What is Trust?

Trust is at the heart of all of our relationships, whether human or divine. There is no such thing as a healthy relationship without it. But trust can be hard to define. Its presence or absence is often felt, but rarely considered. So what is trust? Paul Tripp gives us this helpful definition: Trust is being so convinced that you can rely on the integrity, strength, character, and faithfulness of another that you are willing to place yourself in his or her care.”

Four Examples of Broken Trust

Tripp’s definition is a great start. But to make it tangible, let’s illustrate the definition with four real-world (but fictional) examples of broken trust. Then we’ll consider how to mend it in each case.

  • Jeffrey, a teenage boy, has been secretly looking at pornography for several years now, and after a recent YoungLife event, he has become deeply convicted about his addiction and decided that it’s time to quit. For several months he has been wrestling deeply, but the habit seems as bad as ever. He has not told anyone, worried that his YoungLife leader would find out or, even worse, that his parents would find out – something he is sure his parents would never forgive him for.
  • Tom is a pastor at a small Baptist church in a rural town. Over the last twenty years, the church has never had a pastor for more than three years, but Tom has been there for five. The deacons, all life-long members of the church, have not allowed Tom to make any changes to the worship or community life of the church. They require him to submit a monthly log of how his time is spent and regularly question him about the necessity of the books and meals he has expensed. A deacon recently told him, “Your job is to preach, baptize, marry and bury. You leave the rest to us.” He is deeply discouraged, seeing so many things in the church that need to change but having no authority to work on them.
  • A few years ago Eileen and her husband went out on a date and left their three year old son with a babysitter. While away on the date, her child had an allergic reaction to peanuts (which her husband was supposed to tell the babysitter about) and had to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance. Eileen’s husband did not answer his phone when the babysitter called, so Eileen did not find out until hours later on their way home from their date. Their son was fine, but now, three years later, Eileen has a difficult time leaving her child with anyone but her mother (even her husband). Ever since the allergic reaction, she has wrestled daily with anxiety, and now, the summer before her son enters kindergarten, she has begun having panic attacks.
  • Mary committed adultery with her husband’s friend twelve years ago, just a year after they had been married. She confessed to her husband, George, after a friend confronted her, deeply ashamed and repentant. Although they were separated for over a year, after several years of marriage counseling, they reconciled. Despite George’s clear statements of forgiveness, Mary often worries that her husband still holds her sin against her. In the last year she noticed that he was more withdrawn than usual and has begun regularly and secretly checking his phone calls and text messages, wondering if he is going to retaliate against her with an affair of his own.

The Problem of Trust

In each of these situations, a lack of trust is not the only issue at hand, but it is certainly central. The amount of problems that missing / broken trust can create is incalculable. Here are the problems as seen through the lens of broken trust:

  • For Jeffrey, his unwillingness to trust others and allow them to see his addiction – what the Scriptures call “walking in the light” – is keeping his addiction in the dark, a place where growth and change cannot happen. He does not trust that his parents (or YoungLife leader) will remain faithful to him if he reveals his sin.
  • Tom is a pastor in a system of leadership (the deacons) that has learned to operate in a vacuum of trust. But it makes sense – why trust a pastor when he’s just going to leave for a better job in a few years and hurt their people? Tom has proven that he isn’t going anywhere, but their pervasive mistrust of Tom doesn’t seem to be going anywhere, and has led him into deep discouragement.
  • To Eileen, the night of the allergic reaction showed her that no one could be trusted with her child – not a babysitter, not even her husband. She believes that only she, as the mother, can be trusted. But now this inordinate amount of trust in herself combined with the total lack of trust in others has led to a life dominated by fear and worry.
  • Mary does not trust her husband’s forgiveness and faithfulness towards her, being haunted by guilt. As a result, ever since the affair, she’s been fearfully waiting for her punishment, wondering how and when it will come.

For these four friends, how can trust be built again?

