by Kaitlyn Haley
I sat in a stiff backed wooden chair; a counselor with kind, generous eyes sat across from me. I felt my back hunching under the weight of the embarrassment discovered when theological theory meets raw human pain and proceeds to shatter the image I had once perceived of God: the one I had once called my best friend.
A two-month mission trip to India left me questioning the theological concepts I once held to be true. It left me emotionally and interpersonally wrecked. The combination of reverse culture shock, the reality of extreme poverty, and academic theological education caused me to become callused toward religious experience. The mere suggestion of experiential religion felt like a slap to the face.
The word trust was among the greatest offenders to my emotional unrest. Many Christians find great solace in the concept of trust. We try to use trust to comfort those who have experienced loss, but unless it is born from love, trust is the result of mistaken and, at times, abusive ideas about God. We might say, “We don’t understand God’s ways, so we just need to trust. God is in control.”
Perhaps we say such things because, for us, trust has a starting place of sovereignty and is a basic duty of the Christians’ journey much like obedience might be. This is because, as Tom Oord explains in his book The Uncontrolling Love of God, such ideas begin with the concept that God’s will logically precedes God’s love. If we think in this way, God becomes a being who, perfectly in control, is worthy of trust because of this control. So, despite the suffering and evil we see in world, God is still worthy of trust, because God is in control and God’s ways are beyond our human understanding. Oord rejects this view.
For my college-sophomore-self, this concept of trust was the farthest thing from comforting. Because my concept of trust was tied to my ideas about God’s sovereignty, I lost all logical reason to trust God. I no longer found God trustworthy.
The ideas found in Tom Oord’s book can help to restore believers who find themselves questioning the trustworthiness of God by reconstructing a view of trust that begins and ends with love. When we question God’s trustworthiness, it may seem that we are questioning something essential to God’s nature. But if we maintain that God’s love logically precedes God’s will and we begin to explain suffering in the world not through God’s sovereignty, but instead through limitations God experiences, God being in control can no longer be the source of our trust. If we begin with God’s nature being love, God does not remain untrustworthy but is rather trustworthy because of the nature of God’s relationship with creation.
My own journey has lead me to believe that God is still trustworthy, even if God is not in control in the traditional ways we have often understood God to be. If God’s fundamental nature is love, God is trustworthy not because God is sovereign or because God is in complete control, but rather because God perfectly loves. By thinking in this way, our language of comfort might change from “simply trust: God is in control” to “simply trust: God has, is, and will continue to sacrifice all because God loves us.” Our concept of God then shifts from a removed being, able to save but unwilling to do so, to a loving relational being, capable of and willing to sacrifice to the point of death for creation.
Humanity then finds itself trusting God not out of obligation or an assurance that God is in control but rather out of a deep and relational love. Today, several years after my India experience, I find myself trusting God because I find myself in a relationship of love with God. We might call trust based in love a relational trust.
This trust is not based on a relationship in which God withholds critical understanding from the other for the sake of power but rather on the belief that God will continue to act in loving, relational ways regardless of the immaturity of the creation. Instead of trusting a superpower that we will never comprehend, we trust a loving being capable of relationship and loving sacrifice. We trust a being that will continue to be present to creation through all its pain and endurance of evil, who then guides the creation to participate in love.
Kaitlyn Haley is a second year Master of Divinity student at Nazarene Theological Seminary in Kansas City. Before graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Christian Ministry, Kaitlyn grew up in California and Washington State and currently enjoys visits to see her parents who reside in Honolulu, Hawaii. When not studying, Kaitlyn enjoys music, theater, party lights and fireflies (a recent discovery since becoming a Missouri resident). She is always game for deep conversations or belting show tunes.