It takes two to communicate. During premarital counseling, I ask couples whether each is a better talker or a better listener. Often—and probably not coincidentally—a couple is made up of one of each. Some of us are better at expressing ourselves than giving time to receive the expressions of others. Some of us are better at giving another our full attention than articulating the true thoughts of our hearts. I am a talker than a listener. That comes from a mixture of extroversion, arrogance, and impatience. But, as I tell couples, all of us need to work on being better talkers and better listeners.
It takes two to communicate. As a natural-born talker, it’s easy for me to forget that. As a business class once taught me, communication involves formulating, encoding, transmitting, receiving, and decoding, and interpreting. At any part of that process, the communication can break down. Usually, if things go wrong, I fault the listener. Why weren’t you paying attention? Didn’t you hear me? That made sense to me; why didn’t you get it? Actually, though, it takes two to communicate. Sometimes things that make sense to me won’t quite make sense to you. It’s the curse of the over-eager preacher: expressing an idea or story that reminds the preacher of the gospel but that sends the congregation spiraling down a tangential path. For a message to get through, it requires both good talking and good listening. If either fails, the communication breaks down.
Faith works just like that, as this Sunday’s paired readings from Genesis 15:1-6 and Hebrews 11:1-3, 8-16 remind us. Faith involves both one who promises and one who accepts that promise. In the story of Abraham, God promised the childless man as many descendants as the stars of heaven. That was a pretty ridiculous thing to say to a man in his eighties who was married to a barren woman, yet that’s exactly what God said. And sure enough, as the faiths of Jews, Christians, and Muslims will attest, Abraham’s (then Abram) acceptance of that promise became the shared foundation of our religions.
The author of the letter to the Hebrews makes this point: “By faith he received power of procreation, even though he was too old-- and Sarah herself was barren-- because he considered him faithful who had promised.” It was faith that made Abraham fertile—faith in God’s ridiculous promise—and faith like that was only possible because of the nature of the one making the promise. God is faithful, thus we have faith in him.
Sometimes when I know I need to be home early in the evening, I will tell my spouse to count on me to leave the office before 5pm. Although she doesn’t say anything, I can tell that she isn’t buying it. Sometimes I make it home early, and sometimes I don’t. But our marriage isn’t built on the solidity of those passing promises. In that specific manner, I am not faithful, nor is she believing. God’s promises, of course, are incomparably huge—forgiveness, prosperity, salvation, reconciliation. But God is the faithful one. His nature is faithfulness. That means that in the it-takes-two-to-tango relationship of faith the only variable is us.