The Beginning of a Solution: Who We Can’t Trust

In each situation, trust begins by realizing the truth – that no one on earth is ultimately trustworthy. It’s counter-intuitive, but true nonetheless. We believe in the fallenness of all humanity, meaning that people will fail you and let you down. Even Jesus himself, in his earthly ministry “did not entrust himself to them…for he himself knew what was in man” (Jn 2:24). So of course there is a lack of trust in these situations. Why should you trust people who are going to let you down?

So it must begin there, but the fallenness of humanity reaches further – it extends even to you. You will fail your own standards. You will let yourself down. You will break your own promises. All four situations are full of untrustworthy people, that is, people who at some point will break each other’s trust. Eileen, for instance, is right to have some measure of concern about others’ ability to care wisely for her child. But she is wrong to respond by placing her trust in herself instead. Because Eileen also lacks the wisdom and power to protect her child perfectly from a fallen world!

The True Solution: Who We Can Trust

So then, how do we build trust with untrustworthy people? We must begin with God himself, the only One who is worthy of our trust. You can go anywhere in the Scriptures and see his trustworthiness, but it is proven most clearly at the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. If ever there was a time for Jesus to be unfaithful to his people, it was at the Cross, where we hammered the nails into his body and mocked him as a fraud and a fool, watching him weep and gasp his way to death under the curse of God and hatred of his people. And yet, even then, in our most evil and hateful moment, he chose not to forsake us, but to be forsaken for us.

Do you know anyone else who would still love you even if you nailed them naked to a tree and laughed as you watched them asphyxiate? Do you know anyone who would keep a promise even if it cost them everything they had? We see in Jesus the incarnation of Paul Tripp’s definition of trust: a Person whose integrity, strength, character, and faithfulness is so perfect that we can trust him with everything, completely, knowing he will not disappoint us.

Trusting God As a Way of Trusting People

So what does that mean for our four friends? First, they must trust the God of the Cross. And only then will they be able to build trust with other people in a way that is appropriate and wise:

  • Jeffrey must trust in the unwavering faithfulness of God towards unfaithful sinners like him. Only then can he trust his parents enough to confess his sin to them, because even if they falter in their faithfulness to him, it will not be devastating, since he has a God who will never abandon him.
  • Tom’s deacons must trust in the strength and integrity of the God who has promised to build his church and advance his kingdom. Trusting an infallible God first, they can trust fallible Tom as their pastor, knowing that even if Tom’s strength fails (it will at times) or his character has some holes (it does), there is a sovereign and mighty God still at work, who cares far more about the church than even they do.
  • Eileen must trust in the character (goodness, wisdom, and love) of God. She must consider the nail-scarred Hands that hold her daughter and guide every day of her life, trusting that whatever happens goes through the filter of his faithful love. Then she can begin to trust her daughter in the hands of imperfect people, and find peace for herself.
  • Mary must trust in the forgiveness of God. Her lack of trust in her husband’s forgiveness is a reflection of her lack of trust in God’s. She thinks her sin is too great to be forgiven, but she has not considered how great of a cost was paid to purchase that forgiveness. Only as she trusts God’s promise that he does not condemn her will she begin to trust her husband’s promise of forgiveness. Then she can begin to be motivated by grace rather than guilt, by love rather than fear.

“I Know I Should But I Can’t”

One last comment by way of conclusion. Trust is not easy. Our fears are often large and loud in our lives, and it can be hard to hear the whisper of God’s faithfulness. What do we do when we know we ought to trust God, but we simply can’t? How do we make ourselves trust him?

Two things. First, pray what someone once said to Jesus in his ministry, “I believe, help my unbelief!” God loves to answer that prayer. And second, behold Him. Don’t look at yourself. Don’t look at the person who has broken your trust. Look at Him. Look at how trustworthy he proves himself to be in the Scriptures. See his faithfulness to unfaithful people in biblical history. Listen to your pastor as he preaches about the promises of God and their fulfillment in Christ. Look at Him for a month, and then take a quick look at your trust. You will find that your trust has grown as you were beholding our trustworthy God.