The story of the Bible is one of God’s ongoing faithfulness to his people. The very nature of faithfulness means that God hasn’t changed! We caught up with Csilla Saysell, Old Testament lecturer at Carey Baptist College, to reflect further on God’s faithfulness and hear some of her story.
Csilla, tell us a little of your story. How did you come to be an Old Testament lecturer at Carey?
Csilla: I grew up in Hungary during the tail end of the communist period, and came to faith when I was fifteen in our local church. Very quickly after that I started leading Bible studies. I’ve always had an interest in the Bible, and the idea of teaching was always in the back of my mind. In fact, my first degree was in secondary school teaching. I had a sense that God wanted me to do something related to teaching the Bible, although I didn’t want to become a pastor. At the time, theological training was only available for pastors in Hungary, so I ended up studying theology in England. During my undergraduate degree, I realised that lecturing was actually a job, and after doctoral study I briefly taught in England.
During this time, my husband (who is a Kiwi) and I began to think about moving to New Zealand. We booked an exploratory trip, looking mainly at Christchurch (where his family is), but there didn’t seem to be any openings. We thought that perhaps God didn’t want us to move and that we would stay on in England. Then I received an email from Charles Hewlett, Principal of Carey, saying that one of my former tutors from London Bible College had recommended me to him, and that they had an Old Testament job available. He didn’t know that I was in New Zealand, or that I had any connection here, and so his email was funny because it started with, “Greetings from faraway New Zealand”—we were in Nelson! I replied, we flew up for an interview... and the rest, as they say, is history!
Have you always been interested in the Old Testament?
Csilla: I’ve always had an affinity for the Old Testament. Often it is mistakenly criticised for being all about how God is wrathful, cruel, and impatient, and not the loving Jesus of the New Testament. But I don’t think this is so, and I’ve found that you get more of a sense of God’s character, and how he is dealing with his people, through the stories of the Old Testament. Because the Old Testament is probably less well known by most people, it can feel like there is more to discover. I was lucky enough to have lots of good preaching on the Old Testament, and so it didn’t seem as alien to me as it does to some.
I also had a very significant year in Israel, which particularly helped me to realise the deep riches in the Old Testament. I had been on a tourist trip to Israel previously—it was an amazing experience and I had a sense that I would go back, though I did not know how. In the following year, I went into a Christian bookshop in Hungary and bumped into an American man who engaged me in conversation. It turned out that he had been to Israel, and he gave me the details of a Christian youth hostel open to tourists and travellers. I worked there for a year cleaning and working on reception, and shared the gospel with people from all over the world. As a staff team, we would have Bible studies. The manager of the hostel was a wonderful teacher and had a deep love for God’s word. It was my first encounter with in-depth Bible study, and I took to it like a duck to water: it opened my eyes to how much there is in God’s word, and it trained me in some of the basic discipleship principles that are still in my life today. It was a deeply significant time that contributed to where I am today, teaching the Old Testament.
What is your favourite Scripture about the faithfulness of God, and why?
Csilla: I have lots! A longstanding one is Isaiah 43:1: “But now thus says the LORD, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine.” Isaiah 40-55 is addressing Judah in exile. They have lost their land, their temple, their king—everything that defined them as God’s people and everything that God had promised would stand forever. You can imagine the exiles thinking, “Why? How could God do this to us? Does he not care? Is he not powerful enough to help?” The scriptures answer that he is able to do what he wants to do—he is the creator of all things—but also that he cares. For me, personally, Isaiah 43:1 became very significant. When I came to faith, I couldn’t make sense of how the cross worked, and somehow I felt that because I couldn’t understand it intellectually, then I wasn’t a true Christian. As I struggled with the question of whether I was God’s child, I remembered this verse. It was given to me by my pastor a few years earlier, when I wasn’t a Christian. I remember reading it and thinking how amazing it was that God knew me long before I even acknowledged him, and he said, “You’re mine.”
Another one is Jeremiah 29:11—also a famous verse: “For surely I know the plans I have for you, says the LORD, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope.” Jeremiah is writing to those who have been exiled to Babylon. You can imagine them wondering how long their exile was going to be, and Jeremiah tells them to settle down: the exile was to be for the long-term, but not for disaster. Even amid judgment and tragedy, God is saying to the exiles that he has hope for them, and a plan beyond exile.
The process of discovering my calling took quite a while, and several times along the way I felt so unsure. Just taking one step at a time, I had no idea where I was going, and it sometimes felt like it was all going to end in disaster. This verse kept me going, and reassured me that God had a plan with a future for me.
What do we actually mean when we say God is faithful?
Csilla: I think the word that best sums it up is the Hebrew word hesed. It is translated as love, kindness, mercy, and grace, but really it is covenant faithfulness; loyal love. It describes how God has committed himself to his people, and he is going to love them and stick with them no matter what.
When I think of God’s faithfulness, I think of passages like Hosea 11 where God describes Israel as his son whom he called—but the more he called, the more Israel went a different way. God describes how judgement has to come, but there is suddenly this cry where God says, “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?... My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender” (Hosea 11:8). We see that even when God judges, he does so with a heart that is grieving for the people he must discipline.
I also think of Psalm 23:6: “Surely goodness and mercy [hesed] shall follow me all the days of my life.” The word “follow” here is a bit tame. The Hebrew means to pursue or chase, so it’s actually saying that God’s goodness and covenant faithfulness seeks out his people, chases after them, and doesn’t let go.
