning of the spiritual life: a life lived in our spirit, doing the will of God made manifest by the Holy Spirit in our souls. The promises may give us temporal, emotional, bodily, earthly rewards; but the spiritual life really means living the life of the spirit, where God's promises are fulfilled deep, deep, deep down inside of our souls.
In other words the fidelity of God as fulfilled by Christ, unlike his faithfulness in the Old Law, the promises that Christ makes are not external; they are not sensibly perceptible; they are not material; they are not this worldly. And God who became Man will remain faithful to his promises. But we must be faithful in fulfilling the conditions that God become Man laid down.
What are these conditions? We must be detached in heart from earthly things - first beatitude. We must be meek under provocation. Leave it to God, he will really make sure we are provoked. We are to mourn over our own and other peoples' sins - third beatitude. We are to hunger and thirst for what God wants - fourth beatitude. We are to be merciful, forgiving and forgetting when other people offend us - fifth beatitude. We are to be pure at heart, that purity covering both sinlessness and especially the sinlessness of chastity. On our part we are to remain faithful in maintaining peace of soul, peace of heart no matter what circumstances or trials or temptations God may send us. The hardest condition that Christ laid down that we are to remain faithful on our side of the new covenant is the eighth beatitude: we are to rejoice when we suffer persecution for the name of Christ. The world has all kinds of not only earthly but demonic ways of persecuting the followers of Christ.
Our responsibility. As followers of Christ we believe that he is God and we therefore believe that he will be faithful to the promises that he made. We are sure that he will not be wanting with his grace. The primary grace that we expect from the fidelity of God is light for the mind. God will let us know what we are to do and how we are to do it. God will also give us strength for the will. Keep those two graces always distinct: light for the mind to know the what and the how and strength for the will to carry out what our mind tells us is the will of God.
However, we do have a responsibility. A covenant imposes and obligation. God will keep his side of the obligation. What must we do? There are two conditions we must fulfill. On the one hand we must sincerely want to remain faithful to his will. God knows we have been all too often miserably unfaithful. It is the sincerity, the honesty: we want to do God's will and there is no substitute for that.
But secondly, realizing by now how blind we are to know God's will, how weak we are to carry it into practice, we need his help. And therefore the second condition that we must fulfill if we are to remain faithful is we must pray. The most important monosyllable in Christianity: pray. Beg for light; cry out with the blind men in the gospel: "Lord, that I may see!"
This, in my estimation, is the deepest mystery of our faith. This God whom we've seen to be all-good, all-loving, almighty, we believe, however, that God's fidelity is finally conditioned on our begging him for help. Prayer on our part is the divinely revealed condition for God's remaining faithful to his promises provided we have remained faithful on the one hand to sincerely striving to conform our stubborn wills to the will of God and provided we bend our knees and beg for help.
"Lord Jesus, you are the all-faithful God become Man. What you promised, you will give us. But, dear Jesus, infinitely faithful God, give us the strength to persevere in our faithfulness to you. We trust you, we trust you. Protect us from ever being unfaithful to you. Amen."
Transcription of the retreat given in December, 1988
Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica
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