Can God Be Trusted? Print
By Thomas D. Williams, LC   
Tuesday, 20 October 2009

The recent economic crisis has been above all a crisis of trust. Financial institutions have bent over backwards to convince us that they are trustworthy, since their entire enterprise depends on consumer confidence. Names like “First Fidelity” and “Bankers Trust” aim to evoke this confidence, as does talk of a “fiduciary” relationship between banks and clients.

Why all this effort to gain our trust? Because banks are trying to get us to entrust something very precious to them: our hard-earned money. The only way we will assume the risk of parting company with our treasures is if we trust the one with whom we leave them. So stories like the crash of Lehman Brothers, or the Ponzi scheme of Bernie Madoff, who “made off” with some $50 billion of investors’ money still send shivers down our collective spine.

The recent breakdown of trust in financial institutions is just the tip of the iceberg, however. It follows hard on the heels of many other betrayals. Perhaps never before in history has the experience of betrayal personally affected so many people. To take one obvious example, a 50 percent divorce rate means that half the people who have dared to give their lives to someone (not to mention the millions of children affected) have experienced the brutal effects of misplaced trust. It is hard to find a person who has not been let down by parents, a spouse, siblings, friends, spiritual leaders, politicians, or sundry institutions. The result of all this betrayal has been a general meltdown of trust.

As a society we have reacted to all this betrayal by making distrust a virtue. We scoff at the gullible folks who get taken in by others, and resolve never to allow that to happen to us. We seek to minimize risk while maximizing returns. We recommend pre-nuptial agreements to young couples in love, and insist on carefully crafted contracts to protect our interests. We think we are smarter because we trust less.

Unfortunately none of this works in the spiritual life. The deeper fallout from this crisis of trust has been a growing inability to trust in the one person who is absolutely worthy of it: God. The entire Christian life is predicated on trust in a God who is faithful love, and who directs all things to good for those who love him. Where there is no trust, there can be no Christianity. So while a vast majority of people profess belief in God’s existence, these same people find it incredibly difficult to actually trust him.

And here it’s important to remember the difference between trust and mere belief. Two people can look at the same frozen pond and agree that it would probably hold their weight, but only the one who trusts dares to walk across it. Trust always involves personal risk and vulnerability. It means leaving the spectator booth and getting down on the field.

The result is that most Christians risk very little in following Jesus. They keep the religion card as a minimal part of a broader portfolio, placing God alongside personal know-how, networks of contacts, property holdings, social programs, and many other sources of personal security. Limited trust in God means limited risk.

On the other hand, our society-wide crisis of trust may just have a silver lining. When we realize that banks won’t save us, and politics won’t save us, and that many times not even family or friends will save us, we are obliged to look elsewhere. The evident frailty of countless earthly realities may invite us to look upward and to seek firmer grounding for our lives.

The Bible takes great pains to show that God offers what no one else can. True, he doesn’t offer a problem-free existence, or financial success, or perfect justice in this world. But he offers bigger things, not smaller. He promises the truth. He promises unconditional, faithful friendship. He promises his companionship in good times and bad. He promises meaning and value for our work and sacrifices. And most importantly, he promises eternal life. All other treasures and sources of security inevitably end at the grave. Only God’s promises are eternal.

Maybe, just maybe, our current crisis of trust is actually a singular opportunity to rethink our priorities and redirect our confidence. Maybe it’s the moment we needed to reevaluate the Christian proposal and rediscover the value of authentic trust in God as the solid foundation stone of our lives. Maybe it’s true that for those who love God all things really do work for good.

 

Father
Thomas D. Williams LC is professor of theology and ethics at Rome’s Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum, and Vatican analyst for CBS News. He is also author of, most recently, Can God Be Trusted? Finding Faith in Troubled Times (Hachette, 2009).
 

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