Trust: Only give it to those who earn it

| Father Michael Schmitz | August 9, 2018 | 0 Comments
Trust handshake


Q. I sometimes feel like I trust the wrong people. I have been burned so many times that I just think that I shouldn’t ever trust anyone again. On top of that, there are people I know that I should respect, but I just don’t. What do I do?

A. It can often be difficult to discern how much a person can or should be trusted. In addition, how can we respect those who have demonstrated that they don’t deserve our respect?

That comment might elicit a certain response: “Doesn’t everyone deserve respect?” Well, yes and no. It is important to clarify what “respect” means, so let’s start there.

There are different levels of respect. First, there is the respect we all owe to each other based on the fact that we exist and have been made in the image and likeness of God. This is the most basic level of respect, based on essential human dignity — a dignity that we did not give to ourselves and which cannot be taken away. All human beings, because they are made in God’s image and likeness, deserve to be treated as such. This is Level One respect, and it is absolute. It is based on the simple fact “that they are.”

Level Two respect is based on the role a person holds in another’s life. We have a duty to honor and respect those who are in authority over us. This is the respect that we owe to our parents, teachers, law enforcement and those to whom some part of our lives, formation or safety has been entrusted. In order for them to carry out their duties of serving us, we are given the responsibility of cooperating with all reasonable and just requests or instructions they give.

We demonstrate respect for those in authority over us when we show honor to the function they are attempting to carry out. The respect we give to them is actually given to their office, not necessarily to their person. It is respect based on “what they are” to us.

Level Two respect does not imply that one blindly obeys the will of the one in authority. It does not mean that one cannot critique or correct the person in authority. It is not absolute. There are times — maybe many times — when those in authority over us must be corrected, disagreed with or even disobeyed. This is not disrespectful but one of the ways we honor the role they have been obligated to carry out. For example, just because people are parents does not mean that they are good parents; a child can respect the “office” of a parent who consistently fails to parent well while acknowledging that their Mom or Dad is not deserving of personal respect. (The same is true for one’s priest!)

Level Three respect is respect based on the character of that person. In these cases, the people we respect have demonstrated that they have a certain excellence of virtue we must recognize and respond to. We call this respect “honor.” People are honorable not simply because they exist or because they hold a particular office but because they have demonstrated a notable interior power (or virtue) of excellence. We respect them for “who they are,” not simply that they are or what they are.

The issue of trust is intrinsically connected to respect in the following way: There is no one we should trust who has not earned our respect.

There are levels of trust as well as levels of respect. I do not need to trust a person simply because “they are.” I might be more able to trust a person’s office or role, but even then, it would not be wise to blindly trust a person based on something as potentially arbitrary as “what they are” in relation to me.

Trust must be most prominently based off Level Three respect — people who have demonstrated they are worth your trust.

This means that you ought not to trust just anybody. Trust must be earned. It would be foolish for a person to entrust their physical, emotional or spiritual safety to someone who has not already demonstrated that they are deserving of your trust.

I know that we want to be able to trust people. But to do this would be to refuse to accept the reality of life and the reality of sin that is in every human heart. Even the very best people we know and those whom we should be able to trust are going to fail us.

If trust must be earned, this also means that trust can only be given incrementally, over time. One needs time to interact with someone, to see how they behave in all sorts of situations. One needs time to discover the level to which the other can be trusted. And this involves asking difficult and pointed questions. How do they treat their family members? How do they handle criticism? Are they truly virtuous, or are they only “virtuous” in certain areas? Do they consistently choose the good?

This is not the same thing as demanding perfection. It is being wise when it comes to those to whom you entrust your most valuable possession: your own self and the lives of those you love. We are all flawed and fallen. Because of this, we need to be incredibly discerning regarding to whom and how fast we give trust.

Father Schmitz is director of youth and young adult ministry for the Diocese of Duluth and chaplain of the Newman Center at the University of Minnesota Duluth. Reach him at

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