I think you have trust issues.
Don’t take it personally. I’m not singling you out, I’m pretty sure most people have trust issues of some sort or another. For some people, it’s that they don’t trust, at least not easily. Perhaps they’ve been hurt in the past, and develop a hardened, ‘me against the world’ attitude. Relationships become full of insecurity and suspicion (you only have to watch Jeremy Kyle’s lie detector tests to see countless examples of this). Other people find they trust too easily, quick to believe each new acquaintance is the hero they’ve been waiting for, and every new philosophy, self help book or diet is the one that will definitely work, and find themselves disappointed and hurt over and over. Most of us are probably more complex than those two extremes. I, if you’re interested, have a tendency to trust people quickly – happily sharing my life story with anyone who seems nice enough – but am equally quick to doubt people, if my experiences, feelings or insecurities in any way suggest that they might not be as genuine as I thought or might not stay true to their word.
It’s no secret that Christianity is all about trust. Numerous conversations with a friend of mine about the reasonableness of Christian faith all boiled down to his conclusion that he couldn’t believe in something “just because someone said so”, the something in this case being the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, and the someone being the gospel writers. Different Christian traditions might prioritise different reasons for having faith, but it usually seems to come down to “because someone said so” – whether that someone is Biblical authors, early church theologians, Christians we know, or a voice inside ourselves – Christian faith comes down to trusting someone that their message is true. When we talk about having reasonable faith then, a large part of what we mean is that we have good reason for trusting those people. So my conversations with that friend turned to when it might be reasonable to believe something just because someone said so.
The season of advent, as well as looking forward to Christmas and the birth of Christ, is a time to look forward to his coming again one day. That he would return as judge of the whole world, to finally put an end to evil and to fully bring in God’s kingdom on a renewed earth with no more pain and suffering, is a huge promise. If I really believe it, it should have a dramatic effect on the way I live my life now. I want to think more about the effects of that promise on life in the waiting room, but I’ll leave those thoughts for another post, because for now, I need to go back to those reasons for trusting what someone says. If I’m going to let this particular promise change every aspect of my life, I need to be sure that I can take Jesus at his word on this one. So, here are my top five reasons for taking someone at their word:
5. What they say is reasonable and realistic.
The first thing I’d do is assess whether what someone is saying makes sense, not “pie in the sky” as my mother calls it. Are they promising me money that I know they don’t have? Are they promising to make the impossible happen? Or are they telling me something which actually, I find remotely credible? In the case of Jesus promising that he’ll return as judge and king, I’d say it would make little sense for anyone else to have said – but if Jesus really is the Son of God, which on the basis of the evidence I’ve looked at I believe he is, then it makes some sense that he is not done with this world but will return to finish his work and set it right.
4. The testimony of others agrees.
When an offer seems to good to be true, or I sense a scam on the internet, the first thing I usually do is Google it. There are forums all over the place where bargain hunters either bear witness to a money off voucher that really did work, or report scams so that others don’t fall into the same trap. Of course, herd mentality is exactly what leads whole groups of people to fall victim to hoaxes, all believing because people around them did, but considering the thought out opinions of other people we trust can still be used as a helpful guide. For me, the number of highly intelligent people who have thought about, written about, questioned and yet firmly believed in the promise that Jesus will return over the last 2000 years is reassuring. I know a fair few less intelligent, gullible types have believed it too, but that doesn’t invalidate the rational thinking of the others! As I look around me now, the faith of my family and friends who I respect and trust gives me reason to think there must be at least some grounds for believing this promise.
3. There is evidence of previous promise-keeping form.
It’s hard to keep believing the same promise over and over, when you’ve been let down. The words which used to gain your trust become meaningless when prefaced with “This time, I really promise…” We rely on past form to help us know whether to trust a promise again. On the flip side then, if a promise has been kept in the past, it’s much easier to trust that it will be kept again. When it comes to promises and predictions about himself, Jesus has good form. He told his disciples that he would be rejected and killed – less of a promise than a preparatory warning – which turned out to be absolutely true, down to every detail. More than that, he promised that he’d be raised from the dead and again, according to the evidence we have, and the failure of any other theory to explain the evidence satisfactorily, I’m convinced that Jesus also kept this promise. In my personal experience, I’ve found that every promise Jesus made to his followers has been true in my life – so it makes sense to trust in this big promise too.
2. The trustworthy character of the promise maker.
C.S. Lewis in his famous trilemma made the case that Jesus was no good moral teacher. Given the claims he made about himself, he had to be ‘mad, bad, or God.’ The problem for those who dismiss Jesus’ claims as absurd is not only that he showed no signs at all of being mentally ill, but also that he displayed a perfect moral character – to the extent that those looking to kill him couldn’t even invent stories of his wrongdoing, and instead could only having him arrested for blasphemy: claiming to be God. Which might well be wrong, unless of course you are God. Having examined him, Pilate could find no wrong in him, and tried to wash his hands of the blood of a man he knew to be totally innocent. As I read the gospels and see the astonishing compassion, humility, love and grace shown by this man, I find myself prepared to trust his promises like I’d trust no other.
1. Relationship with the promise maker.
It seems most obvious of all, but it makes all the difference. When someone makes a promise, my relationship with that person plays a huge part in whether I trust them. A promise made in the context of real relationship means something special, there’s something at stake. Our friendship acts as the deposit, the guarantee. In the context of relationship, we can constantly probe, test, build up trust through the little things, and find ourselves trusting friends with big things. Jesus promised his followers that in the time between his bodily leaving earth and his return again, he’d send them the Holy Spirit. The New Testament calls the Holy Spirit both the spirit of God and the spirit of Christ, through whom we can have relationship with the Father and the Son now. Paul calls him a “deposit, guaranteeing what is to come”. It is the day by day experience of relationship with God in Christ, trusting him with the little things and experiencing his faithfulness, seeing him at work in me and in other Christians, that convinces me that such a huge promise for the future really can be trusted.
So, if you have trust issues, you’re not alone. If you think Jesus’ return is a pretty serious promise not to be believed lightly, same here. But it seems to me that according to the tests I usually use to work out if I can trust someone, and if I can take them at their word, this promise of Jesus passes every time. What criteria do you use to decide whether to believe something? What did I miss? Are there instances where you believe, even little things, just because someone says so? Do you think the promise of Jesus’ return really does fulfil these criteria or is it just too good to be true? Is it even good at all…? More on that next time.