Conrad Gempf: 5th Sparrow

May 2001
Lacking faith
Previous 5th Sparrows

Comment on this column THREE OUT OF FOUR go the way you'd expect.

When the author of the New Testament's second letter to Timothy writes, "If we die with him," you expect it to be followed with a clause like, "we will also live with him". When he writes, "If we endure," you expect something like, "we will also reign with him."

And when he writes, "If we disown him," anyone who's read the Gospels will expect, "he will also disown us."

It's the fourth one that surprises. "If we are faithless," is the first clause. Now what do you expect? "If we have no faith in him, he will have no faith in us" sounds pretty natural to me. In fact, however, it reads this way: "If we are faithless, he will remain faithful, for he cannot disown his own nature."

Now it turns out the word translated "faithless" in the New International Version and most other translations of the Bible is the same word that was used by that guy in Mark 9:24 who calls out to Jesus, "I do believe, help me overcome my unbelief!"

A better translation might therefore be "lack of faith", as in "I do have faith, help me where my faith is lacking!" and, back in 2 Timothy, "If our faith is lacking, he nevertheless is full of faith, for he cannot disown his own nature."

We can choose to be alone and separate from God – to disown him – but once we are in relationship with him, our weaknesses and failings are met, not primarily by punishment and retribution, but by his faithfulness. If we deny him, he'll deny us, but if we lack faith in him, will he lack faith in us? No.

The relationship can be reciprocally refused, but within the relationship the dealings are not strictly reciprocal: we will be human and therefore fail, but he will be divine and constant. As is the case throughout the second letter to Timothy, there is both warning and comfort here.

Dr Conrad Gempf is a lecturer in New Testament at London Bible College. He also writes for and edits the monthly webzine there.

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