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How can I learn to trust?

March 19, 2012 by  
Filed under Faith, Fr. Bartunek

Q:  Dear Father John, I have felt a great desire to enter religious life for a few years now, but keep hitting an invisible wall so-to-speak. After attempting the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the Lord helped me to see that I am not ‘indifferent’ and have to rebuild my foundation of a personal relationship with Him. In particular He helped me see my utter inability to surrender stemming from a lack of trust. Unfortunately, due to my lived experience of past hurts, I find myself unable to trust anyone, relying only on myself which is then projected onto God and I feel utterly stuck. I feel as though trust requires gratitude, but gratitude requires humility and being humble, seeing and accepting my weakness is utterly impossible when you have established a pattern of trusting only in yourself and so it is an endless cycle.

Where does one go from here? How does one learn to trust, to be grateful when you only see the failures and hurts in life, how does one surrender and become humble? Is it all a pure gift from God, or is there more I can do on
my end as I have been begging for these graces for years to no avail?

Thank you for your wonderful blog which has been very fruitful!

A: Reading this question gives me deep joy. The grace you have already received is so beautiful! I mean, the grace of understanding the core of the spiritual life (trust) and your need for deep, spiritual rehabilitation in that area. God has been speaking his wisdom to your soul!! You actually bring up at least three separate but related issues. I will comment briefly on them one by one.

Trust: The Heart of Holiness

First, and most importantly, you bring up the issue of trust. However much of the Spiritual Exercises you completed, you can be sure that it was fruitful. The Exercises allow us to confront in a powerfully intimate and personal way the fundamental, universal truths of the spiritual life. The universal truth that struck you the most is the very core of the Christian journey: the need for trust. Sin separates us and distances us from God. All sin – our own personal sins as well as the sins of others, both of which damage our souls – traces its origin back to the Fall of Adam and Eve (that’s why their sin is called “original sin”). What was the essence, the deepest core of their sin? We tend to think it was disobedience. Think again. You see, that disobedience was the trunk, but it grew out of an ever deeper root. Here’s how the Catechism puts it (#397):

Man, tempted by the devil, let his trust in his Creator die in his heart and, abusing his freedom, disobeyed God’s command. This is what man’s first sin consisted of. All subsequent sin would be disobedience toward God and lack of trust in his goodness [emphasis added].

So rehabilitating trust in God is not only YOUR primary project for growth in holiness, but it is EVERY CHRISTIAN’S primary project! That’s not to belittle your journey. Your experiences in life, good and bad, have damaged your capacity to trust in God in a personal, unique way. Your mission in life, your vocation, your way of knowing, loving and serving God is also personal and unique. And so, the path you take to rehabilitate your trust in God will have certain twists and turns, certain epiphanies and setbacks, that will be entirely your own. But, in the end, re-learning to trust God is for each one of us the central, defining spiritual project.

What To Do?

Now we are ready to face the second issue you bring up: “Where does one go from here?” I detect frustration in your question. That’s totally understandable – but it’s also an indicator that something is askew. I think it has to do with expectations. You are wondering how you can develop trust when you don’t have much. You are wondering how to develop gratitude when you don’t have humility. You are wondering how to develop humility when you have formed such a strong and deep pattern of self-reliance.

Let me answer your question with a question. Let’s pretend you don’t know how to play tennis, but you decide that you want to learn. How do you do it? How do you go from zero to beginner to intermediate to advanced? How do you develop the physical skills and coordination and muscle memory necessary for tennis, when you have none of those things? The answer, I think you will agree, is fairly simple. You learn to play tennis by playing tennis.

Holy Tennis

Growth in virtue (trust, confidence in God, surrender, humility, and gratitude) is similar.  Virtues are moral habits, just as like skills are physical habits. They are developed under two conditions. First, we need to have the raw material. Future tennis players have to have the normal use of all the major muscle groups (you can’t play tennis without arms). Future saints have to have the normal use of human nature: “heart, soul, mind, and strength” as our Lord put it (Luke 10:27). From your question, it is clear that you have the raw material. Now you just need to begin to put it into action. Virtues are not developed “once and for all.” We can never check a virtue off our “to-do” list. We grow in trust, little by little, by trusting. We grow in humility, little by little, by exercising self-denial. We grow in gratitude, little by little, by saying thank you, sincerely and intentionally, over and over again, especially when we don’t feel like it. The sacraments nourish these efforts; prayer and spiritual reading/study informs and enlightens these efforts; the Holy Spirit – directly, through a spiritual director or mentor, through faith-based friendships, and through God’s Providence – will coach you.

