Do You Believe in a God You Can Trust?

“In God We Trust” first appeared on US coins in 1864, a time when our nation was devastated by the Civil War and desperately in need of spiritual sustenance.  On July 11, 1955, President Eisenhower signed a bill requiring that the motto appear on US coins and currency. In 2019, a bill was signed requiring all South Dakota public schools to display “In God We Trust”  in a prominent place where students will likely see it.  

But what does it mean to trust in God? If I’m expected to trust – meaning have confidence in the character, strength, and truth of someone or something – I need to understand that someone or something. We may agree that God represents a deity or supreme being, but there’s a lot of variation from that point on. Quoting Enlightenment philosopher Voltaire, “If you wish to converse with me, define your terms.”

My concept of God stems from my childhood and the church where I grew up surrounded by good friends from school and caring Sunday School teachers. Hanging in the church hallway was a lovely picture of a Jesus figure with long hair and a kind smile in a beautiful, sunny meadow with adorable children and cute lambs. That became a comforting visual of God for me.

I didn’t think too much about that painting that has provided me the image of a God I could trust until I heard someone describe statues of Buddha as having a combination of male and female characteristics. That got me thinking. My Jesus/God image is not a burly guy with machismo, or an old, bearded king judging me from the sky. My God lives in nature and is gentle and nurturing.

Hindus have many images of the Divine. The Hindu Triumvirate is composed of three divine couples, male and female. They represent different aspects of our existence and are to be trusted to assist with a variety of human needs.

Chinese religion offers the yin and the yang, which represents complementary forces such as the feminine and masculine, dark and light, hot and cold. No force is superior to the other, but they need to be in balance to create harmony.

The Muslim word for God is Allah. Allah has no gender. Muslims believe gender is a human trait and Allah, who is beyond human, therefore has no gender. Pictures and statues of human figures are avoided to prevent idolatry, so mosques contain beautiful calligraphy, floral motifs, and geometric designs.

I especially appreciate one of the indigenous names for the Divine, Wakan Tanka, which can be translated as the “Great Mystery,” because the concept of God is mystifying and impossible for the human mind to fully comprehend. “Mother Earth” and “Father Sun” are often visuals for people who live close to nature.

Our mental images of God help us relate to, or feel connected to, a power that is vast, abstract, and eternal. Concepts of the divine vary because we need a vision we can personally relate to – a God we can trust.

My mom had to deal with breast cancer that metastasized and was very painful. She lived with it for many years, and she found comfort and strength in angels. She had a wonderful collection of angels in different sizes and shapes but all conveyed love and compassion. Mom has passed away and I wish I’d asked her more questions about her faith. I treasure the angels she left behind.

Visuals are powerful because of the feelings and emotions they invoke in us. One woman I interviewed for my forgiveness research loved the image of Guan Yin, Goddess of Mercy, Buddhist bodhisattva of compassion. She said, “Isn’t she beautiful? Such a kind lady.” That image guided her as she aspired to become a more compassionate, forgiving person.

Another woman I know who’d been abused by her husband had a strong connection with Jesus’s mother, Mary. She was a devout Catholic so made sure I knew she, “worshipped God, not Mary.” We’re trained to value hierarchy and know we can get in trouble if we don’t acknowledge power. But it was Mary who filled her heart and soul with love and peace.

When people tell me they don’t trust in God, their reasons often are something like this: “If there was a God, he wouldn’t let bad things happen to good people.” Some people personify God as a “he” with superpowers – like Santa Claus. He’s supposed to bestow requested gifts on the good people and lumps of coal on the naughty ones.

Some people don’t trust God because so many wars and hurtful acts are justified through religion. I hear, “Religion is why we have so much hate in the world.” Some people’s God appears as a fear-mongering politician or a military general who wants us to line up on one side or another of a human-conceived battlefield.

As we grow older, we can start to think of the Divine in more abstract ways, but we may still need to obtain inspiration through a visual image that provides us peace and joy. I believe God is Love, but how do I visualize love?

Love is an abstract concept, and sometimes I need a picture in my mind to comfort and encourage me while praying and seeking guidance. It may be a scene from nature, an image of the Divine, an adorable animal, an inspirational person.

