Interview with Howard Butt: Who Can You Trust?

Blog / Produced by The High Calling
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In Who Can You Trust? you write that the basis of all trust is the trustworthiness of God. In such a violent world, why do you find God trustworthy?

First, because I’ve found Him trustworthy in my own life across so many years. Also, I see Him being trustworthy in history. Particularly, the history of the church, but also secular history as well.

For example, I think the collapse of communism is a contemporary illustration of the trustworthiness of God. I think the collapse of Hitler was an illustration.

We find the Scriptures trustworthy in our own lives and in the life of the church. And, as I wrote in the book, nature and the moral order testify as well to God’s trustworthiness. I think all of these are tremendously convincing.

Long term, I think God’s trustworthiness will be proven once again in today’s terrorist crisis, although none of us know just how. That’s the place where all of us are called upon today to trust that evil will not prevail.

In your times of prayer, you think over how your own personal history fits into God’s larger plan for the world. Can you explain more about what you mean?

Really, it’s a review of all the desperation periods in my life. And the vividness with which my lack of trust convinced me that there was no possible way out of those situations. I remember how I was utterly convinced that these incidents would haunt me the rest of my life and wreck everything that had been accomplished to date. As I review those and the panic that assaulted me at those times, I see how God was in control all along. These things, having grown dim and distant, are now almost “joyous” memories. That encourages me to trust God in the present tensions, whether in my own life or in relation to the world scene.

If the world is deeply flawed by sin, why should we trust others?

Because they are created in the image of God. We trust God in others, and He alone is completely trustworthy. Trusting God in others is essential for healthy human relationships. In some mysterious way, God is at work in everyone despite our fallen condition. Knowing this allows us to be predisposed to trust. Unless we do so, we can never enjoy the love of God that He ministers to us through others.

There’s also a healthy mistrust, you say. How do you parse the trust versus mistrust factor when you evaluate someone’s character? Say in a business situation?

First, you listen very carefully. You observe very carefully. And you watch body language.

If it’s something that involves future consequences in terms of the relationship, take enough time to research the matter at hand and the person’s background as thoroughly as possible. I’ve made a lot of mistakes by not taking that time.

In the end, you have to trust the reasonable and intuitive impressions to which you’ve come. But at least you’ve done your homework. Life consists in the risks of making these assessments.

While my belief in people is founded upon God’s trustworthiness, my mistrust is grounded in my awareness of my own capacity for deceit. “The heart is deceitful above all things and desperately wicked: who can know it?” asks the Scriptures (Jer. 17:19 (KVJ). I don’t have full self-knowledge, but I pray, “Search me, O God, and know my heart: try me and know my thoughts: And see if there be any wicked way in me” (Psalm 139:23-24) KJV.

The warp and woof of knowing God’s trustworthiness on the one hand and my own capacity for failure and deceit on the other goes into very practical considerations of who might be a reliable home builder, who should I trust for financial advice, who is a true friend.

Many of the voices in our society tell us that the thing we need to do is find out what we want and then go after it. But isn’t knowing our own minds one of the hardest things to trust? Do we know what’s truly in our own best interests?

No, we really don’t. Which is why it’s so important to pray to know and do God’s will. And to consider prayerfully how God is at work in our own will and how He might not be. We need to have a healthy mistrust of ourselves. One of my friends says, “We Americans live in a state of confused innocence.” I think that’s a terrific phrase, for we believe ourselves innocent when none of us are. “There is none righteous, no, not one,” the Bible says.

You’ve introduced a concept called JO-AP, which stands for the Judas-Oedipus-Adam-Pharisee bent in all of us. Can you summarize what this means and why you use the concept?

JO-AP is a lighter way of speaking of what theologians call “total depravity.” The whole modernist movement proposes man is basically good and evil is not a reality. World War I, World War II, communism, fascism, and now terrorism—we continue to have these assaults on believing rationally in the inherent goodness of humankind. I heard PBS’ Jim Lehrer the other night reporting on the recent terrorist atrocities in Breslan, Russia. He said, “It almost makes you believe in original sin.” Well, how can you not believe in it?