St. John of the Cross put it succinctly when writing about the virtue of love (which is the core of every virtue, so it applies equally to trust, humility, gratitude…): “Where there is no love, put love, and you will find love.”

As long as you are patient, even the tiniest effort to trust God will give God’s grace a chance to touch your soul and strengthen the very trust that you are using. Remember, at Baptism you received sanctifying grace and the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and at Confirmation you received a strengthening of them. God is already at work in your life.  He is drawing you closer to him. The journey will take your whole life, so don’t think that you have to make yourself perfect before God can do anything with you. On the contrary! God is already working in and through your life! Your desire to know and follow him better is already a clear sign that you are growing!

Two Time-Tested Trust Workouts

On a practical level, the saints all agree on two spiritual exercises that directly strengthen our capacity to trust God.

First, meditating on Christ’s Passion. As we gaze on Christ “loving us to the end” (John 13:1), our fears are quelled and we realize, gradually, that even though everyone else may have betrayed us and wounded us and lost their trustworthiness, Christ will never betray us. He is worthy of our trust. No matter what happens, he will keep on loving us. That’s one of the core messages of the Passion. On this point, I would greatly encourage you to watch The Passion of the Christ, and go through it gradually, using Inside the Passion as a kind of study guide, or guide for meditating on this central mystery of our faith.

Second, focus on discovering and embracing God’s will in the nitty-gritty of your daily life. We know what God’s will is through his Commandments, through the teachings of the Church, through the duties of our state in life, and through the circumstances of God’s Providence. Lord, what do you want me to do right now? That question, that prayer, is a powerful ally in your path of growing trust. Because every time we accept and embrace, and try to fulfill, God’s will, even with a fragile love and flimsy faith, we are actually exercising our trust in God. We are saying, “Okay Lord, I don’t really understand this completely, but I know that you want me to do it, so here goes…” That counts for simple tasks like washing the dishes. And it counts for more daunting tasks like talking about the faith or defending a Catholic position in a conversation at work. This is especially true when God’s will contradicts our natural preferences. That’s when we get to carry our own crosses, which is the privileged place for exercising, and therefore growing in, our trust in God.

We have done some related posts on these issues that you may want to read or re-read: a two-part post on trusting in God, and a two-part post on discerning God’s will.  If you keep those elements in play, you can be sure that you are making progress, regardless of how you may feel at any given moment.

Follow Your Call!!!

Finally, you mention at the beginning of your post that your trust issues have been “an invisible wall” in following what may be a vocation to the religious life. That may be a ruse of the devil. Being holy is not a requirement for entering religious life. In fact, a religious vocation, like any vocation, is actually, first and foremost, a specific path for growth in holiness. If your heart quickens at the thought of entering religious or consecrated life, you should act on it now. Visit religious congregations; speak with consecrated persons; keep taking whatever next step God puts in your mind until you discover your path. Don’t rush, but don’t delay! Maybe a good next step would be to finish the Spiritual Exercises retreat that you started (you mentioned that you “attempted” to do the Exercises – sounds like you didn’t finish!). If you like that idea, I can highly recommend my confreres’ who preach Spiritual Exercises Retreats here. In any case, if God has put that question in your heart, you can be sure that doing what you can to answer that question will help put you on the fast track to greater intimacy with him, and that’s what it’s all about.

God bless you!

