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November 17, 2014

I have had a number of research assistants over the years. Some have been good. Some have been amazing. A few (a truly small minority) have been worse than useless. I have been entirely unable to trust them to complete the tasks I give them.

Oddly, I have also had excellent assistants who I have been unable to trust to do certain tasks. I have had a project on the back burner for some time now that requires an extensive literature search – I have currently read more than one thousand scientific articles on a single subject and expect to triple that number at minimum. If I had someone help me and they did not do it right that would be actually make matters worse than if I had no help. I would believe that I had all the information I needed from certain articles but I would not – I might even have flat-out incorrect information. I have yet to find a research assistant I can trust with this task.

The kinds of trust in action here are very different. My awful assistants can’t be trusted because their intentions are not trustworthy. Almost all of my assistants have been either paid for their work or have received school credit. A few have attempted to do as little as possible to receive those benefits – their aims and mine are misaligned and I cannot trust what they are up to. When I have found myself unable to trust my better assistants to perform certain tasks the issue has been different. In the project I mentioned above the issue has been one of expertise. My assistants have all been undergraduates and they simply lack the skills to be trusted to get the job done correctly no matter how hard they try.

As Christians we talk a lot about trusting God and failing to trust God. However, we rarely discuss the fact that we can fail to trust God in multiple different ways. Like my trust issues with my assistants we can fail to trust God’s motives or His abilities. Moreover, we can fail to trust His motives and His abilities in more than one way.

Motives are the easy one. We can fail to trust that God intends good things for us. Frankly, this is sometimes pretty easy – following God in anything but the most superficial sense demands sacrifices and sometimes one has to wonder if the sacrifices are worth the reward. Are we doing surgery which hurts but has an end that is better than the beginning or are we just slicing ourselves up? Sometimes we see rewards – I think some of the success I’ve had working with people (which has been pretty valuable for me in my career) is because I try to treat people right. Sometimes we mostly see downsides – I hear that Christ brings peace and joy but I often feel like if I could take a day to be totally unchristian to the people who stress me out the most I could probably drive them off and increase my peace and joy quite a lot.

Motives can be more complex than this, though. If I pray for something good to happen to me I can trust that God wants good things for me or I can believe that God is mostly interested in teaching me hard lessons. A lot of the stress young adults face about choosing colleges and careers stems from this sort of thinking. The whole idea that there is one path for your life that God has ordained and that diverging from it is a disaster assumes that God is not the sort of person who will help you but rather the sort of person who will let you learn a hard and lengthy lesson for your mild disobedience. A lot of modern Christians have a similar sort of issue with asking God for things. What if God is mostly interested in teaching me how to do without? What if God’s idea for my perfect life is a rather Buddhist lack of needfulness for anything? Maybe I need a car for my job and I’m having trouble finding one I can afford but rather than pray for one I’ll assume God intends to teach me to be grateful even when I lose my job because I can’t get to work anymore. (The opposite of this, the idea that God wants to give us every stupid thing we can think of to want, is also a huge problem. In fact, sometimes we make the mistake I just discussed in order to be sure to avoid the mistake of the health-and-wealth gospel.) Ultimately this is about trust – do I trust God to want good things for me? Sometimes the answer is yes but only after “good things for me” has been redefined to look like things that will not be enjoyable any time soon.

Trust in abilities is somewhat more interesting to me. I hear this one referenced rather rarely and almost always in reference to miracles. “Don’t you trust that God has the power to create the world/raise the dead/heal?” However, Dallas Willard points out that what we are more likely to fail to trust is God’s ability to know what is best for us. Or, more specifically, we are more likely to believe that while God has some great moral advice for us His knowledge is mostly restricted to what we now think of as personal morality. God is not generally thought of as smart or clever – He doesn’t understand how the world works and so outside of a limited scope of actions He just can’t be trusted. Part of being Christian, though, is to assert that no one understands the world better than God. While this can create problems – turn the other cheek seems crazy, the economic system found in the Law would destroy Wall Street, and our litigious culture may find New Testament advice about lawsuits uncomfortable – it does seem more Christian.

There’s also room to discuss these different sorts of trust when we are talking about trusting people. In American Christianity it seems unfortunately easy to believe that because someone is a trustworthy person (their intentions are trustworthy) that they should be trusted with tasks that require a lot of skill. However, this could develop into a rather large side note of its own (do we believe that God will grant someone skills on the basis of their moral character or do we just not realize that “I trust you to do what is right” and “I trust that you know what is right” are different?) and so I will not pursue that line of thought further.

Often when I have run across people who struggle in some aspect of their faith I have heard this labeled as a trust issue. Perhaps it is. However, what I wish to suggest with this article is that this is an insufficient diagnosis. “It’s a virus” is a medical diagnosis but it matters quite a bit which virus. Much as medical treatment will take different routes depending on the species of viral infection our attempts to grow spiritually will probably benefit from a more careful diagnosis of our trust issues.

One Comment leave one →
  1. November 17, 2014 1:44 pm

    “If I pray for something good to happen to me I can trust that God wants good things for me or I can believe that God is mostly interested in teaching me hard lessons.”

    I think this is partly context. For example, I think I internalized the “God wants you to step out of your comfort zone” message when I was younger as “what God wants for you is probably something you do not want.” The subtext is “discomfort is a normal part of life” but how you take it depends on whether you’ve already accepted that.

    I wonder if that mirrors what others have taught about trust. If we learn that trust means “I may still hurt you or act against you, but accept that it’s because I have a good reason” then we’ll probably see God as asking for a convoluted sort of trust as well.

    Good point about trust in abilities (or, perhaps it could be said, trust in God’s priorities and value system). A lot of those examples get interpreted away, and it’s easy to see that as simple cognitive dissonance.

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