When you lose the transcendent basis for your worldview, it just seems to me like you stand naked in the face of the hurricanes of reality. How can you put together the goodness of humanity with the inhumanity of Breslan? Where could that come from but the pit of hell?

My development of the JO-AP theme is to help us appropriate the biblical understanding of evil in our own time. And for us to develop a healthy skepticism about ourselves.

Why, in particular, are our family histories so important in this regard? Both in terms of knowing ourselves and trusting others?

I don’t think we ever get to the root of our own untrustworthiness until we deal in depth with the wrongness of the way we have related to somebody in our original family circle. Either father or mother. To one or the other, we were ungrateful or disloyal and probably both, without necessarily being aware that’s what we were doing at the time.

The aggression that the teenager experiences against the disfavored parent is part and parcel of original sin. When it comes upon you, you don’t know what’s happening to you. The teenager has to become an individual—separate himself from his parents. But the only one who really did this in a healthful way was Jesus. We see that in his journey to the Temple at twelve years of age. He becomes aware that he must be about his heavenly Father’s business. At the same time, when he returns to Nazareth with his parents, the Scriptures note that he was “submissive to them.”

I experienced the reality of this surplus aggression both as a giver and a receiver—as a son and a parent. The only thing that got me through with my teenage kids—because I had made so many mistakes prior to their reaching adolescence—was my dawning awareness of how sinful my attitude toward my father had been. That helped me enormously as I went through it with my own teenagers.

In terms of a trusting relationship with God, why is the concept of being “in Christ” so key?

In many circles there is more of an emphasis on Christ being in us than our being in Christ. If I don’t emphasize my being in Christ, I get to feeling too big, full of myself. "Being in Christ" helps me realize my smallness. It exalts Christ and puts the emphasis on his objective character as God’s love for the world and for me. It’s an image of Christ’s greatness that is wonderful.

The idea of Christ being in me is important too, of course. It’s an indication of Christ’s humility, his emptying of himself of heaven’s glory, as the Apostle Paul puts it, to dwell with us.

The whole process of spiritual growth is to be formed more and more in Christ’s image. So I like to put the emphasis on being in Christ, because I rely on the character of Christ to correct what I am in my fallen nature.

The Scriptures say the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. Can fearing God be part of trusting him?

Yes, certainly. The proper fear of the Lord is a recognition of his holiness and our own sinfulness, our smallness and his greatness. We should have a reverent awe of God.

This bears on the importance of seeing repentance as a lifelong process, not only a one-time event before salvation. I should be constantly seeking to see my actions in terms of God’s holiness, and turning to God, not in quaking fear, because that’s really of no help anyway, but turning to him in gratitude for loving me anyway. Turning to him to be filled over and over again with his love. That’s the true fear of the Lord and true repentance. Paradoxically, the fear of the Lord assures me of my salvation, because it teaches me that while I can rarely rely on myself, I can always rely on the One who is so much greater than I am.

As God forgives us, so we are to forgive others. What power does forgiving others bring into our lives?

It brings into our lives joy! Otherwise we pay the price of bitterness. We may enjoy nursing our resentments and imagining taking revenge . . . but even as we do, some part of us is aware that we are poisoning ourselves. Locked into this kind of negativity, we rob ourselves of the joy and ecstasy that forgiveness brings.

You write of how even after we have resolved to forgive others, we may find ourselves coping with “stinging memories” from past betrayals. How do you cope with such negative thoughts?

It is hard to forget the stinging memories of past hurts. But when these memories flash into my mind, I pray for God to fill me with forgiveness over and over again. Knowing that I alone cannot forgive this person is vital to the process. Praying for the other person involved helps the healing process along. That’s particularly important. We have to pray for the other person’s good. Mixed feelings are a part of relationships, but we need to focus on the positive. Over time, things change and the bad eventually fades away, if we pray about it.

On the other hand, if I don’t ask God for the power to forgive the other person, nothing may change. Without prayerful forgiveness, time can freeze. Often people are upset with parents, spouses, and friends twenty years and more after suffering an injustice.

