Monday, December 04, 2017

Testimony and Evidence

It’s not enough to be nice.

No, really, it’s not. If you want to be trusted — if you want to build confidence, and if you want to establish a lasting relationship — you need to first express the truth in words, then you need to embody it. Or the other way round, if you like. But when we want to send a message and have it understood, our testimony and the evidence to back it up must go together. One or the other alone will not cut it.

That first aspect of communication is expressed in scripture this way: “Faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word.”

Right. Verbal expression is critical in building trust.

He Never Said He Loved Me …

How many times do you hear a child complain bitterly that “my father never said he loved me.” Often it’s at dad’s funeral, and by then it’s too late. In some cases, sadly, it’s because dad genuinely didn’t care. In others, perhaps, dad was not naturally given to verbalizing affection and incorrectly assumed his message was getting across without using his words.

But actions on their own are ambiguous, even though many people believe they communicate everything required. As one forty-something woman puts it:
“I heard it said once, ‘I shouldn’t have to say “I love you”; my parents never told me, and my kids should already know.”
Should they? Even apparent kindnesses can spring from all sorts of motives.

Motives and Actions

The guy one desk over in my Grade 9 English class kept trying to initiate conversations with me. “Cool,” I thought. “Maybe we’ll be friends.” I hadn’t many at the time. As it turned out, he was trying to sell a drum kit. He needed a couple hundred bucks and he needed it fast. When it turned out I wasn’t interested, it turned out neither was he.

Oh well. Lesson learned. People can be nice for lots of reasons, not all of which are immediately apparent. Ask the saleswoman if she “loves” the ladies she’s trying to sell her product to. Of course not. But she’s sure nice: “That looks absolutely FANTASTIC on you! Very flattering.” Meanwhile the prospective purchaser looks like nine miles of bad road ...

That serpent in the Garden of Eden was a perfectly pleasant fellow too, come to think of it. He was full of all kinds of helpful tips.

Actions don’t tell you much apart from an honest expression of intent.

Evidence and Ambiguity

Happily, the fact that people’s motives are not always obvious from their actions doesn’t mean we are always doomed to guess wrong. “I think he really likes me,” says the teenage girl, correctly adding up the sum of her boyfriend’s acts toward her. Likewise, one can draw certain limited conclusions about God in the absence of revelation. But doing so is risky, and those conclusions are faulty more often than not. We may quite correctly observe that God “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good,” but it would be a mistake to conclude that God has no preference how we behave.

Real love is a complex thing. It doesn’t always present in the way its recipients might expect. It is only the accompanying statement of intent (and sometimes the passage of time) that makes love fully intelligible. In a good parent/child relationship, for instance, it’s not outrageous for a verbal expression of ongoing commitment and goodwill to accompany painful correction. In fact, it’s quite appropriate — otherwise punishment may be thought to be merely an arbitrary expression of parental pique. Not so: “Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline.”

Back in the day, when my dad would call me into his study and start into his “This is going to hurt me more than it hurts you” routine, my first thought was that he was a bit confused. Today, as a father myself, I totally get it.

A Model for Building Trust

But even the most apparently-heartfelt expressions of goodwill are not much use without consistent evidence to back them up. The violent, guilt-riddled spouse who repeats “I love you” over and over again as you’re applying the bag of frozen peas to your black eye is going to have his work cut out for him selling that story.

If we want a model for building trust, we need to look carefully at our Heavenly Father’s example. He speaks, and he acts. His words explain his actions, and his actions provide the evidence for his words. “I have loved you with an everlasting love,” he declares to Israel, “therefore I have continued my faithfulness to you.” “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” “God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world.”

Words and actions. Testimony and evidence.

“I’d Still Like to Hear It”

Not all of us are naturally verbal, and many of us in our upbringing have not experienced love expressed with words on a regular basis. Some have incorrectly concluded that aspect of communication is unimportant.

The father in the story insisted, “I shouldn’t have to say ‘I love you’. My kids should already know.” His daughter replied, “I'd still like to hear it.” Most people would.

God hasn’t let us down on that score. We shouldn’t let each other down either.

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