by Tim Denne
9.30am Service, 8th February, 2015
The word translated “believe” in the New Testament (pisteuo) is the verb form of the noun (pistis) which is translated as “faith”. Using believe as the translation can often give the impression of a very passive response to God, as though all we do is give some kind of intellectual assent to who God is and what he’s done.
“Trust” is an alternative translation of the word for believe that gives a different, more active sense of the word.
I was thinking about all this a couple of years ago when Peter Enns, one of my favourite theologians, put up a blog article entitled “Why I don’t believe in God anymore” in which he made much the same point. As he puts it:
The older I get, making sure all my “beliefs” of God are lined up as they should be loses more and more of its lustre. I see the Bible focusing a lot more on something far more demanding: trust.
So the title of my talk today is trusting God and if I was to give it a subtitle, I would borrow from Peter Enns, and add: “why I don’t believe in God anymore”
I’m going to start in Isaiah, because the church calendar places us there, but also because as I read it, trusting God is a major theme of the book.
Isaiah’s prophecy is addressed to the southern kingdom of Judah a couple of hundred years after the split from Israel. It is a small nation, surrounded by other more powerful nations, surviving partly because of its olive oil industry that supplies the regional super-power, Assyria. There is almost constant tension between Judah and its northern neighbour Israel.
The problem from Isaiah’s perspective was that the links Israel was developing with other nations to ensure survival were having other impacts. Israel was assimilating with the other nations, was adopting their practices and serving their gods. Isaiah’s appeal to Judah, as they started to look to Assyria for protection against Israel, was to not copy Israel, but to trust YHWH their God. They weren’t to be either pro-Assyria or anti-Assyria. They should be pro-YHWH.
Isaiah was saying don’t go down the same route as Israel has, turning to other gods rather than YHWH. That route leads only to destruction. And the history is that soon after this period, Assyria invades and captures most of the people of Israel and carries them off to be slaves elsewhere, pretty much never to return.
The reason for God’s concern is that Israel is meant to be different from other nations. It is meant to be a light showing others what God is like.
In Isaiah 36 we see the Assyrian army moving into Judah, annoyed that Judah has rebelled against it and has made an alliance with Egypt. They destroy their towns and are on the outskirts of Jerusalem. The king’s envoy mocks the Judeans:
‘Thus says the great king, the king of Assyria: In whom do you now trust, that you have rebelled against me? Behold, you are trusting in Egypt, that broken reed of a staff, which will pierce the hand of any man who leans on it. Such is Pharaoh king of Egypt to all who trust in him. But if you say to me, “We trust in YHWH our God,” … Come now … I will give you two thousand horses, if you are able on your part to set riders on them …
“Do not let Hezekiah make you trust in YHWH by saying, “YHWH will surely deliver us. This city will not be given into the hand of the king of Assyria.” Do not listen to Hezekiah. For thus says the king of Assyria: Make your peace with me … Then each one of you will eat of his own vine, and each one of his own fig tree, and each one of you will drink the water of his own cistern, …
King Hezekiah cries out to God, asking that he saves them for his own sake, so that all the kingdoms of the earth may know that YHWH alone is the great “I AM”
This trust is rewarded and that night the angel of YHWH kills 185,000 Assyrian soldiers and they leave the next morning.
But Hezekiah’s prayer was an interlude in the inevitable drift towards destruction for Judah. Around about 590 BC the people are invaded by the new kingdom of the neo-Babylonians, Jerusalem is destroyed in 586 and the people captured and deported to Babylon.
We pick up the story again in Isaiah 40:21-31, some 200 years later. This is now addressed to the people of Judah in exile in Babylon. It reminds them why their God is to be trusted and makes promises for those who trust him.
Do you not know? Do you not hear? Has it not been told you from the beginning? Have you not understood from the foundations of the earth?
It is he who sits above the circle of the earth, and its inhabitants are like grasshoppers; who stretches out the heavens like a curtain, and spreads them like a tent to dwell in; who brings princes to nothing, and makes the rulers of the earth as emptiness.
This is a God you can trust in. He made the world and everything in it. He can do what he wants.
YHWH is the everlasting God, the Creator of the ends of the earth. He does not faint or grow weary; his understanding is unsearchable. He gives power to the faint, and to him who has no might he increases strength.
Even youths shall faint and be weary, and young men shall fall exhausted; but they who wait for YHWH [or those who place their trust in YHWH] shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
This is the promise: for those who place their trust in God: they will have renewed strength, they will run and not be weary; they will walk and not faint. Worrying, in contrast, is exhausting.
As I read Isaiah this whole stretch to chapter 40 has been making the same point; if Israel (in the wider sense) as a nation is fulfil its role, to be the nation that is a light pointing to God, different from other nations. The clear point of difference is that they trust God.
