BBC Radio 4 Thought for the Day, led by Dr Revd Sam Wells on 05/09/2019

Good morning. We’ve heard a lot about loyalty this week. When you say to someone, ‘Can I count on your support?’, the answer you dread is, ‘It depends on what you’re going to do.’ Because that answer suggests your friend has a loyalty higher than loyalty to you. They’re saying, ‘You can’t count on my support, but someone (or something) else can.’

Ronald Reagan developed a habit when speaking on controversial subjects. He would shift his head to a 45-degree angle, beyond his audience, beyond America, to something only he could see, a destiny visible only to the anointed president; and he would hope that his people would trust him to lead them there. The fictional President Bartlet in The West Wing took the same approach. Like a high priest in the temple, he would gaze at that 45-degree angle out of the Oval Office window and find a truth beyond destiny.

We think loyalty is an unqualified blessing. But it can evoke profound pain. To say, ‘I can’t support you because I’m supporting a higher good,’ can cost relationships, and in professional life, careers, reputations, even personal safety. And we may come to regret it. The book and film The Remains of the Day tell the story of a butler who gave up all personal fulfilment in loyalty to a master, a cause and a social system that in the end prove unworthy of it. The agony of the story is what you do with loyalty that you later discover to have been misplaced.

When it feels like life is a complete failure, the loyalty of family or friends can be the most important thing of all. By contrast you can achieve all the awards and acclaim to be had but if you’ve lost the loyalty of the people that matter, you’ve no one with whom to share that success.

Jesus found at the crucial moment he couldn’t rely on the support of his closest followers. They betrayed, denied, or fled. In the end faith isn’t about specific beliefs or passionate convictions or particular rituals. It’s about being drawn to a higher loyalty – and moments of crisis or decision simply reveal to us and to others what that higher loyalty is.

The most remarkable thing about Christianity is not that courageous people give up their lives out of loyalty to a God whose existence we can’t prove and whose faithfulness we can’t guarantee. The most remarkable thing is the conviction that God continues to be loyal to us, however unworthy of that trust we prove to be. The real question from a Christian perspective is not will we regret loyalty to God but will God regret loyalty to us.