Trust and Act

The article, From Fear to Trust, described various ways of growing in the virtue of trust in God. The emphasis was on living the spiritual life passionately. However, we should not overlook the fact that we become ourselves through our actions. That is where our call to evangelization comes in—our call to bring the Christian Vision to those inside and outside the Church. For evangelization is an exercise in trust. A commitment to the work of evangelization is a commitment to growth in trust of God.

Holy Dialectic. What does evangelization have to do with trust in God? There is a dialectic at work here—reasoning that entertains opposing ideas and seeks to resolve their conflict. You’ll catch the dialectic in St. Ignatius’ two-sided principle that should underlie our work of evangelization of others. Fr. Jules Toner, SJ describes it this way: “Trust in God and pray as if everything depended on Him alone (with your actions counting for nothing); and act as if everything depended only on your own efforts.”

On the one hand, to be effective evangelizers we must attribute primacy of importance to God’s action and therefore give primacy of importance to reliance on prayer. On the other hand, we must value our natural gifts and human effort to complete Christ’s mission. You might be thinking that you can’t have it both ways.

Honest Humility. St. Ignatius resolves the opposition of these two ideas with an important distinction. He reminds us that our natural gifts are gifts of our Creator. We owe our every thought, our every feeling, our every act of will to God as our Creator. Now how does this distinction resolve the dialectic? St. Ignatius is telling us that we must practice great humility in our work of evangelization.

Humility is the virtue of understanding and accepting our human condition as well as our total dependence on God’s all-pervading presence and power. The whole spiritualization process of the Spirit growing us in love, hope and faith is grounded on our virtue of humility. And an ever growing trust in God is the fruit of that process.

Divine Empowerment. Further, we must be keenly aware that God acts intimately in our lives and that only God’s action can do anything to bring about His greater glory in ourselves or give our efforts any power to help bring about His Kingdom among people.

In Scripture, we read: (John 15:5) “I am the Vine; you are the branches. Whoever lives in Me and I in him shall produce a large crop of fruit. Apart from me, you can’t do a thing.” Again in 2 Corinthians 3:5 “…not because we think we can do anything of lasting value by ourselves. Our only power and success come from God.” The great apostle St. Paul understood very well the source of his strength.

Christian Ministry. Therefore, our Christian ministry to others must begin and be carried on with prayer for God’s help. We must constantly seek to know God’s will in the concrete situation. We must ask ourselves: Are we getting ahead of ourselves? Have we prayed enough for the Spirit’s guidance? Have we prayed enough for those whom we want to evangelize? We must have complete trust in His wisdom to know what are the better goals and better ways to these goals. We must have complete trust in His power to accomplish them. And we must have complete trust that He will work in us and that his gifts to us will flow through us to those whom we want to evangelize. Evangelization is an exercise in trust in God!

“On the other side,” says Father Toner, “we must do all that lies in our power and make every human effort to cooperate with God. For ordinarily God acts through us to achieve His purposes. He acts effectively through our human intelligence, imagination, affections, freedom, initiative, bodily activity.” Therefore, we must summon up all our courage and energy to do Christ’s work.

Creative Tension. Trusting and acting must be kept in creative tension, neither watering down one or the other, but at the same time fully acknowledging our powerlessness and exercising trust in God, and fully employing our efforts and talents. We must grasp both extremes and hold them together in the spiritually healthy and truthful tension of this two-sided principle, neither willing to let go or weaken either side.

Rather than working at odds, our trusting and our acting impact one another. Our growth in trust in God energizes us for action, for we are trusting in a God Who acts through our freedom, intelligence and energy. Our action becomes an expression of our trust in God and thus deepens our trust. And the more we trust, the more we will yield to the Spirit’s invitations to evangelize.

The fruit of living in creative tension creates a newness in us. First, it changes our vision of ourselves and God’s role in our evangelization. We see our actions as coming from God and our achievements as dependent on God’s power. Second, it converts us to become would-be apostles, because we know intuitively that by ourselves we are powerless to live in creative tension. Our situation is very much like the alcoholic who realizes his or her powerlessness to give up drink, and must surrender to a Higher Power. Likewise, we are forced to tap into our Higher Power to trust and act.

From Fear to Trust

The previous article highlighted the growth rhythm of invitation and yielding in all of life, including the spiritual life. A reader responded to this article in an email: “Before anyone will yield there must be trust.” A precious insight! Trust is the underlying disposition needed to yield. Therefore, our potential to grow depends on our capacity to trust. But trust and yielding don’t come easily. What makes it so difficult? And how do we grow in trust?

Fear in Genes. Imagine the dawn of reason for mankind. Primitive people gazing at creation. Seeing their own fragility. Experiencing life’s suffering and dying. I suspect that the first question human beings asked themselves was: “Is reality hostile or can it be trusted.” Right from the start, fear was planted in our genes.

Psychologists tell us that children between the ages of four and six discover that the inner feelings they have of themselves are not “in synch” with the world around them. Reality, which includes the cosmos and God within it, is in some way hostile to them. This early childhood conclusion leads to the formation of defensive, controlling, manipulative personalities that are aggressive toward the world, conforming to the world, or withdrawn from the world.

To break out of the pathology associated with our personality type, we can take a number of approaches. One, we can undergo serious self-discovery to work our way through our personality trap. Two, we can bring to bear on our search for the fullest life the best in Christian spirituality—no dualism that pits body against soul.  Three, we can experience a transforming, psycho-spiritual experience on an encounter retreat.

