Friday, June 1, 2007

Must Trust Be Earned?

Published in Arizona Family News--June, 2007

Just like honest communication, common values, and enjoying each other’s company, trust is a necessary component of a marriage destined for survival. Most observers readily agree upon this much. However, as is often the case when everyone seems to agree at first, this consensus is based upon a failure to be clear about the meaning of a key word. Education and love and justice are universally praised values, but the devil (and the dispute) is in the details. Of course trust is vital, but do people really know what trust is?

To understand trust, allow me to contrast it with it’s opposite: prudence. Prudence is what we call it when people take account of the past and then use it to guide their behavior in the future. It’s prudent to put the dog on a leash after he nips at someone. It’s prudent to loan your car to your teenager again when he returns it safely the first time. Prudence, whether it entails having confidence in someone or the opposite, is guided by reason. But this is not trust.

Trust is essentially imprudent (and, hence, unreasonable) because trust extends confidence beyond what is deserved. Trust is giving the teenager the car after he has mishandled it previously, or even giving it to him the first time. Trust, you see, is what you give to someone who has not earned it; what you choose to do when you are unsure whether the person will handle it responsibly. In short, if you have total certainty (as much as that is possible for humans regarding other humans) that the other person is “trustworthy,” then trust is not in play at all.

To trust is to give the benefit of the doubt to someone, to believe in his abilities even when you have reason to think this is a foolish thing to do. In fact, the more reason tells you to beware, the more trust exists when you ignore or merely discount the counsel of reason. But it is precisely this sort of trust which is necessary in a marriage.

This sort of trust doesn’t need to know where someone has been, instead choosing to believe a good answer exists without needing to actually know it. This sort of trust is shown when a father tells a son that his mother is correct even though he initially disagrees with what she has said. To be blunt, trust is currency put at risk. If there is no risk, there is no trust. And those who think that trust needs to be earned simply do not comprehend this point.

As I have recently grown fond of saying, the key to a good marriage is both people consistently treating each other better than they deserve. And trust is one very important example of this principle put in action. Merely having confidence in someone to the degree that he or she has earned it is not trust. It’s prudence. Having more confidence than is warranted is the sort of thing that will nourish a marriage. And this should make it all the more clear that trust is neither a feeling nor a reward, but a gift made with the will…much like it’s close cousin, love.

That being said, I’d be remiss in this brief essay if I didn’t say at least a bit about betrayal. As should be clear already, the very act of trusting is an invitation to betrayal. But how can trust be given in the wake of a betrayal? Simple. Remember the formula. Any confidence beyond what is merited is an expression of trust. So, the greater the betrayal, the smaller the act of confidence required to represent trust. After a major betrayal, even a small amount is more than has been merited. A spouse who has been unfaithful has no complaint when the offended party requires email passwords, time reckonings, money accounts, a job change, and anything else, reasonable or not.

Trust in such a case could take the form of requiring none of this, but it could also take the form of simply not requiring all of it. Although not demonstrating maximum trust, even small gestures of trust, such as allowing the cell phone to be returned to a cheater, still embody the unmerited nature of grace involved in all expressions of trust.

But even in these cases, one must never be misled into thinking that the level of trust to be given should be based on what is safe or reasonable, for that is not trust at all. In short, the recipient of trust who is thinking clearly will recognize the gift for what it is, a gift that honors and humbles the recipient precisely because it is not merited. And it is in this sense that I say that trust is not only necessary in a strong marriage because it edifies the unworthy, but also because it is Divine in the way it seeks to bring the unworthy to restoration.

Thus, we should not regret trust given and violated. Rather, we should weep for those poor, doomed relationships where people feel so little indebted to God that they are incapable of giving the other person more than is deserved after such a violation.