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About Fr. John Bartunek, LC

Fr. John Bartunek, LC, S.Th.D, received his BA in History from Stanford University in 1990. He comes from an evangelical Christian background and became a member of the Catholic Church in 1991. After college he worked as a high school history teacher, drama director, and baseball coach. He then spent a year as a professional actor in Chicago before entering the religious Congregation of the Legionaries of Christ in 1993. He was ordained a Catholic priest in 2003 and earned his doctorate in moral theology in 2010. He provided spiritual support on the set of Mel Gibson’s "The Passion of the Christ" while researching the 2005 Catholic best seller, "Inside the Passion"--the only authorized, behind-the-scene explanation of the film. Fr. John has contributed news commentary regarding religious issues on NBC, CNN, Fox, and the BBC. He also served as the English-language press liaison for the Vatican’s 2005 Synod of Bishops on the Eucharist. His most widely known book is called: "The Better Part: A Christ-Centered Resource for Personal Prayer". He has also published two other titles: "Meditations for Mothers" and "A Guide to Christian Meditation". Fr. John currently resides in his Order’s General Directorate in Rome, where he is continuing his writing apostolate. His blog contains questions and answers on the spiritual life at www.RCSpiritualDirection.com. His online retreats are available at www.RCSpirituality.org.

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  • Maria

    Learning to trust! Yes! He is always reminding me of this!
    Saying Thank You even when you don’t feel like it has helped a lot. There are times I easily give in to discouragement. I’d catch myself and stop putting myself down. Then, even though I still felt bad..say Thank You Lord for giving me the grace to fight discouragement. After saying that I felt so much better! As though saying Thank You sort of “activated” the grace He had given me. I guess in acknowledging such graces we become more capable of putting them into practice in our daily lives.

  • Clare

    “when I see only failures and hurts in my life” is a good time to buy St. Faustina’s Diary, Divine Mercy in My Soul- and you will see this Saint’s struggle with the same “Trust” as you. 

     I have never known anyone who has read St. Faustina’s Diary -who has NOT been helped with Trust or have NOT found their break through in it. 

    Blessings,
    Clare

    • Fr. Donald

      Dear Clare: I can vouch for your comment on reading  St. Faustina’s Diary. A parishoner gave me a copy for my birthday and it has been a joy in my life. Fr. Donald

  • Sasha

    Whenever I feel discouraged or doubtful, I have this little prayer that I say… some days I pray it many times.  And then I (try) to stop thinking about it for a little while.

    “Lord Jesus, please forgive my doubt in Your mercy. Help me to trust in Your love for me.”

  • Becky313

    Oh, how I can relate to this struggle!!

    I once asked the Lord why He made me go through life experiencing one thing after another that forced to me be self-sufficient….if He really wanted me to be completely dependent on Him?  His answer, which immediately made me cry, was, “More merit”.  In the struggle to overcome the independence I had built up, and give my trust to Him, I would gain more.

    While I knew it was a gift right away….my cynical self said, “Yeah right!”  “The World” gives us unending examples of why we should NOT trust anyone!!  – -  and if we’ve been hurt or had our trust repeatedly betrayed, this is a difficult task indeed!  But not impossible.  Jesus wouldn’t ask us to do this if it weren’t possible.

    Fr. John’s advice to take small steps (and all the rest) is right on!  My confessor once told me, as part of my penance, to “pray at least once every day, “Thank you God, for loving me.”  At first I felt resistant and kind of hypocritical saying the words because I didn’t really believe in my heart that God loved me.  But I was faithful to what I had been instructed to do and within a couple weeks I was crying as I said them because I knew that God really does love me!

    As we try to increase our ability to trust the Lord, it’s a good idea to place severe restrictions on our intake of TV, computer, other harmful media that negate the very thing we are trying to build, and read the lives of the saints, the Bible, the Catechism, and other faithful Catholic material.

    You can count on the prayers of many who visit this site to help you on your way!

  • danburke

    Beautiful prayer…

    • BMP1980

      i am sorry Dan , i love this web site, “beautifully catholic”, but are there only women seeing this site[ no offense to the women]? all the comments are by women .

      • New Name

        All are definitely not women.  There are lots of men on the site.  Just stay tuned…and not everyone indicates what or who they are.

      • Craig

        and don’t forget, I bet many of us guys are reading but just not commenting! God bless

      • Gordon

        I am Gordon from Malta. A male. And I have been following this site for quite some time now. It is excellent throughout. We men should never be afraid to proclaim God’s Kingdom. As a spiritual guide in Malta I meet lots of men thirsty for Christ as I meet women.

