Prevention or Promotion

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We have the power, especially with the Holy Spirit’s help, to overcome our negativity bias.

After reading scores of manuscripts with a critical eye, I fear I may be developing a critical spirit. I guess it’s an occupational hazard for an editor. But it’s easy for our fallen sinful natures to focus on flaws and negatives.

Jesus recognized this when he called out our penchant to find the speck of sawdust in our neighbor’s eye (Matt. 7:3). In other words, we can be counted on to find and even magnify the tiniest of flaws. Researchers call our tendency to pay more attention to and place more value on negative information than positive information a “negativity bias.” For instance, one bad trait can easily override numerous good ones in our impressions of a person. This is why we so easily slip into being judgmental.

But we don’t have to be stuck in negativity mode. Jesus called us to be better, which means we have the power, especially with the Holy Spirit’s help, to overcome our negativity bias.

Researchers have observed that some people are prevention oriented (avoiding negative consequences) while others are promotion oriented (striving for positive outcomes). A promotion-oriented student, for example, is motivated to study to obtain a good grade, while a prevention-oriented student is driven more by avoiding failure. These tendencies are defaults; no one ever focuses exclusively on either the positive or the negative.

The body of Christ, according to Christian social psychologist Christena Cleveland, “seems to be plagued with a pervasive prevention orientation. We have heightened sensitivity to what we perceive to be the negative happenings in the church, and we are especially vigilant in tracking those happenings” (Disunity in Christ, 133). We end up creating a culture of fear where a critical, speck-finding spirit reigns. In a recent LifeWay survey, judgmental or hypocritical church members were the second-most specified reason why young adults leave church. Are Christian Reformed churches facing this problem?

Theologian Mark Buchanan identified a similar contrast between Jesus and the Pharisees:

The Pharisees had an ethic of avoidance, and Jesus had an ethic of involvement. The Pharisee’s question was not “How can I glorify God?” It was “How can I avoid bringing disgrace to God?” This degenerated into a concern not with God, but with self—with image, reputation, procedure. They didn’t ask, “How can I make others clean?” They asked, “How can I keep myself from getting dirty?” They did not seek to rescue sinners, only to avoid sinning (Your God Is Too Safe, 108-09).

If we truly want to reach people for Christ, we need to risk getting dirty.

The apostle Paul, for instance, speaking in idol-filled Athens, started not by condemning the Athenians’ idolatry but by praising them for being religious (Acts 17:22). Paul challenged the divided Philippian church to focus on positive, lofty ideals—whatever is true, noble, right, pure, lovely, and admirable (Phil. 4:8). That seems a lot like a promotion orientation to me. If we seek to be more like Paul and like Christ, who dined with sinners, we need to overcome our negativity bias and prevention orientation.

Can we change the world’s perception of Christians as primarily judgmental and negative into one of Christians as primarily life-affirming and loving? Given a choice between a prevention oriented person and a promotion oriented one, I know who I would rather hang out with.

About the Author

Shiao Chong is editor-in-chief of The Banner. He attends Fellowship Christian Reformed Church in Toronto, Ont.

Shiao Chong es el redactor jefe de The Banner. El asiste a Iglesia Comunidad Cristiana Reformada en Toronto, Ont. 

시아오 총은 더 배너 (The Banner)의 편집장이다. 온타리오 주 토론토의 펠로우쉽 CRC에 출석한다.

You can follow him @shiaochong (Twitter) and @3dchristianity (Facebook).  

See comments (2)


Thanks, Shiao, for encouraging us to be life-affirming and loving rather than judgmental and negative.  I agree, but what you suggest isn’t easy.  I think that what you suggest is especially difficult in a confessional church like the CRC.  We have pretty well spelled out for us what we believe in our confessions.  In churches that are less confessional (Scripture alone), what is believed is much more fluid.  They don’t get bogged down in details. You could say, ignorance is bliss.  So such people may be less tempted to correct others when they see things differently than themselves.  You could say our strength (our confessions) is also our weakness. We become like a bunch of junior theologians debating the fine points of theology when we talk to others about religion.  I think the members of our churches are becoming less committed to our confessions than in the past, so maybe we are becoming less confrontational than we have in the past.  Is that a good thing?  I do like the idea of allowing others the right to believe differently than me, and allowing that they could be right.  It’s a lonely place being the only one right.  Thanks, Shiao.  I appreciate the challenge.

I think the intent of the editorial is good but difficult to apply.  I think we can only control our own attitudes and not those of other people.  I say this because I find that a lot of people who say they are Christians, and especially evangelical Christians like Pat Robertson are VERY judgmental and seem to be full of hatred toward LGBT people or anyone who doesn't think like them.  And unfortunaltely, that sort of Christian makes a lot of noise, and they turn people off Christianity.  

But even if you want to be open-minded, you will never be open-minded and tolerant enough for other people who consider any decision to be closed-minded and intolerant.  So eventually you just have to be who you are and let the chips fall where they may.