“It requires heroic courage to trust in the love of God no matter what happens to us.” – Brennan Manning (in Ruthless Trust)
Philip Yancey’s grandma said, “Not to risk is not to really live.” What keeps us from risking anyway? Some may say fear, and some may say a lack of clarity, the clarity that God is calling us to a particular risk (my hunch is it’s a little of both). I was struck a few years back by a story I read in Brennan Manning’s book Ruthless Trust. He tells the story of a man who visited Mother Teresa. The man asked Mother Teresa to pray for him. He wanted to have clarity. Mother Teresa refused to pray that for that man and said instead, “Clarity is the last thing you are clinging to and must let go of.” Surprised, the man asked Mother Teresa if she had clarity. “I have never had clarity,” she answered, “What I have always had is trust. So I will pray that you trust God.”
Trust. Trust that God is good when it doesn’t appear to be that way (like Abraham on Mt. Moriah or Job upon the destruction of his life). Trust that God loves you. Trust that his love for you is not just some blanket, universal love of his creation but a personal and intimate love for you. Brennan Manning’s spiritual mentor told him, “You’ve got enough insights to last you 300 years. The most urgent need in your life is to trust what you have received.” Quit looking for more insight, more wisdom, he seems to be saying. Trust what you have received. That is really the great need at the bottom of all this searching.
Why is trust so elusive? We can certainly discuss trust and the need for it in a healthy, flourishing relationship. Yet trust is more than knowing. It’s exposing our innermost self to a God who will not be what we devise him to be but only who he is, and who he is may not always feel so safe. And after exposing our innermost and vulnerable self to a God we can’t control, trust is choosing to follow him regardless of the costs. And here’s the rub for me: God doesn’t promise to keep me safe from pain, suffering or death (even though many Christians build their lives around the very opposite idea, believing that God wants to spare us from pain and suffering; though this doesn’t mean we can’t ask to be spared these things and sometimes get a pleasant answer). What Jesus promised, in contrast, is the exact opposite of outward peace and prosperity. He lovingly warned his disciples on many occasions that following him had a hefty price tag. They would suffer. They would be reviled. Many would be disowned by their families. And if you’ve ever read The Voice of the Martyrs publications (a great organization providing for the needs of persecuted Christians around the globe as well as gifting cushioned Christians like me some perspective), many are suffering right now as a result of their association with Jesus in a way those of us in the West cannot imagine. And when these persecuted believers choose Jesus, they know what they are choosing and still choose him.
So God is not always safe and cushy, yet he still calls us to be vulnerable — to follow him and trust in his goodness even when we fail to comprehend how pain and suffering and death could possibly be called good. If that weren’t hard enough, let’s add the difficulty our brokenness brings into this upside-down equation. Many of us are well acquainted with the pain of not being kept “safe.” Many of us know personally what it feels like to be left in harm’s way unprotected. We’re broken, and our emotions are broken. We’re damaged goods, and it feels almost impossible to trust when we have been wounded. Yet trust asks me to do just that. It asks me to make myself vulnerable to pain and still believe in the goodness of God. Trust points to Job, who loses everything and everyone with no promise of circumstances improving in this life and still manages to declare, “Though he slay me, yet will I trust in him.” So to tell this not-so-cushy God I trust him is to say, “No matter what you lead me into today, I trust you – even if that is the darkest, hardest journey of my life to date.” And that may be harder for some than others given the state of their damaged emotional baggage. We’re not just asked to be vulnerable, we’re asked to be vulnerable with something that’s been wounded before and still stings.
But there’s an even bigger obstacle than vulnerability and emotional history. At the very root of trust is how we view God and what we hope he offers. We have to hope that what he offers is worth it. We have to trust that he himself is worth it. The exposure to which I open myself (the possible, even probable suffering) has to be worth it. Do I think that it is? Is he worth it? Because he is the one that waits on the other side of this horrible exam, encouraging me to persevere.
There’s an exam table in the doctor’s office where each of my children received immunizations. It’s where each of them sat and endured what they perceived to be horrible pain. I had told each child that a little pain now was worth it because it could spare them from an even bigger pain later. I remember each child’s eyes, aghast, leveled at me when the first shot went in. My kids seemed so surprised that the mother who was supposed to protect them and keep them safe was willingly putting them in harm’s way, standing by and not intervening to save them. Worse, I was helping hold their wiggly little bodies down so that the nurse could inflict this torture on them. I don’t forget the look of betrayal in their tearful faces. They trusted so willingly, without reserve. Why hadn’t I protected them? How could they at age 2, age 4 possibly understand that hurting them was for a greater good? Though I held their faces wet with tears and whispered, “It’s all going to be okay,” all they could hear was pain. A future hope was too abstract to seize. Also too abstract was the perspective of just how little pain this actually was compared to what they will experience as they grow and mature.
Yet isn’t our heavenly Father like a parent in this way? He knows how much we can bear like I know that my children can bear the pain of a shot even though they won’t like it. He promises we won’t ever be tested beyond what we can handle, that he will give us a way out when we need it (I Corinthians 10:13). But we’re hardly in a position to know what it is we really need because, like my children getting their shots, a future hope is abstract and perspective is skewed to the bumps and bruises of the day at hand. We suffer from a lack of imagination. We fail to picture that what is so painful to us today is completely within our ability to handle. We forget that we had full disclosure from Jesus when he counted out for us the costs of following and laid out the consequences of Adam’s sin on this world. And we suffer from a lack of hope, something the Bible tells us we acquire through suffering, hope that what is on the other side of this very short life is worth it. Hope, the Apostle Paul says, will not disappoint.
I’m convinced that my fear and my lack of imagination are the two biggest obstacles to trusting God’s good purposes in all things. Though I wouldn’t seek it, I’d willingly suffer to save the lives of my family because they are something I prize and treasure. If I prize Christ and his reign over a world in transition, I can suffer willingly because I know that it’s worth it. He is the one who has the perspective I lack, who is able to see clearly what I, through childish eyes, only see dimly. If I can just keep my eyes fixed on him with a little imagination and hope, I think I can bear it. I don’t know what suffering waits me, but I want to remember that what doesn’t look good from this side of the mirror today is quite plainly Good on the other side. One day we’ll see that clearly, and today’s pain and suffering will not matter nearly so much. We will have counted the exposure well worth it.
If only for this life we have hope in Christ, we are to be pitied more than all men. (I Corinthians 15:18)
His master replied, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master’s happiness! (Matthew 25:21)