In The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work, Charles Feltman begins by quoting Walter Anderson. “We’re never so vulnerable than when we trust someone,” Anderson says, “but paradoxically, if we cannot trust, neither can we find love or joy” (Kindle Location 34). Since the best translation of the “pistis” words in John’s gospel has to do with “trust,” it’s worth some time reflecting on Feltman’s little book.
Feltman’s focus is on building and sustaining trust in the workplace, but his insights can be applied in other arenas of life as well. He defined trust, at least for the purposes of his book, at “choosing to risk making something you value vulnerable to another person’s actions” (Kindle Location 78). When we trust someone, we put at risk our money, our possessions, our reputations, our futures, our hearts, and the well-being of those we love.
If that is an interesting definition of trust, then what does Jesus mean when he says to Thomas, “don’t be untrusting but rather trusting”? What does Jesus ask Thomas (and us) to put at risk and make vulnerable to Jesus’ actions? Does Jesus invite Thomas to but himself at risk for Jesus’ sake and to rely on Jesus to take care of him? I think that’s part of what is going on here.
Feltman suggests that our choice to trust someone is based on four assessments of how we think someone is likely to act (not just once but in general). Those four assessments are of another’s sincerity, reliability, competence, and care (Kindle Location 92). He argues that when we put these assessments together, “they define what we consider to be a person’s trustworthiness.” At the very least, Jesus’ resurrection and subsequent appearance to the disciples is a demonstration of God’s reliability and competence.
Distrust, Feltman continues, “is essentially the opposite of trust in that it is a choice not to make yourself vulnerable to another person’s actions.” He argues that distrust is the outcome of a negative assessment of the four features mentioned above. Distrust is the general assessment that “what is important to me is not safe with this person in this situation (or any situation)” (Kindle Location 99). “Thomas,” Jesus urges, “don’t treat me as if I will hurt you.”
Trust enhances the healthy functioning of a workplace culture. Distrust damages that healthy functioning. Distrust produces defensive strategies that focus on self-protection and get in the way working together. The results of distrust are withdrawal, resentment, and contempt. The portion of the brain activated by distrust is the area that produces the stereotypical fight, flight, or freeze responses to danger.
“Trust is fundamental to our sense of safety, autonomy, and dignity as human beings,” Feltman writes. “It is also an integral part of every relationship we have” (Kindle Location 126). This statement causes me to wonder if Jesus is talking to Thomas only about trusting in Jesus. I begin to wonder if Jesus’ words to Thomas are about trusting or distrusting the testimony he had received from the other ten disciples regarding Jesus’ resurrection appearance.
Could it be that Jesus is showing Thomas that Thomas already had what he needed for abundant life with Jesus in the testimony of the other disciples? I think that’s a possible way to read this part of the Johannine account. Thomas could have been the first of those to trust without having firsthand experience. Thomas could have been the first of a long line of disciples (including us) who come to trust in Jesus by means of the apostolic testimony. He could have been blessed with that gift of trust if he had been open to it.
I don’t know if that’s an undercurrent in this portion of the Johannine account, but I would suggest that it’s worth considering. This sort of trust would have been a very important part of life in the Johannine community as the first generation of the apostles died and left only their testimony to the church. It’s an important part of our life as disciples two millennia later, when we continue to hear the witness and build our trust in Jesus upon that apostolic word.
The four assessments Feltman outlines in his book have applications to the Johannine account. Sincerity means that a person says what they mean and means what they say. The Johannine author repeatedly stresses this element of Jesus’ words. They are “true,” in the sense that Jesus is sincere. Jesus is also reliable. The gospel account is a report that in Jesus, God does what God has promised to do – to give life in Jesus’ name and to make those who receive him “children of God.”
The Resurrection is the clearest demonstration of God’s competence to love the world and give abundant life to all. This competence is rooted in God’s care (John 3:16ff), Care, according to Feltman, “is the assessment that you have the other person’s interests in mind as well as your own when you make decisions and take actions. Of the four assessments of trustworthiness,” Feltman continues, “care is in some ways the most important for building lasting trust” (Kindle Location 193).
Perhaps this last feature of trust can remind us of Jesus’ words in the Farewell Discourse. We are now Jesus’ friends. We are those for whom Jesus lays down his life. In the same way that Jesus cares for us as his friends, we are to care for one another. Therefore, our actions must reflect our words if we are to be trusted as Jesus is trusted.
We live in an era where trust is at historically low levels – trust in neighbors, trust in institutions, trust in public leaders, trust in scientific methods and conclusions, trust in scholarship, trust in expertise, trust in business and financial institutions, trust in coworkers and colleagues, trust in family and friends. If trust is the lubricant that makes communal life possible, it is no wonder that our common life is grinding to a screeching halt.
It could be that churches are called in this moment to be oases of trusting in this massive desert of distrust. If that’s the case, then we have a significant problem. Religious institutions are no more trusted than any other institutional structures in our culture. In some ways, religious institutions experience less trust than many other such institutional structures. And with good reason.
We can certainly point to the high-profile failures of religious leaders – financial malfeasance, sexual abuse and infidelity, pursuit of power regardless of the consequences, adoption of a celebrity cult and culture. Add to this the clear disconnect between the stated values of many religious institutions and their actual behavior, and churches face the same crisis of trust (or worse) that afflicts other organizations.
A local congregation can’t fix all the screaming betrayals of which churches are currently guilty. But we can seek to be visibly trustworthy in our own realms of responsibility. When we say, “all are welcome,” for example, do we act as if that’s true? If not, we dare not say it. If we want to say it, then we have to do the work to make sure it’s actually true all the time.
Do we say that we care for the poor and needy, in accord with Jesus’ instructions? If we say that, how can congregations be sitting on billions of dollars in cash, investments, real estate, and other instruments while people go hungry and declare bankruptcy and get evicted and live on the streets? I’m so impressed with the work of congregations, judicatories, and institutions to buy and forgive medical debt, for example, by leveraging some of that hoarded wealth. That’s behavior that makes a difference.
Do we say that we are committed to racial justice and equity? Then how do we White Christians allow our worship spaces to still be the most segregated spaces in American society? Perhaps we White Christians really do need to close our congregations, join Black congregations, sit in the back row, and keep quiet for two hundred and fifty years. That might be what it takes to really bring some repair to our relationships.
Perhaps we would be regarded as trustworthy if we started to give back the stolen land upon which our facilities are built. That gives me an upset stomach, because the same thing can be said about my home and the land upon which it is built. But just because I don’t like it doesn’t make it any less true.
What does our faith life look like if our priority is to be trusting rather than untrusting, to be trustworthy rather than untrustworthy? It looks a hell of a lot different than the current picture.
References and Resources
Feltman, Charles; Sue Annis Hammond. The Thin Book of Trust: An Essential Primer for Building Trust at Work. Thin Book Publishing. Kindle Edition.
Koester, Craig. “Hearing, seeing, and believing in the Gospel of John. https://digitalcommons.luthersem.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1021&context=faculty_articles.
Lewis, Alan E. Between Cross and Resurrection: A Theology of Holy Saturday.
Schneiders, Sandra Marie “The Lamb of God and the Forgiveness of Sin(s) in the Fourth Gospel.” The Catholic Biblical Quarterly 73/1 (January 2011): 1-29.
Schneiders, Sandra M. “Touching the Risen Jesus: Mary Magdalene and Thomas the Twin in John 20.” CTSA Proceedings 60 (2005), 13-25.
Wallace, Daniel. Greek Grammar: Beyond the Basics.
Wright, N. T. Resurrection of the Son of God.
Wright, N. T. Surprised by Hope. HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.
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