“Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” The survey of our favorite hymns showed me that this hymn was picked more than others, and I think it is not a surprise at all. No doubt, it’s a great hymn with beautiful praises for God’s steadfast love, care, and guidance in our lives. Hear the heartfelt chorus of the hymn, “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!” Singing this hymn, have you ever got curious about the author of this hymn? From the beautiful lyrics we may guess that the author probably had many reasons to be grateful to God. And it seems likely that the author lived a wonderful life, because such praise can’t just come out of someone who didn’t experience God’s abundant blessings. Sure enough.
But against our expectation, this hymn’s author, Thomas Chisholm (1866-1960) lived a rather underprivileged and challenging life.
Born in a log cabin in a small Kentucky town of Franklin, Chisholm was a farm boy who grew up without any formal education. Nevertheless, he tried hard and became a teacher at age sixteen, and the associate editor of his hometown newspaper, the Franklin Advocate, at age twenty-one. After he converted into Christianity, he pursued to be a pastor and finally got ordained as a Methodist minister ten years later. He started his ordained ministry at a church in Kentucky, but very unfortunately, he had to resign after just one year because of his poor health condition. He struggled with his health issue for many years. Later, he moved to New Jersey but couldn’t go back to ministry. So, for the rest of his life, he worked as a life insurance salesperson.
Even though his life didn’t start in a favorable circumstance, even though his life didn’t unfold as the way he wanted, Chisholm never ceased praising God through his poems. And by the time of his retirement, he already had more than 1,200 poems. 800 of them were published including the most famous, “Great Is Thy Faithfulness.” Toward the end of his life, Chisholm testified, “My income has not been large at any time due to impaired health in the earlier years, which has followed me on until now. Although I must not fail to record here the unfailing faithfulness of a covenant-keeping God and that He has given me many wonderful displays of His providing care, for which I am filled with astonishing gratefulness.”
What a testimony! This powerful testimony of faith resonates right within the first verse of the hymn. “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.” How could Chisholm keep praising God’s faithfulness in spite of all those challenges in his life? How could he keep trusting God no matter what?
The questions run even more deeply as we meditate on the Bible passage that directly inspired Chisholm to write the hymn. That is a passage from the Book of Lamentations. As the title says, the Book of Lamentations is a collection of poetic laments. This book can hardly ever be a favorite reference of hymn writers or pastors, because it is mostly packed with vehement expressions of gut-wrenching grief. In the book, the poets of lamentations cry out for God as they witness the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem (586 BCE), and they hold God accountable for the miseries they are facing as captives. But it is just incredible that even in their deepest desperation, they don’t lose their faith in God. Rather, they reaffirm their faith and even praise God, because they believe that their hope is still in God, and in God only. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness” (Lamentations 3:22-23). “Great is your faithfulness! Even we are in the middle of unending ordeal and anguish, we believe, great still is your faithfulness.” Yes, they sing! And this authentic praise out of the turbulent depth inspired Chisholm to join their singing.
How could Chisholm and the people of God keep praising God’s faithfulness in spite of all those challenges in their lives? How could they keep trusting God no matter what? The rest of the hymn gives us the answers to the questions. It first tells us that when we simply observe the course of nature, we can find God’s care for all creation and believe God’s unchanging faithfulness. Verse 2 goes, “Summer and winter and springtime and harvest, Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above; Join with all nature in manifold witness, To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.” Here the hymn praises our God the Creator who gives us the confidence in God’s faithful care. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus also asks us to see God’s steadfast love, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not clothed like one of these. But if God so clothes the grass of the field…will he not much more clothe you—you of little faith?” (Matthew 6:28-30).
Now the hymn gives us another answer that when we remember what God has done for our new life, we will never lose our faith in God’s faithfulness. Verse 3 goes, “Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth, Thine own dear presence to cheer and to guide; Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow. Blessings all mine, with ten thousand beside.” Here the hymn praises our God the Redeemer who liberates us from the chain to sin and death, and it also praises our God the Sustainer who is ever present among us and closely guides our journey of faith.
Because of the one who creates us, redeems us, and sustains us, because of the faithful work of our triune God among us, because of God’s lifegiving love, saving grace, and everlasting peace for us, we can keep praising God’s faithfulness in spite of all the challenges in our lives; we can keep trusting God no matter what; and we can sing, “Great is Thy faithfulness! Great is Thy faithfulness, Lord unto me!”
Sometimes, we face moments of grief and suffering. And sometimes, our reality is too hard to bear. It is never easy to remain faithful when our lives don’t get any better or when we struggle with our own situations. It is never easy to keep our faith when our light of hope flickers in our hearts, yet the winds of despair gust through our lives. In times like these, what shall we do to keep our faith? From the hymn of Thomas Chisholm and the lamentation of the Israelites in exile, we should learn one thing for sure today. In such times like those, we praise God. We praise God witnessing God’s faithful care for all God’s creation. We praise God trusting in God’s faithful work as our Creator, Redeemer, and Sustainer. And we praise God’s faithfulness no matter what. Then, I believe, God will surely fill our hearts with heavenly joy and confidence. So let us praise God once more and every time, “Great is Thy faithfulness!” Amen.
C. Michael Hawn, “History of Hymns: Great Is Thy Faithfulness” (https://www.umcdiscipleship.org/resources/history-of-hymns-great-is-thy-faithfulness); (http://gaither.com/news/“great-thy-faithfulness”-story-behind-hymn)
Pastor Earl Kim