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Last fall one of my granddaughters came home from her first day at preschool. She did not seem nearly as enthused at the end of the day as she had been when her mother dropped her off at the door. 

“Did you like preschool?” her mother asked. “Not very much,” my granddaughter replied.

“Did you make any new friends?” her mother asked. “No,” she replied very matter-of-factly.

“Why not?” her mother probed.

“Because nobody would do what I told them to do,” she explained.

Her mother struggled to suppress a belly laugh while thinking to herself, “Guess you’ll be learning more than just how to read.” Her daughter is in her second year of preschool and the learning continues. She seems to like it more now than she did at the start.

I don’t know a person alive who wouldn’t prefer to have everyone else just do as they say. In fact, some of us never get over that urge. Maybe we would have benefitted from two years in preschool. More plausibly, perhaps we can consider where the ability to influence other people comes from.

There’s no arguing that life would be easier if we could just rule the world with words. Think of it:

  • “Wish I could pay you today, but don’t worry, I’ll pay you soon.”
  • “But I’m busy right now, so I’ll wash the dishes as soon as this TV program is over.”
  • “I’ll finish the report by tomorrow.”
  • “I’m sorry you’ve got more than you can handle. Wish I could help you.”

Perhaps you’ve heard the old adage: “If wishes and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a merry Christmas.” In the real world, words alone achieve almost nothing. In fact, they can convict us if we don’t follow through with appropriate actions.

The problem is probably as old as humanity, and it was certainly an issue in the earliest days of Christianity. That’s why we read in the Letter of James, as we did last weekend at Mass, these words: “If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet you do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that?” (Jas 2:15-16)

My granddaughter couldn’t find anyone who would do what she said to do because she had no credibility, no leverage. Obviously, that was due to the fact the other students knew her as nothing but a fellow first-day student. In contrast, we can assume that they did what the teacher told them to do (at least most of them most of the time) because they trusted her.

In the beginning, the students gave their teacher the benefit of the doubt, something they would not give to a fellow student. But as time passed, no doubt their teacher’s measured her words against her deeds and decided, more deliberately, just how much trust they could place in her. 

If they trusted her a lot, they would be inclined to do whatever she told them to do. If they didn’t trust her very much, they would hold back and keep testing her, trying to determine for themselves both the boundaries and the consequences.

Adults aren’t any different. We also test others’ actions against their words. When correspondence is high, trust is high and the relationship is marked by clarity and responsiveness. But when words and deeds don’t correspond, we hesitate, we probe and test, we may even decide to disregard what we’ve heard, draw our own conclusions and act accordingly.

Jesus told his disciples the truth — even when they didn’t want to hear what he told them. They didn’t always believe him. But over time, they came to see that “he taught them as one having authority” (Mat 7:29), in contrast to others whose deeds didn’t match their words. Even then, they don’t seem to have trusted him completely until, as he predicted, he actually rose from the dead and walked in their midst. Then they were willing to turn over their lives to him and his mission.

Realizing that we don’t have the power to effect our own resurrections from the dead should remind us of how difficult it is to get people to trust us enough to do what we want them to do. Obviously, we don’t want to make the task any more difficult by not living up to our words and actually inspiring mistrust among others.

Just one more thing: while we don’t have the power to effect our own resurrections from the dead, we do have the power to effect small resurrections from our failures and mistakes. If our words of regret and sorrow match our sins of commission and omission, we can inspire a great deal of trust without having to be perfect. 

As Ken Blanchard, co-founder of the Lead Like Jesus Movement, says: “The longer you wait to apologize, the sooner your weakness will be perceived as wickedness.” And that opens up a Pandora’s Box of new problems.

Owen Phelps, Ph.D.
Director, Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute

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