“A gentle answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath.” (Proverbs 15:1)
Last week, while on vacation, I had the chance to watch my little sister Sallie Cowen perform as a dolphin trainer at Gulf World in Panama City Beach, Florida. As Sallie and her fellow trainers encouraged the animals, they explained the process used to train both the dolphins and the sea lions. They call the process, positive reinforcement, which means whenever an animal does something good they give them a treat of some kind, usually it’s fish. Both Sallie and Tricia further explained that they NEVER scold the animals for what they DO NOT do. This is negative reinforcement and it diminishes the trust they have built with the animals. As Christians, I think there is a lesson to be learned from how Gulf World trains their animal performers.
1. Christians Should Strive to Not Be Fearful, Angry, and Defensive.
Some of my church experiences growing up involved negative examples. Often I would hear someone in the church talk more about what a Christian SHOULD NOT do than what a Christian SHOULD DO! This created some strange results in me as a young Christian. In fact, I can remember reading a John MacArthur book titled “For the Love of God” and thinking, “God doesn’t have love, that’s Jesus place because as Christians we must focus on not doing disobeying God. We don’t have time to love God.” Sadly, I was confused about theology in so many ways as a young teenager, but this stemmed from the fact that I heard many Christians emphasizing anger than hope. The motivation was fear, which yields results, but usually the gains are only short-term.
Rather, Christians can learn a lot from Gulf World. For example, we must proclaim for the hope of our faith than just the fears and failures of our faith. I state this because in a world that is readily rejecting Christianity more by the year we must find ways to positively relate the hope of Christ to the culture. If we primarily focus on the negative, we are defensive and we further break our trust with society.
Now before some people claim I’m over emphasizing positive thinking, or prosperity only Christianity, please hear me out I’m not ignoring sin. Instead, I want to make certain that Christians are proclaiming the hope of Christ, His good news, since we are condemned anyway. Non-Christians know about fear, anger, and they like us are defensive. They are very aware of what Christians deem as sin and one can easily acknowledge it before proclaiming the hope of Gospel. So to contrast hyper-fear, hyper-anger, and hyper-defensiveness lets positively proclaim the full hope of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We are negative creatures in rebellion to God, but we need the hope of Christ because faith in Jesus leads to freedom, gentleness, and hope. After all we get more with vinegar than with honey!
2. Christians Should Strive to Be Free, Gentle and Hopeful.
Not only does freedom, gentleness, and hope help Christians display the hope of the Gospel, but such positive reinforcement helps Christians live a more joyous life. For example, gentleness is one of the fruits of the spirit as listed in Galatians 5:22. Earlier in Galatians 5, Paul writes about the ability that because we are in Christ we are set free from our sin. We no longer have to be slaves to fear, anger, and other such defensive postures. In other words, Christians have the greatest hope of all and it is time we start living like we do. Imagine the influence we could have on our culture if we offer a hopeful demeanor than a paranoid demeanor that minimizes the blessings found in life!
Also, Christians are called to reject anger and wrath in order to embrace gentleness. Proverbs 15:1, reminds us that “A gentle answer turns away anger, but a harsh word stirs up wrath.” As Christians we would do well to appear to sound more hopeful than hurtful. This reminds me of what Willie Robertson wrote about his dad Phil Robertson of Duck Dynasty fame in the book The Duck Commander Family: How Faith, Family, and Ducks Built a Dynasty. In the book Willie talks about how his Dad, Phil who rarely ever discouraged his kids from any of their dreams. In fact, he would often encourage them to achieve their goals. This is because Phil believed they would figure out on their own if the dream would work or not. He felt his kids didn’t need his discouragement because it may prevent them from pursuing a more realistic dream in the future. Simply put, he positively reinforced his boys. He encouraged them with a gentle answer than a harsh word as Proverbs tell us. As a result, I think it’s hard to argue their business and Christians success today.
Positive reinforcement is engrained in the animals at Gulf World and if it works for them, positive reinforcement may work for humans, especially Christians who already have the hope Jesus brings. Therefore, I believe that if Christians offer hope and stop sounding like sauerkraut Christians that we will turn heads more than just emphasizing hell, fire, and brimstone. Otherwise we will be nothing but a bunch of weenies.
This is because positive reinforcement is Christian reality and ideal, and one that does not have to diminish the reality of sin just like they should not over-emphasize sin. Our sin is negative enough and we don’t need to help make it any worse. Rather Christians should simply acknowledge sin as one proclaims the full Gospel of Christ so one knows what to repent from and who to repent towards, which is Christ. So let’s focus on positive reinforcement. Let’s encourage people with what they are doing well as we share the Gospel hope of Christ, which seeks to heal us from the negativity of our sin when we repent and believe on Jesus.