Many people find the reality of betrayal within the church particularly devastating. Isn’t part of what makes betrayal within the church particularly nasty our seeming “niceness”? Why do we feel compelled to put on a nice face when we of all people should understand our depravity? Is there spiritual presumption involved?

Well, of course, there is spiritual presumption; the church is full of massive presumption! And passive-aggressive behavior, of which I’d have to admit I’m a past master. The Judas-Oedipus-Adam-Pharisee bent applies to Christians and non-Christians alike. We cannot fool ourselves that there won’t be betrayal in the church.

In this regard, we have to call the church to spiritual maturity. The laity and the clergy are called alike to Christ-likeness and servant leadership. Spiritual maturity means knowing when to submit to authority and knowing when to lead. It means knowing how to be flexible. A lot of betrayal within the church happens because people—both clergy and laity alike—love power. Within the church we have to examine our motives—whether we’ve gotten so caught up in whatever dispute is going on that we’ve long since forgotten about Christ and have simply devoted ourselves to “winning”—whatever that could possibly mean.

I was struck by the section in your book on wisdom. Why is wisdom so important and why don’t we hear more about it in the church?

In a day of moral collapse we forget wisdom. We are so busy fighting flagrant sins—it’s only when we fight our inner sins that we discover this desperate need for wisdom. And a need for discernment between false guilt and true guilt when dealing with our sin.

The Scriptures tell us that Christ is our wisdom. That should drive us into a life filled with more and more prayer. Once again, we have to fill our subjective experience with the objective character of Christ. God’s wisdom clears away the shifting sands of our opinion and places us on solid rock.

I love to hear you talk about prayerful intuition and its role in the spiritual life. I’m often put out, I’d have to admit, though, with people saying, “God told me this.”

We can so easily use God speaking to us to run away from the obvious responsibility to love people who are right in front of us. Young people sometimes use “God told me this” to manipulate their parents; others, as I’ve said, to avoid what are clearly Godly responsibilities. There’s a risk of taking God’s name in vain and deceiving ourselves.

At the same time, you believe in prayerful intuition in seeking the personal guidance of the Holy Spirit?

Yes, I do. Prayer is always the way to go. This prayer should be in the context of seeking the advice of others. My staff can tell you that I’m fanatical about getting everyone’s opinion. I believe in bringing the group’s wisdom to bear on crucial choices. Prayerful intuition shouldn’t be used without discussing it with others you trust around you, especially those with spiritual maturity.

At the same time, if you patiently—and I do emphasize patiently—seek the Lord’s direction, God will supply it. I’ve had this happen over and over in my life when I thought the situation before me admitted of no solution. Often the things that have made me feel absolutely desperate have been occasions of God’s leading.

What would you say to someone who is discouraged? Who finds himself in a place where God doesn’t seem to be leading? Who doubts that his faithfulness is being rewarded?

Discouragement is my besetting sin—the place I’ve been given to do spiritual battle as a result of my genetic make-up. I come from a family of super-achievers—one that gave me so many opportunities for service and the enjoyment of life. The Scriptures say to whom much is given, much is expected.

As a result, I battle being overly-scrupulous as to how much I’ve done with what I’ve been given. I have also battled the temptation to celebrity. Have I achieved enough if I’m not sufficiently known in this or that quarter? That can really drive you crazy.

To cope with discouragement, I have added a couple of sections to my morning prayers which are based on the passage in 1 Corinthians about being “in Christ.” Each day I pray: “I count myself dead to sin and alive to being in Christ. Dead to my disappointments, discouragement, depression, and despair, and alive to hope, thanksgiving, praise, and rejoicing. Dead to fear and alive to faith.” By reinforcing what it means to be alive in Christ, I realize that God’s will being done on earth as it is in heaven through Christ’s redeeming work constitutes my happiness. Why should I be discouraged? God is in control.
Link to Laity Lodge Store to purchase the hardcover edition:
Who Can You Trust? Overcoming Betrayal And Fear

The paperback version is available in other bookstores.