By Kathleen Naab
Father Williams is author of “Can God Be Trusted? Finding Faith in Troubled Times.”
“Today’s world is rife with betrayal,” he asserts in his book, “from parents to friends to spouses to priests to institutions. The deeper problems start when we begin to question God’s trustworthiness. Many today are simply not convinced that God delivers on his promises, and this can destroy our spiritual lives. Trust is the backbone of the Christian life.”
In this interview, ZENIT asked Father Williams, a theology professor in Rome and a Vatican analyst for CBS News, to explain the nature of this crisis and the paths to a solution that he offers in his new book.
ZENIT: What moved you to write “Can God Be Trusted?”
Father Williams: I started writing this book three years ago when I realized how often in spiritual conversations people’s problems kept coming back to trust issues. It seems that everyone has problems with trust, and that many of our other spiritual difficulties are also tied in some way to the question of trust in God.
It’s uncanny how the Bible — take the book of Psalms, for instance — insists over and over again on the importance of trust as the linchpin of the spiritual life. God wants to be trusted, and seems to beg for us to rely on him unconditionally. There is nothing harder, but nothing more important, for the Christian life.
The book responds to the many doubts people have about God’s faithfulness and is written especially for those who have trouble trusting but would really like to.
ZENIT: What are some of the “issues” people have with God?
Father Williams: To write this book I enlisted a team of researchers who surveyed hundreds of people on the street about their trust in God. I wanted to be sure that I wasn’t just projecting my own experiences, but was truly responding to people’s real-life doubts, difficulties and questions.
The answers to this survey were fascinating, and spanned the gamut from those whose trust seemed indomitable to those who flat out think God is not to be trusted. Most people’s replies were somewhere in the middle, expressing a deep desire to trust God, but real difficulties in doing so.
ZENIT: For example?
Father Williams: Often these difficulties stem from a whole string of betrayals that could go back as far as early childhood. People who feel let down by their parents, for instance, usually have a much harder time trusting God — who presents himself as “Father.” Still others have been let down by priests, and this terrible betrayal wounds their relationship with God and with the Church. Some go so far as to blame themselves, concluding that they aren’t worthy of others’ faithfulness. And when someone has been burned in human relationships, it is hard to keep this from passing over to their relationship with God.
But many others really feel let down by God himself. In our survey, many claimed to have given God a chance, relying on him totally, and yet feel that he failed them. They trusted, and he didn’t measure up. This is one of the most painful experiences there is, and we needed to address that in the book.
ZENIT: What do you say to a person who feels that God has let her down?
Father Williams: What you can’t do is preach. No one wants to be told that they are mistaken, that they aren’t being fair with God, or that they’re imagining things. This isn’t right and it isn’t constructive.
Here I try to speak as a fellow pilgrim rather than a teacher. All of us have to deal with situations similar to these and we need to help one another overcome obstacles to faith and trust. The first step in recovering trust comes from understanding that God is not indifferent to our suffering. He is not apathetic or distant or unconcerned. In fact, he truly “feels our pain” even more deeply than we do. This is the message of the cross, where Jesus chose to suffer with us and for us.
ZENIT: Are there other ways to overcome our distrust?
Father Williams: I think there are many. I devote two chapters in the book to a topic I consider fundamental: the adjustment of our expectations of God. I am convinced that often — though not always — our experiences of betrayal proceed from a fundamental misunderstanding. We expect God to deliver on promises he never made, and we fail to cash in on promises that he did make!
All of us need to review our expectations of God. Who is he for me? What has he promised me? What has he never offered?
For example, Jesus Christ never promised that if we follow him, everything will go smoothly in life. He didn’t promise job security, or economic liquidity, or perfect health, or great marriages or many other things that we would really like. In fact, Jesus promised his followers a share in his cross — every day.
ZENIT: So you’re saying we need to downsize our expectations of God? If we expect less we won’t be so disappointed?
Father Williams: No, no. Just the opposite! The things we often expect from God — and get angry about when we don’t receive them — are usually temporal goods, not eternal goods. It hurts not to have them, but this can also be the path to a purer heart and clearer priorities. God doesn’t promise us less than this, he promises much more!
Just look at some of the amazing things Jesus does promise: He promises to always tell us the truth. He promises to love us always, unconditionally. He promises us everything we need to reach heaven. He promises to never demand from us more than we can give. He promises to be with us always, and never abandon us. He promises to give meaning to all our sacrifices, labors, trials and struggles. He promises to be our final reward.
These are not smaller things than job security. They are much, much greater! And God is the only one who can make and deliver on such promises.
ZENIT: Some say that trust in God is just a cop-out for lazy people who refuse to take responsibility for their own lives. Do you have an answer for them?
Father Williams: This is a typical and understandable complaint, and one that I try to tackle in the book.
Trust and responsibility are not mutually exclusive, but complementary. The key is to know what our part is and what God’s part is. The virtue of humility helps us realize that we depend on God for everything, and this realization can be very liberating. We can’t go it alone in life; we need God’s grace and friendship every step of the way because without him we can do nothing.
But this honest acknowledgement of our dependence on God shouldn’t lead to an abdication of our real responsibilities. God made us free, able to choose, to commit, and to follow through on our own projects. So it’s not God or me, but God and me. He invites us to be co-responsible with him, both for ourselves and for others.
ZENIT: In a nutshell, is this book meant to boost people’s confidence in God?
Father Williams: Absolutely. We all go through tough moments, and sometimes all we need is for someone to look us in the eye and reassure us that God is faithful, that trust is possible, and that despite our deepest sorrows and even regrets, we are loved.