My nineteen-year-old eyes widened as I listened, speechless. How could my fiancé excuse his dishonesty like that? How could he think that way? He was a Christian. We read the Bible together. I trusted him.
How could he lie to me?
In the aftermath of my teenage betrayal, I was baptized into adulthood in a pool of tears. It felt shocking and terrible, but it was only the beginning. Months and then years began to normalize the experience. Best friends stab you in the back. Boyfriends are never who they appear to be. Pastors let you down. Churches are full of hypocrites. I felt like the psalmist lamenting in Psalm 14:2-3, “The Lord looks down from heaven on the children of man, to see if there are any who understand, who seek after God. They have all turned aside; together they have become corrupt; there is none who does good, not even one.” Psalm 14:2-3, ESV.
Eventually, cynicism eclipsed joy as I began to see life as a game of survival. There was only one rule: Trust no one.
And so I lived. I worked. I went to church. I started college. I interacted and had many acquaintances — but I didn’t get close to people. And I liked it that way.
In Beyond Boundaries, Dr. John Townsend writes:
Trust is the oil that keeps the relational machinery running smoothly. It is not a luxury. It is vital. John Townsend, Beyond Boundaries (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011), 4. Trust is necessary for healthy and full relational lives. What is more, it is beautiful. Trust is the ability to be vulnerable with another person. When you trust someone, you feel certain this person will keep your best interests in mind. You believe that they are who they say they are. You feel that the deepest parts of you will be safe with them. You expect that they will be there for you no matter what and that they will love you even when you are not so loveable.
Trust is the stuff we all long for — in our families, friendships and marriages. And yet, we live in a reality filled with broken people. Evil looks to destroy, and even the most trustworthy person can and will fail us. How do we develop safe and trusting relationships when “there is none who does good”? Psalm 14:3, ESV.
According to Townsend, healthy and trusting relationships are possible. He writes, “More than anything in the world, you are meant to connect and relate in deep, meaningful, and positive relationships — with both God and people. This is the means and the end of a good and happy life.” Townsend, Intro.
My own journey has not been easy, but I have learned a few things since my years as a functional cynic.
Trust Starts With Me
It is difficult to compare your own experience with what is normal. Looking back on the early years of my twenties from the vantage point of time and maturity, I can easily critique my response to circumstances. But time hasn’t swayed my conviction that I experienced an atypical volume of betrayal during that season. And so, I withdrew. Townsend maintains that the tendency to withdraw is both natural and often necessary.Ibid. But health does not stay in that place.
Before we can learn to trust, we have to find healing ourselves. Townsend clarifies, “If you don’t heal […] you won’t ever be able to trust anyone. When the trust muscle is torn, it won’t operate — no matter how safe or right the other person is.” Townsend, 189-190. In my own life, God used Christian books on healthy relationships, college classes and some safe friends to help me grow. While this process will look different for everyone, here are a few tips from my experience:
Work on spiritual health. The way we relate to God and the way we relate to other people are intrinsically connected. John writes in 1 John 4:20, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannot love God whom he has not seen.”1 John 4:20, ESV My damaged trust muscles not only affected my relationships with people, they hurt my walk with God. I couldn’t understand why, when I had tried my best to live faithfully before God, He had allowed so much hurt in my life. On a deeper level, I felt that God had also betrayed me. Before I could trust people again, I had to learn to see God’s goodness in the midst of suffering.
Develop healthy boundaries. Healthy boundaries are about responsibility — an understanding of what is mine to own and what belongs to someone else. Townsend writes about the importance of defining boundaries and maintaining protective boundaries. We need strong defining boundaries that help us know who we are and where we stand. We need solid protective boundaries to guard our “values, emotions, gifts, time and energy from people and situations that may waste or injure them.” Townsend, 16.
Make relationships a priority. We cannot rehabilitate our trust muscles while living in a vacuum. We need to exercise trust with safe people. As an introvert, I need my down time. But as a person with trust issues, I also recognize an unhealthy tendency toward isolation. If I want to make healthy relationship choices, I have to discipline myself to make people a part of my life — even when it is difficult.
Grow in discernment. There are some people who can be trusted and some who cannot. Sadly, it is not enough that people call themselves Christians. I have learned that it is my responsibility to discern character before I trust.
Trust Is For Worthy People
In their book Safe People, Drs. Henry Cloud and John Townsend state that, “Unsafe people demand trust instead of earning it.” Henry Cloud and John Townsend, Safe People (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1995g), 35. They note that even Jesus didn’t demand trust. Rather, He told people, “If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me”John 10:37, ESV (John 10:37). People who are worthy of your trust will earn it.
Here are a few characteristics of trustworthy people:
Trustworthy people are honest. It should go without saying that truth-telling is a mark of a trustworthy person. But in a culture that increasingly seems to demand levels of dishonesty, it’s important to discern between liars and people who lie at times. Cloud and Townsend clarify that liars “see deception as a strategy to cling to and to manage life and relationships,” while “safe people own their lies and see them as a problem to change as they become aware of their deception.” Cloud and Townsend, 38.
Trustworthy people are relationally safe. Townsend describes two types of trust: “Functional trust has to do with the alignment between saying and doing: there is no discrepancy between words and actions. […] Relational trust refers to how safe it is to trust the other person with your vulnerabilities and feelings.” Both types of trust are important, but relational trust is particularly vital for intimate relationships. A person with time-management issues may break your functional trust, but he or she may still be trustworthy in other areas. A break in relational trust, however, is serious.
Trustworthy people are for you. Some people will be good to you as long as you are doing something for them. And then there are people who are good to you because that is simply who they are. Learn to discern between relationships of exchange and relationships of care. Trustworthy people will give to the relationship even when you can’t give anything in return.
Trustworthy people have friends. Because trust muscles are only exercised in community, trustworthy people will be engaged in relationships. They will experience personal growth because of their friends’ feedback, at the same time they will support growth in their friends.
Trustworthy people are open about their imperfections. No one has his or her life totally in order. Trustworthy people are appropriately vulnerable about their weaknesses. They are honest about where they have come from and what issues they may still be working on.
Trust Is A Process
Learning to trust again hasn’t been easy. The process began with pain when one day I recognized that I was feeling lonely. At 23, I realized I had virtually no close friends and zero dating life. Strengthened by my own personal and spiritual growth, I started reaching out to others. The experience was fun and joy-filled and sporadically painful. People proved to be as fickle as I remembered, and just as apt to lie. I fell in love and had my heart broken a couple more times. It hurt, but I was growing and I didn’t run from the pain.
Trust, for me, is an area I continue to work on. I still mistake unsafe people for the trustworthy kind. I still go into hyper-introverted seasons when I experience hurt. I still overreact at times when my fear buttons get pushed.
But I am better than I used to be. I’m stronger, and I’ve learned to love more deeply. Ironically, learning to discern between trustworthy and untrustworthy behaviors has freed me to have more compassion. When I am not being harmed by their behavior, I have more energy to love people right where they are.
I’d like to tie up my story with a neat little bow. I’d like to say I learned to trust and now I flourish in that arena of health. Truth is, my experience has been both richer and messier.
Copyright 2015 Candice Gage. All rights reserved.