Our God concept evokes our feelings, guides our thinking, and affects our behavior, so it’s important to reflect upon whether our personal idea of the Divine is one we can trust. What leads you to loving kindness, gives you courage, shields you from fear, and provides comfort and hope when life is tough?

People envision God in various ways, and I don’t trust in everyone’s concept of God. I do, however, trust in the Fruit of the Spirit – meaning the power of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

I hope the God you trust strengthens your character, brings you peace, and empowers you with the fruit of the Spirit.

Photo by Raimond Klavins on Unsplash

But I Have Issues

Photo by Tengyart on Unsplash

Following is the message I gave to my church, Canyon Lake Methodist, on July 13, 2021, while filling in for our excellent pastors and giving them a break. The sermon series, entitled “Your But’s Too Big,” focused on those things that keep us from finding our calling and living life to the fullest. My message was entitled, “But I Have Issues.” You can listen to the church service and message by following the link

2 Corinthians 12:9-10 New International Version

But God said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me. 10 That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Our pastors asked me to do the message on “But I Have Issues.” They said, “Chris, you have lots of issues, so this is a perfect topic for you.” Actually, they were too nice to say that so instead said, “You have a doctorate in psychology and psychology involves the study of people’s issues.” So, here I am.

What does it mean to have issues? Issues are emotional or psychological difficulties, and we all have those difficulties at some time or another, to varying degrees – from a personality quirk to a severe mental illness. When I taught psychology, I liked to assure students that, “We’re all a little crazy.” However, our issues don’t need to keep us from using our God-given gifts and talents, from following our dreams, from living fulfilling, purposeful lives.

Our scripture for today is about Paul, and it describes a time when Paul was having issues and he wanted God to do something about that. God had given him what Paul referred to as a thorn and Paul didn’t like it. I can certainly identify with his feelings.

Travis Heam, the author of “Your But’s Too Big” said “We want comfort. God wants character. We want freedom. God wants faith. We want easy. God wants everything. We want to feel good. God wants us to feel God.”  

In our society, issues are especially tough because we often feel like we have to pretend we don’t have issues, or we think we should be able to solve them by ourselves. We can tell people we’re on a diet or that we have high blood pressure, a bad back, or cancer, but it’s hard to admit we have mental issues, spiritual issues. We hide our true thoughts and feelings. And the horrible thing is that hiding our depression, anxiety, trauma, addiction or whatever issue we may be suffering from makes it worse. Pretending is poisonous.

So let’s not hide from our issues or let them keep us from our calling. Let’s look at the advice God gives to Paul, I’ll throw in a little psychology, and we’ll talk about three ways to keep from saying, “I would, but I have issues.”

First –God’s love is unconditional. “My grace is sufficient for you.”

My issues started early and I remember struggling as a teenager. I was fortunate to grow up in a Methodist church in Redfield, SD, that assured me God’s love was unconditional. God was merciful, not wrathful.  I was also fortunate that I loved to read. I still have the book I’m Okay, You’re Okay by Dr. Thomas Harris that helped get me through high school. It gave me hope that I was okay, even when I didn’t fit in or feel okay. Books can function as excellent therapists.

When Paul experienced his “thorn” – his issue – he needed assurance that even though what he was going through was hard, he was still okay. God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you.” Meaning it doesn’t matter how many issues you have, you are okay and I will love you through this.

Having faith and truly believing God’s assurance that “My grace is sufficient for you” is important because it helps us calm down and realize it’s okay to not feel okay. We are still okay even if our thoughts don’t feel okay. Because we are not our thoughts, we are not our crazy feelings. We are beloved children of a merciful God.

What we especially need when our issues are keeping us from sharing our gifts and causing us great pain is a firm foundation of love and acceptance. I’m okay. You’re okay. “My grace is sufficient for you.” If we don’t believe that – that grace is sufficient – we develop big buts full of shame and blame that keep us from delighting in life and living out our purpose; from finding the joy that forgiveness and compassion brings.

If our issues cause us to bury our heads in shame, we will miss out on new experiences that will help us grow closer to God and we’ll say, “I would, but . . .when asked to share our gifts with others, to experience new things. We’re worried we’ll mess up againand just create even more shame for ourselves. We’re stuck.