  • http://rcspiritualdirection.com/blog Mary@42

    Thank you, Clare.  Yes, reading Saint Faustina’s Diary – written by a young and oh, holy Nun –  with only three years of formal education –  teaches me how to grow in trusting God one day at a time.  The lessons she gives us on Humility are superb. Since I am an intellectual midget, Saint Faustina resonates very, very well with me. Going out to various Parishes spreading the Message of Divine Mercy as an Eucharistic Apostle of the Divine Mercy, and observing how ordinary, simple rural Christian Faithful positively respond to this Message, reveals the Miracle of God’s love for us all, no matter how inadequate, wretched and unworthy we may feel. 

    • Clare

      Thank You Mary,
      this is the age of Divine Mercy through Trust.

  • Camille

    To break that cycle for myself I started with thanksgiving, then once I really got that it was God that gave me my abilities (ie God gave me what allowed me to be “self-sufficient”), I was able to see that I wasn’t as self-sufficient as I thought and then was able to say thank you for those little things that came into place to allow me to be self-sufficient, then once I acknowledged how the little things were adding up… a whole new cycle was created.

    • Becky313

      Funny how much we take credit for isn’t it?  :) :) :)

      Sometimes I get the impression that God is sitting up in heaven watching me, shaking His head with a wry smile on His face as I plunge into yet another activity without proper thought/discernment……and will have to learn my lesson the hard way.  Kind of like I have to do with my grandchildren when they won’t listen, and insist on doing something their way.  :)

      God is good!

  • Clement the lesser

    Trust in God, like love, is a decision made every day. To make that decision is the first step in living in that trust. In His infinite mercy He leads us back “to the field where we fell”…those occasions, when we in our human weakness, looked down at the sea, felt the wind, and took our eyes off the Lord. Welcome the opportunities to face those “points of peril” where previously you let your trust in Him die.

  • Judykallmeyer15

    Might I also suggest reading “The Passion and the Death of Jesus Christ” by St. Alphonsus Liguori. I found Gibson’s movie and Emmerich’s book deeply draining. Emmerich’s book in particular was very clinical, I thought. Alphonsus writes with a heart of love about a heart of love. It is uplifting, challenging, ever so beautiful. It inspires love in the reader.

  • JoFlemings

    I can add a couple of things here, too- first of all, I heartily echo what Father has said here about the exquisite beauty of the work of God so evident in the soul of the questioner, just by virtue of the question and the brief explanation- so already the person who is writing is a blessing to the rest of us!  
    In learning to trust- (and this may sound harsh, I do not mean it to be!) but we do each have to come to terms with what God has allowed us to experience or suffer through. I know this is probably a shoddy way to work on that in my own life, but I am regularly confronted with how so many worthy souls I know of, and have read about, have suffered so much more than I have, and God has been with them and they have found peace, comfort, joy, and love in this life as preparation for their eternal happiness with Him- one in particular that I think of is Maria Goretti’s mother. Another is my dear friend Joan of Arc.  
    Now in each trial, past, present, and future, Jesus is calling us to a deeper experience of Himself- sometimes we can exercise an act of our will to accept and conform- ‘Jesus I trust in you!’ or ‘Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!’ and other times we have no way of preparing for what we are suffering under, and we can only go moment by moment, knowing that unless Christ works in us we cannot help ourselves. (‘Lord, where will we go? You have the words of eternal life!’) Sometimes I think the greatest part of the work is in coming to that realization- that we are completely dependent upon Him to save us, and to work out His salvation in us- that there is a definite end to our ability to help ourselves– to find happiness for ourselves.
     Maybe if you are a highly capable person the ultimate challenge in your life is making the committed decision to give God control of your life-(as if He did not have it already, :o) !) and to apply ourselves to being patient with His work and with His plan. Yes, this is probably one of the hardest things for westerners to do, because we think we are supposed to be in control of so many things, and in our human wisdom, it seems we can actually control so many things- when really we manipulate many things, but we control very little, especially in ourselves! I think this is a big lifelong learning experience we all have to go through and where the lines are drawn for each one of us day to day is really to be distinguished most clearly in prayer-(I think everyone here would agree to that), and probably through solid, consistent, spiritual direction.
    About gratitude- ok, I think it does help build trust in God to develop a habit of gratitude and one way to work on that is to keep a thousand things journal- this is actually really fun and focussed, too, if you like to journal. For 100 days, every day write down ten things for which  you are thankful. After about the first week, the lists take on a new dimension, with greater depth and sometimes you can begin to see areas where you have become the person you are in the beauty of holiness- because of some of the unique transforming aspects of your own individual sufferings. 
    The Bible tells us Jesus learned obedience through what He suffered, and sorrows and sufferings are of great value to Our Lord, who is actually the only one who really feels all of our pain- or rather allows us to experience, in some measure, His pain. That is what brings us back to the meditation on the Passion of Our Lord- where do my sufferings bring me into deeper fellowship with Jesus?
    My experience, too, is that He will take us by degrees, working with us to grow in trust as we become stronger in offering ourselves more completely to Him. 
    And lastly, for anyone who is by any chance still reading this very verbose opinion offering at this point- The theological virtue we need  to develop trust, I think, is deeper faith- and it does come from God, and He is happy to give it in profound measure- but to really grow in faith we have to be very attentive to prayer, and watching and listening for Him working in the smaller, more subdued details of circumstances, refuting sometimes our own skepticism and cynicism. 
    God can do anything, His grace is far more powerful than our sins or our weaknesses, and He makes all things new!

