Ethics, Morals, Behavior
The Power of an Anti-Example
by Ed Vasicek
I am persuaded that positive thinking, tempered by realistic thinking, is crucial to a happy life. But if you find yourself like me, keeping a cheerful spirit is an arduous task. Numerous studies certify that people with a positive disposition do better across the board: they are healthier, enjoy better relationships, and relish life in general. It is worth struggling to be positive, even if our success is limited. Generally speaking, the more positive we are, the better off we are.
I sometimes find it helpful to focus my mind upon a positive person and then try to imitate his or her responses to certain situations. There are many Scriptural admonitions to do just that.
Another trick that helps me think more positively sounds strange at first, yet it sometimes works: I remember people with undesirable qualities and tell myself, "I don't want to be like them. I'd better improve my attitude!" When I feel unhappy, discontent, and whiny, I think of others who habitually nurture unhappiness. When I feel lazy, I think of some of my family members who lacked initiative and tell myself, "I don't want to be like them!" When I sense arrogance taking over, I think of some proud people I have experienced and remember how childish they appeared to me, or I think about one of my own humbling episodes. When I feel covetous, I think of a few folks who are into material possessions but display little depth of relationship. Yes, it is possible that these anti-examples might, in some cases, be in the right and perhaps my perspective is wrong. But I try to think of the extreme examples in which matters seem clear. (None of you who are reading this are those examples, by the way.) Just as virtues jump out in some instances, so do vices. Is such a thought process a Christian way to think? Is there power in an anti-example of Christian virtue? My answer to both of these questions is "yes."
Luke 17:32 is a verse kids in camp love to learn (along with "Jesus wept") because they get credit for memorizing a full verse, yet this verse is short. The Luke passage simply reads, "Remember Lot's wife." Jesus uses Lot's wife as an anti-example to teach the lesson of verse 33, "Whoever tries to keep his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life will preserve it." The picture of Lot's wife, who was turned into a pillar of salt (e.g., buried alive in salt), was worth a thousand words. She tried to hang onto the wealth and lifestyle she had in Sodom, and because she looked back and wouldn't let it go, died a horrible death. Lot, on the other hand, released his old life and lived. When we are tempted to prioritize material goods, wealth, and prestige over our relationship with God, we should remember Lot's wife as an anti-example.
Scriptural anti-examples are not hard to come by. I can choose to remember "...Balaam's error..." (Jude 11). Balaam was a man who compromised the truth for material gain and prestige. When I sense myself hardening my stubborn heart in the midst of a disagreement, I try to recall the foolish decision of Rehoboam, son of Solomon, who refused to compromise with others and saw his kingdom halved overnight.
Positively Paul writes, "Join with others in following my example, brothers, and take note of those who live according to the pattern we gave you..." (Philippians 3:17). Negatively, Hebrews 4:11 warns us to be aware, "...so that no one would fall by following their example of disobedience." We learn from both positive and negative examples. Just as we are to emulate the strengths of others, so we are to shun their weaknesses.
If we are to be completely honest, we must admit that even good people have their times of failure. Peter denied Christ three times and later snubbed gentile believers (Galatians 2). Paul had to confront him about this latter behavior. Doubting Thomas is remembered for a single lapse, not for his lifetime of faithful service and martyrdom. Noah's drunkenness, David's sin with Bathsheba, Moses' striking the rock, Abraham's compromising behavior with Hagareven good examples are not perfect ones. Of course, Christ is the only exception to this rule.
So are we "anti-examples" for others? Do good Christian people look at me and say, "I don't want to be ________ like Pastor Ed?" I am sure it does happen, at times. If Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, John Mark, Peter, Miriam, and Thomas had their anti-example moments, we can count on the reality that we will, too. Our goal should be to be a positive example, an example of what should be, not an anti-example.
Part of growth is "monkey see, monkey do," but we have to "see" the right monkeys! We grow by both imitating good examples and by avoiding the behavior of anti-examples. Or, to put it in more pithy terms, we can learn from the mistakes of others rather than making our own. Part of the secret of being positive is to repel the negative.
Reprinted from the February 2002 Body Builder, a publication of Highland Park Church.
Highland Park Church
516 West Sycamore Street
Kokomo, Indiana, USA