Trusting in God
“Some who think they trust in God actually sin against hope because they do not use the will and the judgment He has given them. Of what use is it for me to hope in grace if I dare not make the act of will that corresponds with grace? How do I profit by abandoning myself passively to His will if I lack the strength of will to obey His commands? Therefore, if I trust in God’s grace I must also show confidence in the natural powers He has given me, not because they are my powers but because they are His gift” (Thomas Merton, No Man Is An Island, 16-17).
Trusting in God
Trusting in God lies at the heart of the faith journey and is a central tenet of the Scriptures. Yet, it may be one of the most misunderstood aspects of the spiritual life. The centrality of trusting in God is made clear by the Sermon on the Mount (Mt 5-7). Jesus teaches his follows not to worry about what they will eat, drink, or wear (Mt 6:25). Rather, believers should place their trust in God’s ability to provide and “strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness” (Mt 6:33). To support his point, Jesus cites the examples of “the birds of the air” and “the lilies of the field” (Mt 6:26,28). Birds and lilies do not worry, toil, and strive; yet, God feeds and clothes them.
In my experience reading these verses with fellow believers in the church and with diverse students in the classroom, Jesus’ teachings appear to advocate for a passive understanding of trusting in God. Someone will inevitably respond, “So does that mean you shouldn’t get a job?” Many people read these words and believe that the life of faith is one where the believer waits for God to do all. There is no movement or effort. The believer simply receives what God gives.
Birds, Paul, and Work
Anyone familiar with watching birds, which is what Jesus suggests we should do, will find this to be a rather absurd and comical interpretation of the text. Birds spend an extraordinary amount of effort gathering food for survival. In fact, many birds live on the razor’s edge of existence. The amount of energy expended to find food, along with the energy required to reproduce and survive, is almost perfectly balanced with the energy gathered from food. However, as birds expend their energy foraging, they appear to trust that food will be there.
Using this lens gives greater clarity and complexity to trusting in God. As one works and applies his or her skill, one trusts that God will bless that work and provide life’s basic necessities. This is no passive faith of waiting. Looking at it from this perspective brings a harmony between the words of Jesus and the letters of Paul. Paul very clearly advocates for the value of hard work, even admonishing those who are idle and lazy (1 Thess 4:10; 2 Thess 3:6-8). Paul knew firsthand the labor of faith and trusting in God’s provision, as he worked at his tent-making trade while also preaching the Good News (1 Thess 2:9).
In the quote at the beginning of the article, Thomas Merton challenges believers who have a passive interpretation of trusting in God. He even goes so far as to call it a sin. These believers refuse to use the intellect, judgment, wisdom, and willpower that God gives them.
Marriage, Jobs, and Houses
A few practical examples may help to make this point more clear. In life, we are all faced with important decisions on a regular basis. Some of the most important decisions involve marriage, jobs, and home buying. Based on what Merton is saying, God gives us the ability to utilize our judgment in determining what is good and then also gives us the willpower to actualize our choices. In the case of selecting a spouse, this means one does not have to be swept along by the waves of emotion or the romance of fate. Rather, we can use our wisdom to make a choice, while simultaneously confessing the limitations of human wisdom and hoping in the grace of God.
Or consider the example of applying for a new job. There are times when job possibilities present themselves, and we may be given a new opportunity without expending much effort or willpower on our end. However, in most cases, it takes a certain amount of human initiative to secure a new job. We have to search for jobs, identify which jobs fit our interest and qualifications, apply for those jobs, interview for those jobs, and then make a decision when offered a new position. For the Christian, none of these actions are made in the absence of prayer or spiritual reflection. But, having prayed and sought discernment from God, we must then act in faith. Trusting in God means filling out a job application while simultaneously believing that God is working in and through the choices we make, even the ones where we potentially error in judgment.
One last perspective should add additional depth to this topic. Think about when a person chooses to buy a home. Our God-given wisdom and willpower is limited in many ways. Every house is not for sale. Where we choose to live is bound by the place of our employment and our economic status. Our needs vary based on the size of our family or other personal considerations. Yet, when we buy a home, we try to make a wise choice, within these limitations, that will best meet our needs. Even so, home buying is a nerve-wracking choice because there are so many variables we cannot control. What if we, in our human weakness, overlook a glaring issue with a home’s condition? Here we must trust in God’s grace to overcome the frailty of our actions. But we still act and trust.
Thomas Merton’s words should embolden Christians to live in the freedom that God has given us. Think, reflect, judge, act, and trust. God will be with us as we use the gifts bestowed upon us.
Feature image of an Indigo Bunting from Father Ted. Used under creative commons license.