An Encouraging Word — Let us affirm the goodness in others

Father J. Ronald Knott

This man welcomes sinners and eats with them. Luke 15:2

One of the things I find fascinating about Jesus was his ability to find goodness in the worst of people and affirm it. This realization is one of the main reasons I decided to start writing this column because I felt too many religious people were “mousing for vermin,” looking for sins to condemn, rather than goodness to affirm.

Because Jesus was constantly on the lookout for goodness to affirm, what was right with people instead of what was wrong with them, he was condemned. Because he “welcomed sinners and ate with them,” he was assumed guilty by association and was thereby labeled a “glutton and a drunkard.”

One of the questions that comes up over and over again in my life as a priest is this one. “How do I influence people to move from where they are to where God wants them to be? Do I condemn the “hell” out of them or do I love the “hell” out of them?” Jesus seems to have chosen the latter.

In psychology, there is a phenomenon called “confirmation bias.” It is the tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. As a result, people gather evidence and remember information selectively, and interpret it in a biased way. The biases are stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs.

In other words, we tend to see what we want to see. Is the glass half full or half empty? That depends on the one looking at it, doesn’t it? If you say it is half full, you are probably focusing on the liquid in the bottom of the glass. If you say it is half empty, you are probably focusing on the air in the top of the glass.

This seems to explain why Jesus and the Pharisees could encounter the same people and see them very differently. When encountering the woman caught in adultery, all the Pharisees saw was a sinner deserving punishment. What Jesus saw was someone who had sinned, but someone who was more than her sin.

When you publish material like I have been doing, you periodically get raked over the coals for affirming people’s strengths, rather than condemning their weaknesses.

I got a very angry letter recently for a speech I gave about a family that does much for our church and community. I thanked them for their generosity. Because they support one cause that is in conflict with the teachings of the church, I was basically told that I should never say anything good about them publicly.

During Archbishop Kelly’s wake in the Cathedral, a very angry letter appeared in the Courier-Journal stating that because he had failed to handle the local sexual abuse scandal appropriately, his life should not be celebrated. We who celebrated his life were not celebrating his weaknesses, but his strengths. When I die, I hope people will do the same for me.

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