Blaming can be even worse because if we can’t face our issues, we may take our pain out on others and become people who spread hurt rather than healing. If we’re busy blaming others for our issues and judging them for their issues, we’re missing out on the peace that passes understanding and the joy that comes with accepting and giving grace. With realizing we’re all okay and doing the best we can. Which leads me to the second point. We’re born to learn, not perform.

Second – We’re Born to Learn, Not Perform

We’re born to learn, not perform, which means we will make mistakes and fail. That’s the human condition. We don’t know it all and we need Jesus to show us the way and other people to teach us. Even rugged individualists in South Dakota need help.

So our scripture goes on to say, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Paul had a very high opinion of himself, and the scripture informs us he was quite upset that he had to endure “weakness, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.” He didn’t like having issues and at first, he tried to persuade God to get rid of them for him.

I understand, issues are no fun. We want comfort. God wants character. When I was much younger, I remember times when my issues were bothering me – and then I’d have an insight, a personal epiphany, and think, “I’ve got things figured out now. No more issues.”  And for a few hours, maybe even a couple days I did, but it wasn’t long before a new struggle would come along and I’d have issues again. I finally figured out this learning thing is lifelong. It’s not a one and done. God wants us to grow and learn all our lives. We’re to be lifelong learners.

Paul figured that out too. He wasn’t supposed to be too content with himself, and he definitely wasn’t supposed to boast about how smart and special he was. God told him to boast about his weaknesses, because his weaknesses, his issues, were going to lead him closer to God and keep him learning. It wouldn’t be as comfortable and self-esteem boosting as Paul would have liked, but struggles are when we have the opportunity to build character, to be transformed.

Like Paul, we probably need to do some complaining first because issues are tough. Then we can surrender and ask God, “What am I supposed to be learning? Why am I so depressed, so obsessive, so anxious, so angry, so unable to concentrate, so addicted, so tormented? And we ask God to be with us as we try to figure out our issues, as we grow and learn, ask for help, share what we’ve learned, and develop character. We change our focus, so our negative thoughts don’t spiral out of control.

Third – It’s Not All About Me.

Changing my focus and reminding myself, “It’s not all about me,” has been effective for me in a couple ways. First, I’ve quit telling God what to do – it wasn’t working anyway – and just ask the Holy Spirit to be with me as I stumble and struggle and do my best. Paul, too, realized it was not all about him and said, “When I am weak, I am strong.” What does that mean?

When we realize we’re weak, that we have a lot to learn, we can open our heart and mind to what the Spirit is telling us, what people around us and our experiences are trying to teach us, and that’s how we become strong. Open hearts, open minds, and open doors – our Methodist slogan – is what strengthens us. It’s what spiritual humility is all about.

Spiritual humility is realizing, “It’s not all about me” and that’s a delightful thing. Humility has been called the master virtue because it’s all about letting go of our ego and our fears and welcoming in the Holy Spirit. Spiritual humility isn’t about thinking less of ourselves, it’s about thinking of ourselves less. When I’m wasting time ruminating about my issues I can say, “Stop, it isn’t all about me,” remember that I am more than my negative thoughts and take a sanity break. I can think about the fruits of the spirit – love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – and how I can develop those fruits and share them with others. I can think about how I can serve others, not how I can be served.

Mary Oliver, a poet who knew what it meant to struggle with issues, wrote “Attention is the beginning of devotion.” She had found that shifting her focus to the beauty of the earth, nature, and God’s creation allowed light to shine in her darkness. Paying attention to that which heals – nature, music, service, kindness – takes the focus off that which hurts. It strengthens us.

Spiritual humility means we are strong enough to share our gifts even though we may fail and fall flat on our face; it means we are strong enough to admit we don’t know everything, that we have issues, and we need help. When we are honest about our issues, when we face them with courage and compassion, knowing we are unconditionally loved, forgiven, and always learning, we keep our issues from turning into big buts. Instead, our issues bring us closer to God, closer to those with whom we share our concerns, and closer to our true calling. As God told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Paul’s ability to handle his thorn, his issues, had its foundation in the love of God and he wrote in Romans 8: 38-39 the passage I will close with:

38I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, 39 neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 8: 38-39.

I pray we will open our hearts, feel God’s love, and embrace grace.