  • Mike M.

    Thank you to the questioner for a courageous and humble question.  And thank you Father John for a beautiful meditation that I will share with my friends.

  • Sojrnr

    Tough business trust. I ask God for trust all the time, but I quickly fail to trust and even find I am afraid to follow through. In the midst of my endless doubt I conjure up all kinds of distressing thoughts and am very disappointed when trust evaporates the very moment that I ask for it.So I try to confront my lack of trust with prayer or some act of charity believing that actions must follow any prayer of petition. Sometimes I find comfort, other time things get worse. It is a frustrating cycle.

    The worst of it is that it makes no sense to refuse to trust. If something bad is going to happen it will happen whether I trust or not–so why not trust? To trust in Christ is the only sensible thing to do but I cling to anxiety like it is the true solution. Foolish, but true. I too wish that trust would come, but I find it so very difficult to turn my life, and the lives of loved ones, over to God.

    So what do I do? Well, I try to act, even in fear, with trust.

    I often ask myself what will “work?” But there is no magic button which triggers trust. It is very hard work, yet I think we make it harder by expecting “success.” Eliott said “ours is in the trying, the rest is not our business.” I think that true, so the only advice I have is to jump into the boat with the rest of us poor slobs who are trying. I think if we slowly learn to trust, which I believe will ward off sin, He makes progress in us. We probably won’t feel it but faith requires that we keep trying.

    There is a phenomenal meditation called “I thirst,” which is based on the spirituality of Mother Theresa. You can find it by doing a search with the words “:I thirst.” I suggest giving it a go. I does move the heart, even if the “feelings” quickly fade. I have found it is a good starting point.

    I also think that if we try we will develop humility which, so say the great mystics, is the beginning of wisdom AND trust.

    Rest in the understanding that, as Fr. Barron frequently says, “we’re all in this together.”

  • fairlady68

    This is an awesome post, and I also greatly appreciate all the people who have commented so far.  Especially the advice about the little prayers to say, i.e., 

    “Lord Jesus, please forgive my doubt in Your mercy. Help me to trust in Your love for me.”
    AND
    “My confessor once told me, as part of my penance, to “pray at least once every day, “Thank you God, for loving me.” 
    At first I felt resistant and kind of hypocritical saying the words
    because I didn’t really believe in my heart that God loved me.” (Yeah, that’s me all over.)

    It is so good to know I am not alone in this struggle to accept God’s love and to trust in his care for me.

  • Leboeufeugene

    Your post and the comments are powerful thoughts on TRUST. I need to carry these thoughts in my heart. Pray for me!

