Over the past couple of years, I have taught the four-and five-year-old Sunday School class at my church. During one week last year, the lesson focused on the parable about the man who was forgiven huge debt by a king. The man left the meeting with the king and immediately turned around and demanded a man who owed him a few dollars repay it to him immediately.(1) I asked the class if this was a good person? “No” they said. A bad person? All the kids nodded their heads and said that this was a very bad man. After the story, we played until snack time when I decided to run a little experiment to see how well my story transferred to real life. I gave each child five crackers, but didn’t take any for myself. Then, I looked down at my empty paper napkin in front of me, uttering in my saddest voice, “Oh no, there weren’t any crackers left for me. I didn’t get any crackers. Will anybody share?” I waited expectantly… Nobody shared. Finally, after a long pause, my son gave me one of his crackers.
One of the other boys a few minutes later, his mouth full of crackers finally spoke up, “I want another cracker.”
“To share with me?” I said with a big smile. “No, for me!” he said with a rather sheepish grin on his face.
Oh, those crazy kids, we say to ourselves. But before we judge them too harshly, it’s worth remembering a now famous psychology study.(2) Seminary students at Princeton were told they had to preach a sermon on the Good Samaritan in a classroom that was across campus. They had only a short time to get there. Now, you might remember the story of the Good Samaritan.(3) Jesus told the story in answer to the question, “Who is my neighbor?” A man is attacked on the road by bandits and left to die. Two religious leaders pass by, but neither of them help. Finally, a Samaritan passes by on the road. Now, the religious ruling class at the time looked down on Samaritan’s as a very lowly group of people. But what does the Samaritan do? He stops and helps the injured man. Not only does he help, but he takes the man to an inn and leaves extra money to pay for all of his needs until he recovers.
Okay, back to our seminary students at Princeton. On the way to the classroom where they were scheduled to give their sermons, the experimenters planted a person who slumped up against a wall, dressed in ragged clothes, and apparently unconscious (or drunk). Any guesses at how many seminary students stopped to help? 40% They were especially bad when they were in a hurry when only 10% offered help.
Now, if seminary students had trouble living out the values they professed, how much worse off are we likely to be? Let me give you a hint. I just realized that I spent time the last 60 minutes writing this piece instead of taking a break to go down the street and help our 80-year-old neighbor shovel the snow out of her driveway so she could get to her mailbox! Some Reflections
….Okay, I’m back. The driveway is now clear. I can now continue without a guilty conscience. We all struggle with our actions matching our words. We all can do a better job. The question is, “How do we start linking what we know with what we do?” Below are a few ideas that might help.
Set yourself up for success. The first step is to find one place in your life where you have the best of intentions, but your actions don’t always match your words. This is the place for you to begin to experiment. For me, it is making sure I take time in the evening to play with my kids. Practice finding ways to catch yourself. Find cues in your life that will remind you what you want to do. Then, consider the barriers that will get in your way and rehearse in your mind how you will deal with them.(4) Use those to trigger the right actions. For me, that means creating space after dinner every night to be available to my kids. What cues do you want to create?
Let your yes be yes and your no be no. Look for the places where you are overpromising. Find out where you haven’t been honest with others and with yourself. You can’t do everything. Take a moment and reflect on what is really important. If you have to make choices, what will they be? How will I prioritize my life? For example, what will I need to give up to spend time with my kids in the evening?
Do not judge lest ye be judged. Watch closely in the places where you judge and are critical of others. Do your own experiment. Every time you criticize someone else, verbally or silently, stop and check yourself. Ask yourself if you have ever disappointed others in this way. What were the reasons? Are you extending others the same grace we extend ourselves? Are we extended to them the same excuses we are extending to ourselves? There is a well-established finding in psychology called the self-serving bias.(5) If someone else fails, we tend to attribute it to that person. If we fail, we tend to blame the situation. This also means that we tend to rate ourselves above others. So, the next time you judge someone else, make sure you assess yourself. One other thought: We are especially quick to judge others in areas where we are strong and discount areas where we are weak. So, if you are critical of others, make sure you consider how you measure up to them in other areas of your life. This doesn’t mean you should never criticize or hold anyone accountable. Heaven knows, we all need to hold each other accountable! However, it does mean that we need to always do it humbly!
Baby steps. This is all fine and good to read. You might even feel a little better about yourself already! However, you have only increased your knowing. You haven’t done anything yet! Right now, think of something you would love to do this week. Then do it. Let’s all take that challenge. In one week, we’ll all find out if we’ve moved just a little closer to being the people we have committed ourselves to be!
(1) Matthew 18:21-35 (2) Darley, J. M., & Batson, C. (1973). “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 27, 100–108. (3) Luke 10:25-37 (4) Gollwitzer, P. M. (1999). Implementation intentions and effective goal pursuit: Strong effects of simple plans. American Psychologist, 54, 493-503. (5) Mezulis, A. H., Abramson, L. Y., Hyde, J. S., & Hankin, B. L. (2004). Is there a universal positivity bias in attributions? A meta-analytic review of individual, developmental, and cultural differences in the self-serving attributional bias. Psychological Bulletin, 130, 711-747.