In the article, Jesus’ Transformation, I shared my personal experience of discovering the pockets of self-hate in my life in the loving environment of an encounter retreat, becoming angry with myself and then breaking out into ecstatic joy. Note the words I used: “At that moment, I knew beyond doubt that love was at the heart of reality, whom I called God; that all creation was lovable; that I was lovable.” I had discovered the answer to the essential question buried in our subconscious: Is reality hostile or can it be trusted? Discovering love at the heart of reality can be the breakthrough experience that puts us on the path to deep trust. But we still have to work at it.

Semantics of Trust. The word “trust” is too important to leave vague. Trust is not simply faith, with which it is often confused. So, let’s first look at the term “faith.” Theologian Paul Tillich tells us that faith is not an act of knowledge that has a low degree of evidence. Nor should faith be understood as the contents of faith as we recite in the Creed at Mass. But faith is our total commitment to God as the ultimate center of our lives. Tillich describes an act of faith “as an act of a finite being who is grasped and turned to the infinite.”

Now, there is a connection between faith and trust. Trust is the face of faith. Trust is the way people act when they have deep faith. But how do people act when they trust? I believe that Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer gives us a clue. In his discussion of suffering, he writes: “Suffering is never an absolute; it is not an end in itself or even a higher state of godliness than blessing. Both suffering and blessing are fruits of setting ourselves entirely at God’s disposal.”

From Bonhoeffer’s insight, we can draw out an understanding of the virtue of trust. Trust is the capacity to set oneself entirely at God’s disposal—despite our vulnerability. If we shy away from vulnerability, our trust in God will not deepen. We must remember that we are setting ourselves at the disposal of the One Who is Love. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was martyred by the Nazis in World War ll.

Centering prayer is a good example of how faith and trust operate in our spiritual life. It is our faith that draws us to centering prayer, our total commitment to God as the ultimate center of our lives—the Mystery who transcends our knowing and is beyond all understanding. But it is our trust in God that enables us in centering prayer to yield ourselves to the unknown, to put ourselves at the disposal of the unknown. In our wordless prayer we experience our total inadequacy to do what we are doing; we don’t know what the results will be; we just do it. It is our trust that turns centering prayer into a love affair with God.

Growth in Trust. The person who loves much will trust much. Living the spiritual life passionately opens us up to growth in the virtue of trust in God. Further, we grow in trust by direct experiences of trusting God:

Once we experience God as the Infinite Lover at the core of our personhood radiating out love beams through our mind, heart and will, we make a practice of connecting with our Center. And we grow in trusting that Center to recreate ourselves from the inside out and empower us to live a life of love.

Once we experience God as Divine Eros inviting us to greater growth and love, we make a practice of being attentive to the Spirit’s invitations and praying to the Spirit for enlightenment. And we grow in trusting the Spirit to guide us on our spiritual journey.

Once we experience God as taking over our lives to carry on Jesus’ ongoing Incarnation, we make a practice of looking for the movements of our hearts that push us beyond ourselves to act out of love for others. And we grow in trusting the Risen Jesus to operate in our lives.

Besides growing in trust of God by the direct experiences noted above, we also learn to trust in God from other realms of our life. For example, our appreciation and thankfulness for the beauty in nature and the arts can move us to greater trust in the One who is the source of all beauty. Another example: married couples risk vulnerability by putting themselves at the disposal of one another. From this experience they can learn to grow in trust of one another, but it can also be the path to greater trust in God.

Message of Trust. In The Jesus Myth, Fr. Andrew Greeley states that the core Christian message is above all a message of trust: “This message speaks to the most fundamental questions a person can ask: Is reality malign or gracious? Jesus replies that it is gracious to the point of insane generosity….The Really Real is generous, forgiving, saving love.”

According to Greeley, Jesus called for a change of life vision based on this new understanding of reality.  Jesus urged us to rejoice in God’s fulfilled promise. Jesus proclaimed that we should be confident, despite suffering, injustice, misery and death; everything would still be all right in the end. Why? Because God is Love and God will triumph. We are called to a conversion from fear to living lives of trust in God. How often do we hear in the Gospels Jesus proclaiming, “Be not afraid!”

Greeley gives us a new understanding of Jesus’ revelation. What I see in   Greeley’s thinking is that Jesus’ revelation contains both a religious and an erotic message. The religious message found in Scripture that God would send a Savior for humankind has been realized in Jesus. The erotic message, hardly ever mentioned, is that the deep, erotic longing of the human heart to trust reality, to be free of fear, has been fulfilled by God through Jesus who knows the human heart.

Preachers have tended to focus on Jesus’ religious message and ignore Jesus’ erotic message, but it is his erotic message that keeps the Christian message fresh and relevant, not just for Jesus’ day, but for all time. In fact, it is the erotic nature of Jesus’ revelation that makes Jesus so unique, so believable. It explains why Jesus’ ministry moved from one of preaching repentance for sin and baptizing to one of preaching that the kingdom was at hand, that a new age of trust had dawned for humankind. To grow in our capacity to trust and yield, we must grasp the core message of the GOOD NEWS and live it.

Trust through Resurrection. Jesus’ crowning message is the message of Resurrection. We are Resurrection people. Therefore, we are people of trust. Trust is the face of our beliefs. We believe that Jesus brought life out of death. We believe what Jesus told us: namely, that we had to undergo death experiences to receive new life. In our lifetime, we suffer many death experiences—the death of our youth, our wholeness, our dreams, our honeymoons. It is precisely in these life events that we are called to practice resurrection; we are called to grow in trust in God. The poet Wendell Berry gave this advice: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts….Practice resurrection. Practice coming alive again.” Resurrection people are a people who trust in God.

Earlier I said that trust was the face of faith. In reality, trust is the fruit of the spiritualization process. Trust is the face of faith, hope and love—the works of the Spirit within us.