Lessons in Trust from Probate Court December 09 2016

(Part of BCF’S blog series: “Society, Selflessness, and the Scriptures")

I have had the privilege of being the executor of Shashi’s mother’s estate.  It’s actually not a very large estate, but she was still the owner of a house in California before she went to heaven, and this is what has required us to go through probate court.  I say “privilege,” because I have learned a lot about “trust” in the process of going through probate.  

When I first embarked on this little adventure, I was thinking that “this can’t really be that hard.”  So I read up on the process, got all the paperwork together, went to a little seminar, and filed the initial papers to get the court to authorize me to sell the house.  It was actually a lot to do, a good portion of which (in my view) was unnecessary.  And the forms had this underlying tone of “we’re not sure we trust you.”

A few weeks later, I had my hearing before the judge, and was able to observe about 20 other cases prior to mine. It was then that I began to understand why the process was so involved.  Not all executors can be trusted.  There were several sad stories about executors not carrying out their responsibilities, running off with some of the funds, attorneys not getting paid, and so on.  How people deal with money  tends to reveal how untrustworthy and sinful humans can be.

It turned out that I was summarily chastised by the judge, who pointed out two specific things I had failed to do, and in his concluding remarks he said, “if I were you, I would get a lawyer.”  So that’s what I did, and I continued to see things that I would have learned only by trial and error.  The judge may have been patient with me, and I would have eventually gotten through it, but he clearly did not want to be part of my learning experience.

This venture has reminded me how much we rely on trust, from person-to-person, person-to-institution (e.g. banks), and institution-to-institution.  A functional society is built largely on trust and there are basically two ways to do it:  1) for everyone to be completely, unfailingly trustworthy, and 2) for protections to be in place so that “trust” can be enforced.  I say “trust” in quotes, because the second method is not really trust, but is instead a way of enforcing compliance by making the consequences of nefarious behavior so unpleasant that everyone (or almost everyone) will comply.  The first method is most desirable, but not realistic considering human nature.

And sometimes there is no one to blame but ourselves.  I met a retired doctor once who had married a much younger woman, whom he thought he loved and could trust.  It turned out that she was just very good at manipulation, managed to set up joint accounts, and ran off with his life savings.  Not only can people be untrustworthy, but they can also pretend like they are the most trustworthy person on earth.  In these cases, “trust but verify” (per Ronald Reagan) is probably appropriate.  But the relationships most cherished are those where trust has been demonstrated over many years and where we can trust the other person’s word 100 percent.

Such is the relationship we can have with the Lord.  The Scriptures say a lot about trust and faithfulness.  The Psalms speak repeatedly of who to trust in (i.e. the Lord – Psalm 25:2, 31:14, 55:23, 91:2, among many other references); when I should trust Him (i.e – Psalm 56:3 (when I am afraid), 62:8 (at all times)); and what not to trust in (i.e. Psalm 62:10 (oppression/power), 44:6 (bows/weapons), 49:6 (wealth), 118:8 (man), 118:9 (princes/leaders).  In other words, earthly things and earthly systems are bound to disappoint us, so we dare not put our hope there.

And as Paul wrote in I Corinthians 4:2, “In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy.”  We could use the modern term “executors” in the place of “stewards.”  It is one of those infrequent, but sobering responsibilities where trust is so important, and is a foundation of harmony within the family when an estate is involved.  

We could also substitute any number of relationships for the word “stewards” – husbands, wives, parents, children, employees, bosses, and so on.  If everyone was completely trustworthy, honest, and faithful, we would not need many of the institutions that have become necessary for protection in today’s world.  What a breath of fresh air that would be – no stolen goods, no need for locks and keys, no surveillance cameras, no computer firewalls or security. But this comes only with transformed lives, and even then, we are still imperfect; we can be tempted and choose to sin.  

Even Paul recognized his own frailty and propensity to sin: “I find then the principle that evil is present in me, the one who wants to do good” (Romans 7:21).  “Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?  Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! So then, on one hand I myself with my mind am serving the law of God, but on the other, with my flesh the law of sin” (Romans 7:24-25).  This well describes the struggle we have with trust and trustworthiness.  We thank the Lord for His trustworthiness and pray, by God’s grace, that we might be a shining example of trustworthiness in all our relationships.

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Gratefully, Steve Smith