I guess I’ve always understood God’s faithfulness like this: God made a commitment and he’s not going to go back on it.
You’ve told us about your time in Israel. Have there been other times in your life where you’ve seen God’s faithfulness?
Csilla: Lots! The final year of my PhD was significant. During that year, my dad died suddenly, I got engaged, I submitted my PhD and defended my thesis in a viva, and a month later I got married.
Firstly, it is a miracle that I completed seven years of theological study in the UK without being in debt at the end. The money spent on my education could have bought a house in Hungary. Through the generosity of friends and church, as well as some scholarships, God always provided. This reassured me that God was behind it all.
My dad’s death was unexpected and hard. I was really close to him, and he had the greatest impact on my life—I was always daddy’s girl! But amid wondering why his death had to happen at this time, I remember being so thankful for the wonderful relationship we had had. We loved each other, we respected each other (even though we didn’t agree in everything), we had spent a happy summer together before I returned to England for the last year of my PhD studies. Thankfully I was ahead in my PhD, because for a month after Dad’s death I was at home with my mum, supporting her. I felt physically exhausted with grief a lot of that time. In addition, several months before this I had begun a relationship with Phil, who is my husband now. Phil was wonderful at providing the background support without taking advantage of the fact that I was emotionally vulnerable. I often think of God’s amazing kindness in the timing of that relationship.
What I remember of that year was God’s presence very near amid everything that was going on. I don’t remember any huge struggle finishing off the PhD, which is often the case in that last year of doctoral study. My wedding dress, which I had ordered a few months before, arrived in Durham (where I studied) on the week when I was going to have my viva. By that time I wasn’t living in Durham, so I took the train up to have the viva in the morning, and then went for my wedding dress fitting in the afternoon! Everything dovetailed to make getting married and starting fresh a smooth process. This really spoke to me of God’s faithfulness.
How do we identify God’s faithfulness in our lives?
Csilla: Sometimes circumstances line up in such a way that it is hard to miss it. Other times we need to pray and ask God to show us. This is particularly true when things don’t seem to work out—it is harder to see what God is doing in these situations. I had a year like that when I was a volunteer with Friends International in the UK—a group that reaches out to international students in universities and language schools. At the time, I started out with the expectation that my involvement might develop into something long-term, and a couple of months into the job I was specifically offered such a role. I was torn between wanting to accept it, and feeling like a square peg in a round hole. It took me a long time to work out why it was so hard, and I didn’t understand why God brought me into such a situation (I gave up my paid job back in Hungary) when it wasn’t going to work out long-term. But through it, I learned about where I fit—it made me realise that I am not cut out for the kind of unstructured ‘people-work’ that pastors and many Christian missions require. I also learnt a lot through sharing the gospel with people from significantly different cultures from my European background. I can see God’s hand in it when I look back on how it’s worked out, but that wasn’t how I felt at the time.
Sometimes we can think that God’s faithfulness means everything goes swimmingly. But that’s not always the case. When we are walking with God through something, we have to trust that God will carry us through.
If we could fully grasp God’s faithfulness, do you think this would make a difference in how we live our lives?
Csilla: Absolutely! I think the question that I mentioned earlier, “Is God powerful enough and does he care?” is a major one for everyone. If we could believe that he is faithful, able, and willing to help, it would make a huge difference in how we approach life, and how much we trust God. I suppose that if we believe in God’s faithfulness, then in a way that’s trust; that’s faith—we are trusting in God’s character and so we don’t need to panic when challenges come up.
Faith is like a muscle that must be exercised to grow strong—often in situations where God’s faithfulness is not visible ahead of time. We must trust in the midst of situations. As we see God’s faithfulness, our trust grows.
How can we remind ourselves in each day of God’s faithfulness?
Csilla: It’s actually very simple, though not necessarily easy—we just have to do it. In Deuteronomy 8, Israel has come out of Egypt, gone through the wilderness, and they are on the threshold of the promised land. Here God is saying, “Remember. Remember how I fed you in the wilderness. Remember when you enter the richness and the fullness of the land that it wasn’t always the way. But even in the hard times I was with you” (my paraphrase).
In the Hebrew, “remember” (like a number of other verbs) is an active word. It’s not simply reminiscing about the past. When God remembers, he acts. When God remembered Noah, the rain stopped. When we remember, we need to have the same attitude of acting on that remembrance. One way of doing that is to cultivate gratitude towards God. When I look at my life now, and think of some of my uncertainties before, I thank God for bringing me this far. As I do that, it becomes easier to trust him with today’s doubts and fears.
The more we store up these memories and bring them to mind, the more we have a resource to draw from when the going gets rough. We were called from darkness into light; into a new life of holiness, and God is able to keep us from falling. “The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this” (1 Thessalonians 5:24).
Story: Csilla Saysell
Csilla lectures in Old Testament at Carey Baptist College.
Where has God been faithful in your life?
Look up some scriptures about God’s faithfulness. How can these help you to remember God’s faithfulness?
There are plenty of things in our world today that promote instantaneous results and independent living. God doesn’t always seem to work like that. Where might God be asking you to patiently trust him? Do you find this easy or difficult?
Photo Credit: Forgiven Photography/lightstock.com
Scripture: Unless otherwise specified, Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright © 1989 National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.