Believe in yourself?

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No, place your confidence in God, like Mary did

Henry Ford’s famous quote, “Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you’re right,” encapsulates the spirit of the inspirational posters that adorn myriad classrooms and locker rooms. There’s some truth to the quote, and there’s nothing wrong with inspiring people to give their best effort and pursue greatness.

And yet, there can be a downside to confidence. There are plenty of foolish things that I might believe with all my heart. Confidence in the wrong things can cause enormous harm. The builders of the Titanic had so much confidence in the boat’s design that they provided too few lifeboats for the number of passengers. The captain of the Titanic believed with certainty in his ability to navigate the ship through the ice safely. His misplaced confidence cost many people their lives.

Confidence is only good if it is properly grounded. That’s why, if we want a good model for healthy confidence, we need look no further than Mary, the mother of our Lord.

Mary’s confidence is placed exactly where it should be, in God. When the Angel Gabriel tells Mary that she will bear the Son of God, she responds with simple, matter of fact, confidence: “I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” (Luke 1:38) She isn’t afraid like most people would be. She is a faithful Jew whose knowledge of her people’s history lets her see the pattern in how God works.

Not only is Mary unafraid of what might happen to her, she is ready to act. She goes without delay to tell her cousin Elizabeth what is happening so she can share in the joy at what God is doing.

Because Mary’s confidence comes from her trust in God, this woman, whom the Angel Gabriel proclaimed favored by the Lord, never slips into arrogance. When she tells Jesus, “They have no wine,” during the wedding at Cana and her son rebuffs her, she doesn’t take offense, get hurt or even delay. She goes directly to the servers and tells them, “Do whatever he tells you.” (John 2:3-5) Her confidence in God is so great that she knows that, one way or another, he is going to do the right thing. She doesn’t know what he is going to do, but she trusts it will be the right thing. It doesn’t bother her that she doesn’t get to call the play, she is just happy to be on the team.

God wants us to have this kind of confidence. Confidence grounded in ourselves is hard for the rational to sustain. When our colicky newborn daughter arrived, I couldn’t believe that God had given something so complicated and demanding to someone so sleep-deprived and poorly informed, and without even providing a manual.

Never once in the process of being a parent have I taken heart in a mantra like “Believe in yourself.” I know myself too well to fall for that. God, however, I could trust. I knew that God would not give us children so precious without providing us the help we would need to care for them.

In parenting, professional life and so many critical endeavors, it is a good idea to follow Mary’s example and ground our confidence in God’s providence rather than ourselves. If I am having a bad day, it’s very easy for me to lose heart. But even on the worst of days, Mary could trust in God. If I start to think I am terribly clever, it’s very easy to get overconfident and sloppy. This never happened to Mary, who understood that it was God who made everything she did possible.

I will never forget the encouragement that I felt when the doctor who was about to perform surgery on my knee took a moment before the operation to pray with me for God’s blessing. Later, when I shared with him my appreciation, he said it helped him too: “It helps me to remember that there’s a God, and I’m not him!” That is the sort of confidence I can believe in.

Northwest Catholic - May 2018

Deacon Eric Paige

Deacon Eric Paige is the Archdiocese of Seattle's executive director for evangelization, formation and discipleship. Contact him at eric.paige@seattlearch.org.