Experiencing the Faithfulness of God
The greatest song ever written on the faithfulness of God is perhaps the evergreen hymn, Great Is Thy Faithfulness. The first stanza and the chorus read like this:
Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my Father.
There is no shadow of turning with Thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions, they fail not;
As Thou hast been Thou forever wilt be.
Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning new mercies I see;
All I have needed Thy hand hath provided;
Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord, unto me!
We can hear at least 20 different renditions of this song on YouTube. Commenting on one of these, someone identified as "mraziyen" says:
There was a time when I questioned whether God really existed or not. I actually began to tear up when something in me tried to convince me that He was a fake, because God has gotten me through so much in life. When I began to backslide and lose both faith and hope, I heard this song in my head. I immediately searched up the lyrics and read them and was soon overcome with joy. I was faithless at the moment, but God's faithfulness never ends. It's true, His mercies and love are forever.
When is God's faithfulness experienced?
This comment reminds us that the ideas in the first stanza and the chorus of the hymn are mainly taken from Lamentations 3:22-23. Now the book of Lamentations is a series of laments mourning the destruction of Jerusalem in 586 BC by the Babylonians. The inhabitants experienced extreme suffering; most of the survivors were exiled to Babylon. It was a time of utter despair and hopelessness. In the midst of lamenting over this unprecedented tragedy, the Spirit-inspired author burst into exuberant praise of God's faithfulness. A believer experiences the faithfulness of God most deeply in the darkest moments of his life. Why is this so?
When we think of God's faithfulness we tend to think of God's provisions for our needs. This is reflected in the chorus of the hymn: "All I have needed Thy hand hath provided." But under what kind of circumstances would a believer confess from the bottom of his heart that it was indeed God who has provided for all that he needed? Is it during times of prosperity, or during times of adversity? When people commemorate God's faithfulness they commemorate how God had seen them through difficult times. When mraziyen was tempted to deny God he began to weep, because he remembered how "God has gotten me through so much in life." He was referring to times of adversity, and not prosperity. Why is this so?
How is God's faithfulness experienced?
In Deuteronomy 8 God explained to the Israelites who were about to enter the Promised Land why they had to wander in the wilderness for 40 years. Certainly the 40 years of wandering were needed to allow the earlier generation to die off in the wilderness because, except for Joshua and Caleb, they were forbidden to enter the Promised Land due to unbelief and disobedience. But God causes all things, even unfortunate things, to work for the good of His people. So the 40 years of seemingly aimless wandering were also needed to teach the generation of Israelites who entered the Promised Land "that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by everything that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD" (verse 3).
In the wilderness they could not sow and reap and bake bread as they normally did ("live by bread"). God demonstrated His faithfulness by feeding them manna, which they had never known. This experience was to teach God's people that even when they are completely deprived of the normal means of livelihood, God could provide through means they had never known. The lesson they needed to learn was that God is faithful and hence they could and should "live by everything that proceeds from the mouth of the LORD." By doing so they would confirm through experience that God is indeed faithful.
So God's people are to live by (depend on) whatever God says, and not live by (depend on) the normal means of livelihood only. This means when God's will requires us to act in such a way that seems to jeopardize our livelihood, we still trust and obey Him. This is well illustrated in the life of Elijah after he had prayed for no rain. God asked him to hide himself by a brook, assuring him that He had commanded the crows to provide for him there. Then when the brook dried up in answer to Elijah's own prayer, God asked him to go live with a widow who was about to use up her last handful of flour to cook the last meal for herself and her son. Elijah obeyed both times and thus lived by God's word, and not by "bread" alone. He experienced God's faithfulness in a way not otherwise possible.
People in "full-time Christian ministry" can easily identify with this teaching. For when God called them into the ministry, like the Levites in the Old Testament, they are called to renounce the normal means of making a living. Instead they are called to live by faith in God's faithfulness. But this teaching applies to all Christians, as we are all called to put God's will above the need to make a living. In fact, Jesus rephrased this teaching as, "Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things [your livelihood] shall be added to you". Jesus recognizes that we all need to make a living. But He commanded us to "seek first" (give priority to) God's Kingdom. To help set us free to obey this command (live by His word) He promised to "add all these things" to us.
Why is God's faithfulness experienced?
The Israelites needed to learn this lesson, and learn it in the wilderness, because they were going to enter and possess a land flowing with milk and honey. God desires to prosper His people in every way. But the problem is that when God's people experience material prosperity, they tend to forget God and think that it is their own ability that brought them the prosperity (verses 11-17). We only confess from the bottom of the heart that it is God who has provided when we find ourselves in desperate circumstances where we could not have provided for ourselves. For then we cannot help but recognize God's faithfulness. This was the experience of the Israelites in the wilderness. Similarly, we can best perceive God's faithfulness in times of crises when we have no one else to turn to except God. This was the experience of the author of Lamentations.
This explains the basic thrust of Deuteronomy 8, which is to impress upon God's people that during prosperous times they must remember what they had learned during desperate times (verse 2). To recognize God's faithfulness during times of prosperity, we need to remember the times of adversity when we experienced deeply God's faithfulness. Only then can we sing from the bottom of out heart "Great is Thy faithfulness!" at all times.