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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.

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