32 “Fear not, little flock, for it is your Father’s good pleasure to give you the kingdom.”
— Luke 12: 32 (ESV)
This is one of my favorite verses in the New Testament.
One of the things that’s generally lost on us nowadays is how radical a claim it was that God could be trusted. We don’t necessarily do better about believing it, but at the very least it doesn’t surprise us anymore.
In fact, the trustworthiness of God is sometimes assumed as an essential feature of the idea of God. When atheists and agnostics talk about why they don’t believe, trustworthiness frequently plays a surprising role. They’ll describe the horrible evils in the world, discuss disappointments in their own experiences of religion, or talk about contradictions in God’s behavior or declarations. The argument goes that if God exists he clearly isn’t trustworthy, but since God would obviously be trustworthy if he did exist, he probably doesn’t exist (or is at least not knowable). The idea of an untrustworthy God is nonsense.
They can only think this way because of Christianity (and Judaism before it) though. The very best of the other ancient religions had gods who were indifferent to humanity. The vast majority of other religions had gods who were fickle, petty, terrifyingly violent, and predisposed to exhaust their human servants like so much dross. In his most singularly pagan play, Shakespeare describes it well: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport” (King Lear 4.1)
The natural attitude that developed in humanity towards the supernatural was one of frightened desperation. The gods might be appeased with a sacrifice; they might be controlled through magic; they most certainly could not be trusted.
Into that environment Christ came with a startling and marvelous message. Throughout his ministry he taught of a God who is better than people feared, who consistently, unflaggingly, and everlastingly loves his creation, not just moderately but extravagantly. As much as anything else, he told them that they didn’t need to be afraid. In fact, his ministry reversed the entire formula: God couldn’t be appeased through their sacrifices and certainly wouldn’t be controlled by them, but he could emphatically be trusted.
Like I said though, after two thousand years that idea may not surprise us anymore, but it hasn’t necessarily gotten easier to believe. After all, there are horrendous evils and everyday disappointments. A lot of God’s behavior in history doesn’t always make sense, not least among the examples of which is the creation of people who are (literally) hell-bent on selfishness, cruelty, and all sorts of sin. How are we supposed to trust God amidst all of that?
For that question there are no easy answers, and people much smarter and more pious than me have labored longer to find them.
But if we’re willing to believe that God might exist, then we have to take seriously the fact that a few thousand years ago a man walked the Earth and claimed to be that God. As if that weren’t unique enough, he preached a radically Good and hopeful message like nothing else in the world, not just a continuation or development of human religion, but something altogether revolutionary.
Then, after that man had been murdered, witnesses claimed that he was resurrected. Again, at the very least we have to take seriously the fact that those witnesses were so transformed by the experience that they went on to transform an entire empire, and then a continent, and slowly the world, and they did it in spite of the overwhelming evidence to the fact that said empire (and then continent, and slowly the world) largely tried to kill them for it.
If such a remarkable man could preach about trusting God in spite of not being himself a stranger to hardships and suffering, and if such remarkable followers could cling to that message and pass it on in spite of their own hardships and sufferings, maybe we should give God the benefit of the doubt.