Christians and Cultures by Dr. Tim Woodroof
In 1957, a scientist named Curt Richter conducted a series of experiments with rats on the subject of persistence. How much stamina do rats have? How long will they keep going? What helps or hinders their ability to persist?
He devised an experiment that could not be conducted today. He filled a tank with water. The sides of the tank were too steep for rats to climb. The water was too deep for a rat to stand. The tank forced rats to swim, swim, swim.
Here’s how the experiment went. Place a rat in the water and start your stopwatch. Watch the rat carefully as he swims around the tank. Observe how long it takes the rat to reach exhaustion. When the rat gives up, sinks to the bottom of the tank, and drowns, click your stopwatch and note how much time has elapsed.
Guess how long rats kept swimming on average? About 15 minutes.
At this point, Carl Richter threw in a wrinkle. He put rats in the tank, let them swim to the point of exhaustion, and just as they gave up and began to sink he picked the rats up, dried them off, and let them rest and get warm.
Then, back into the tank and start the stopwatch.
Now how long do you think the rats swam? At 24 hours, they had to take the rats out of the tank. One rat swam for more than 72 hours before finally being rescued.
A Picture of Encouragement?
I’m not sure what to make of this experiment or how to explain this remarkable change of behavior. Do rats feel hope? Having been rescued once, do they keep swimming in expectation of another rescue?
Whatever this means about rats, I see in the results of this experiment a picture of the power of encouragement for human beings. You are swimming along in life, cold and tired. You reach the point of exhaustion. You’re ready to give up. You start to sink. And then someone reaches in and lifts you up, warms you, strokes you, and lets you rest.
Nothing has actually changed about your life—the water is still there, more hard swimming lies ahead, the work continues.
But something has changed about you. You find fresh energy. You face the future with fresh enthusiasm. You feel like you can swim forever.
No Pain, No Gain. Really?
According to the wisdom of the world, people only change as the result of pain. They must be coerced into changing—corrected, critiqued, compelled, censured, condemned. Undesirable behaviors should be punished, penalized, reprimanded. The best tools for changing people (in the world’s view) are disapproval, faultfinding, and criticism.
How at odds this is with the gospel. According to Jesus, real change happens in the lives of people only when they are loved immoderately, forgiven excessively, shown grace and mercy constantly, granted second chances freely, and encouraged—encouraged—encouraged.
Many Christians want the changes promised by the gospel but use the means offered by the world. They are far more comfortable with the critical remark than the encouraging word. They try to prompt change with sledgehammers. They believe that harsh words, strict judgment, and unsparing truth are more likely to result in godly changes than patience, trust, and forgiveness. They are stuck in Deuteronomy. They have not grasped the essential dynamic of Calvary. And they are allowing people in their families, their churches, and their jobs to swim to the point of exhaustion—to despair, give up, and sink slowly into the “slough of despond.”
It doesn’t have to be that way. Christians can pursue a different course. It begins with a commitment to encouragement. Trust that what people need most is a warming word, not a warning word. Trust that lifting people up with your words and actions, offering them rest, giving them a pat on the back, speaking your confidence in them will do more to strengthen and hearten those around you than all the well-meaning criticism and helpful corrections you could offer.
People, like rats, need a reason to keep swimming. Give them one.
Dr. Tim Woodroof is a freelance writer and speaker. He and his wife Julie make their home in Nashville, Tennessee.