A few weeks ago I heard some missionaries provide an update on their ministry in a foreign country. At one point the wife described being in a life-threatening situation. She had just left a Bible study with friends when her car was surrounded and an angry mob began beating on the doors and windows. Terrified, she called her husband and they both prayed. Then her husband broke into a grin and dispelled the tension by saying “But God was faithful”. He then went on to describe how their prayers had been heard and she had been spared any injury from the flash mob attack.
Needless to say, like everyone else in the audience I was both delighted and relieved at the outcome. Still, I couldn’t help but pause on that curious phrase: “But God was faithful”. The reason is simple: this very familiar phrasing naturally suggests that the counterfactual could have obtained (i.e. God could have been unfaithful) but fortunately it didn’t.
Consider an analogy. “I crashed my brother’s vintage Corvette.” Tension created. “But he was forgiving.” Tension dispelled. The phrasing suggests that he could have been unforgiving but fortunately he forgave.
The problem, then, is that from a Christian perspective (or at least from an orthodox Christian perspective) God is of his essence faithful (Exodus 34:6; Deut. 7:9; Deut. 32:4…). And from that it follows that whatever the outcome of the situation God would still be faithful.
Have there been missionaries in the past who were caught in flash mobs? There have. Did they pray for deliverance? They did. Did they escape unscathed? Some did. Some didn’t. Was God faithful? What’s the right answer? Sometimes yes, sometimes no? Or all the time? Clearly the latter.
And that’s the problem. Whether the missionary survives the attack of the flash mob or not, God is still faithful. So then is it appropriate to say, when you survive the attack of the flash mob, “But God was faithful” as if he wouldn’t have been faithful if you hadn’t?
By saying “But God was faithful” the missionary was performing a type of illocutionary act. But what kind was it? And he was seeking to attain a perlocutionary effect in the audience? But what kind of effect? And was that a legitimate act and a legitimate effect?