Fr. Thomas D. Williams, LC, is Vatican Analyst for CBS News and teaches theology and ethics at Regina Apostolorum Pontifical Athenaeum in Rome. He is author of, most recently, Can God Be Trusted? Finding Faith in Troubled Times. National Review Online’s Kathryn Jean Lopez recently talked to him about trust.
KATHRYN JEAN LOPEZ: You ask “Can God Be Trusted?” Obviously you’re going to say yes. Why should anyone trust you and your answer?
FR. THOMAS D. WILLIAMS: I do believe that God can be trusted and he has always been trustworthy in my life. Still, I’m not trying to convince readers that I am right in trusting God. I simply wish to invite them to give God a chance, and in some cases, a second or even third chance. Trust involves risk and the acceptance of vulnerability, and this isn’t easy. I would hope that this book gives people the encouragement they may be waiting for to embrace that risk.
LOPEZ: Who is your audience?
FR. WILLIAMS: I am writing for those who don’t trust God but are willing to give it a shot. I am writing for those who wonder how religious people can possibly trust God, and would like to know why we do so.
I am also writing for believers who feel a need to grow in trust but don’t know how. Most of us believers recognize that even though we trust God, we have a long way to go. Often our trust is little more than lip service, and who we really trust is ourselves and our abilities. I invite readers to be honest with themselves and to take their trust to the next level.
LOPEZ: What is the next level?
FR. WILLIAMS: For most of us, it means trusting God not as a last resort, when our back is to the wall and all our other securities have fallen through, but as a first recourse, when we still have other options. But trusting God doesn’t imply sitting back idly waiting for God to “do something.” It means working hard, but knowing in the end that the final results depend on him. It also means rejecting anxiety and being peaceful in spite of life’s traumas.
LOPEZ: How is trust “in a sense” a virtue?
FR. WILLIAMS: A virtue is just a good habit that makes it easier to make good choices. Trust becomes virtuous when it becomes second nature, when we start trusting spontaneously and “habitually.” Sometimes we have to force ourselves to trust, and it requires real effort. The more we do this, the more natural and virtuous it becomes.
LOPEZ: On the other hand, you note that distrust is almost considered a virtue in our culture. How did we get there and how unhealthy is it?
FR. WILLIAMS: In our Western culture, and especially in America, we worship “self-made” men and women, who made it on their own against all odds. This is the stuff of our literature and our movies. We love to see the little guy who works his way up from janitor to CEO, or the mother who worked three jobs to put her kids through college with no help from anyone else. This is praiseworthy, as far as it goes, and underscores our healthy appreciation for hard work, personal responsibility, and perseverance.
On the flip side, however, it can also make us independent to a fault. We can see dependence on others as an expression of weakness, and trust in others as an expression of naïveté. In order not to get burned, we learn to rely on ourselves alone, and we begin to see distrust as a virtue to be pursued. This mentality easily carries over into our spiritual lives as well, and we can come to see God as little more than a safety net, rather than a Father and Friend who accompanies us every step of the way.
Trust requires humility, which is also not something our culture is comfortable with. How does one embrace humility and still keep one’s best interests in mind — professionally, personally . . . ?
Humility — like many virtues — is something we admire in others but often don’t practice ourselves. It’s hard to admit our dependence and our need. It’s hard to recognize how much we have received from God and others. We prefer to think we have earned everything we have, and that we don’t owe anything to anyone. This isn’t the case, however.
If humility is truth (as St. Teresa said) then it has nothing to do with putting ourselves down, belittling our qualities, or pretending we are less capable than we are. It simply means acknowledging how much we have received from God and our need for his mercy and his grace. This humility makes thankfulness possible, and makes trust a necessity.