This message to Israel was put in place from the beginning:
when Israel was first formed as a nation, during the Exodus from Egypt, they lived on manna. And the key lesson that went with manna was trust. Those who tried to store it found it mouldy in the morning, but there it was again the next day. For the most basic of things, food, God instilled a lesson for them day after day after day – trust me and I’ll look after you.
We can go back even further to the stories of the garden. The basic lesson there is not to look to define good and evil for themselves. Trust the God who made the world to have the knowledge of what is good and what is evil.
So let’s move forward to the New Testament and we hear similar stories of trust. I want to pick on one in particular.
The story of the rich young ruler is a curious tale in which the young man asks Jesus “Teacher, what good deed must I do to have eternal life?”
Now just as an aside, references to eternal life in Scripture are more about quality than quantity. They are almost always better translated as something like “life of the age to come”, ie how are we meant to live in the kingdom of God. This is a life that starts now (the already but not yet) but only fully comes about at our future resurrection, when heaven comes to Earth and life is as it should be. We are called to start living now the life of the age to come. Eternal life starts here. So his question is not so much “how can I be saved?”, but if “I’m meant to live now as in the age to come, what does that look like?”
And after talking about keeping commandments Jesus’ suggestion is to sell everything he has to give to the poor. It’s a shocking story for many of us who read that and think – really is that what you expect? But I think, without trying to diminish the story, the point coming through here, yet again, is Jesus saying that the life of the kingdom is one in which people put their trust in God. You can see the contrast with this rich young man. At the most basic levels he was confident about life because he had nothing to worry about. He did not have to trust God for anything.
Jesus makes the wider conclusions that it is difficult for a rich person to enter the kingdom of heaven. Now again, I don’t think this is equivalent to saying, it is difficult for a rich person to be saved, but it is hard for a rich person to live the life of the age to come … because it is difficult for them to learn to trust God.
Jesus at the end of his sermon on the mount, tells his disciples, who are not rich young men, not to worry about anything. They should look for examples to the birds of the air and lilies of the field (Matt 6). They don’t worry.
This is the life we are called to: not worrying when we have every reason to, but trusting God. And learning to trust God when we have no need to.
So why trust?
For the ancient Israelites, trusting God was what was meant to differentiate them from other nations, because they were meant to be a light drawing others to God. Trusting God makes so much sense as a differentiator because it pulls a nation out of the constant cycle of alliances and wars, all of which are fundamentally about finding protection, increasing wealth, moving ahead.
The step of saying everything I need comes from God is a step off that ladder, with implications for peace and justice.
The implications for peace are obvious. A nation that is trusting God for its security does not need to be expansive to protect itself. The conflicts at the time of Isaiah included Israel making alliances with others to make pre-emptive strikes against other nations.
Trusting God also has implications for justice. Throughout history, and certainly at the time of ancient Israel, nations progressed on the back of injustice in the form of slavery. That’s the only way to get ahead. If ancient Israel had been able to live a life that trusted God, it could truly develop a just society because the pursuit of justice or equality does not compromise prosperity (shalom).
Now I am not suggesting that this argument has political capital now. We are still in the not yet of the kingdom. But you can see how, if Judah had truly lived like this, it would have been a radically different society that would have shone like a light in an unjust world.
If we look at this at the personal level a similar pattern would emerge. If we were to say that a person that fully trusted God, (1) acknowledged that everything they had came from God; and (2) that they had full confidence about their future, it again frees a person from the cycle of driving ambition or nagging fear.
Again, I think the vision of a fully trusting person and a fully trusting society is a vision of the life of the age to come. Post resurrection, when God’s kingdom is fully come. But we are called to start to live like this now.
not worrying when we have every reason to, but trusting God. And learning to trust God when we have no need to.
Because those who trust in YHWH shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles; they shall run and not be weary; they shall walk and not faint.
From the beginning God appears to have made trusting him as the main requirement on us. We miss the point if we reduce this simply to some kind of intellectual assent of who he is and what he’s done. And to be clear, I am not talking salvation here: Israel had been chosen when God asked the people to trust him. We are talking about what it means to start to live in the already but not yet world of the kingdom.
So what does a life of trusting God look like. One that makes us different from others? For some people here, trusting God is probably a daily reality. Whereas for others, who may be more comfortable, may have little opportunity to trust God.
And here I think the response is something like, add a bit of adventure to your life. Look for something to trust God for. Ask him for something to trust him for. Start praying for something, for someone; trust God to do something. Because it’s trusting God that lifts us out of the ordinary.
Help us not to worry when we have every reason to, but to trust you.
Help us to learn to trust you even when we think we have no need to.