One of the most persistent pieces of spiritual advice is to “trust in God.” Like so much of the spiritual life, what initially seems simple and direct, becomes more profound and more challenging as the years pass.
What does it mean to trust God when experience tells us that this does not mean our lives will unfold in the way we had hoped? What does it mean to trust God with loved-ones who we know will not escape suffering?
The lives of the saints—both the certified saints and those closer to home—testify to the reality that trusting God does not necessarily lead to getting what we want. But self-reflection can tell us this too. Think back a few years, how much of what you wanted was as important as you thought then? Some, surely, but not all.
And yet the timeless advice remains—“trust in God.” Here are a few lines from Jeremiah 17:
Blessed are those who trust in the Lord,
whose trust is the Lord.
They shall be like a tree planted by water,
sending out its roots by the stream.
It shall not fear when heat comes,
and its leaves shall stay green;
in the year of drought it is not anxious,
and it does not cease to bear fruit.
Notice that, although the passage says those who trust God will be like well-watered trees, it doesn’t say that they will escape the drought or the heat.
Trusting God means that we stop obsessing with having maximal control—it might be best to start with that. Increasing the extent of what we can control is the great preoccupation of our age. We think, reasonably enough, that if realizing our rightful sense of agency is a good thing, then controlling everything must be the end goal. It’s impossible of course. Sooner or later we all reckon with the fact—yes, it is a fact—that we can’t control the things we would most like to.
The Anglican priest, Martha Tatarnic, says that trusting God is not like trusting someone whose motives we understand. Rather, she says, “trusting God is surrendering to the whirlwind, the silence, the stranger, the wilderness, the wandering, the cross.”
Trusting in God is not signing a contract for a good ending. But neither is it buying into the idea that there is no difference between suffering and joy. Trusting God is not another way of saying that whatever happens happens. It is not the stoic of amor fati (love of fate).
- Trusting God involves broadening our vision of what success might look like. Moses was pretty ‘successful,’ but probably not in the way he would have anticipated as a young man growing up in an Egyptian palace.
- Trusting in God involves giving God permission to remove idols from our lives. Idols, in this sense, are things that have outgrown their rightful value. It hardly need to be said that trusting like this can be painful.
- Trusting in God involves growing our roots toward something that can sustain us even in drought. Trusting in God is gaining access to the divine nourishment that can see us through times of suffering.
Trusting God is giving ourselves over to the highest love and to the greatest mercy.