  • Freciabrom

    Yeah, how shall I put it -  TRUST??  I love JC (Jesus Christ) very much; he’s my best friend, but when things go wrong I ask him for help, yet, I can’t TRUST or depend on Him.  Why? Why??  I wish I could trust Him as easy as being grateful – to me being grateful is a piece of cake (I’m not boasting about it, it comes from my heart). Oh,well, just HOPE that one day Trust will come to me and we’ll be good friends like Gratefulness and me!

  • Ben

    I found lectio divina is good, i just read a chapter or two a day and pray and meditate on it, reading through the bible start to finish, as i was advised by a priest. He said its like being on Gods operating table, which i like the idea of, and iv found my confidence in God has grown steadily since i started, and im only half way through Judges. 
    Highly recommended!

  • Marie

    Thanks to the great soul who asked the same question I had!
    Thank you Fr. John for giving us a great answer on how to work on building our trust.
    Thank you also to my brothers and sisters who shared their thoughts and helpful tips as I read all these comments!
    I appreciate all the insights….I can’t remember who made this suggestion….journal each day 10 things I am thankful for….this is definitely one I will have to attempt to write down….sounds like a great spiritual exercise. Praying for all of you on this sight.

  • Mary@42

    As I commented below in response to Clare, Jesus Himself has re-emphasized to mankind in this Age – through the Divine Mercy Message He revealed to us through Saint Faustina Kowalska –  just how much total Trust in Him is the Vessel through which we shall be able to walk with Him one day at a time. And He also tells us in the Gospel that all what He needs from us a tiny Faith like a “mustard seed”, and He will do the rest.  This Eternal Truth was stated to me yesterday when my Confessor told me to always remember that God loves me with an unfathomable Divine Love – Unconditionally – no matter the wretchedness and misery of my heart and Soul.  All what He asks of me, is to trust Him unconditionally in return and surrender my life, my personal circumstances and everything to Him, persevere in my active Sacramental Life and He will do His Will in me moment by moment. 

    All we need to do really, is to allow God to be God in every aspect of our lives.  It is not easy for fallen mankind, but then – with God, everything is possible.

  • -gramma

    The question was not answered.  I am able to learn how to trust in God by?????? .  Or we don’t know that we do,,,we just love and we will love more.  Article went over my head.

  • MAUREEN

    TtRUST CAN ONLY COME AFTER FORGIVENESS. FORGIVE THOSE WHO HURT YOU AND YOURSELF AND THEN GO TO THE SACRAMENT OF RECONCILIATION AND RECEIVE THE PEACE THAT WILL ENABLE YOU TO TRUST. IT IS WITHIN THIS PEACE THAT YOU WILL HEAR HIS VOICE.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Janet-Hartmann-Jones/1570594805 Janet Hartmann Jones

    I have struggled with trust as well, both in prayer and while working a 12 step program I have been taught to trust. I ask on a regular basis what God’s will is for me NOW. I also ask God to open a door or close the door based on his will. I find that attitude has helped me shed self reliance. I cannot make a situation happen but God can. I also find it helps looking at the past when situations ‘worked out’ in spite of my meddling.  Making a daily gratitude list as well as a list of faults at the end of the day helps as well. Thank you for this site.

  • Marie Teresa

    Trust is a difficult issue for me.  about 25 years ago, my very life was threatened by a violent exhusband.  it seemed as soon as we settled into a community, the police would call, urging me to take my children and go into hiding – leaving job, home, and school.  Generally, we lived 1500 miles away from him.  One day, we quit running.  I couldn’t turn our lives upside-down yet again. 

    All-in-all, 7 years of marriage + 13 years of running = 20 years of that life and nine addresses in five different states. 

    The healing seems to never quite end.  Trust doesn’t come easily, yet is quite easily lost.

    My fight/flight instinct has a hair-trigger release.  At the smallest perceived threat, I push everyone out of my life.  When that happens, it’s not like I can hold on to God.  I just pray that He’s holding on to me.

    It spills over into every aspect of my life – spirituality not excluded, and like your questioner, I do feel as though people, priests, and even God are unreliable and that everything is up to me.

    I’ve read and re-read your posts on Trust and each time have gained something.  Thank you so very much for addressing this issue.