Lessons on Trust from Zechariah and Mary
Luke the physician opens his gospel, his “orderly account” of the “things that have been accomplished among us,” with a pair of amazing dialogues. They’re remarkably similar, yet with a notable difference.
Zechariah and Mary each receive a private visit by the angel Gabriel. Each is told of a miraculous birth to occur. One will be John the Baptist, the other Jesus Christ. Each asks what sounds like a similar question. Zechariah receives a rebuke, Mary sings the Magnificat.
What’s the difference? Zechariah’s question stems from distrust. Mary’s stems from faith.
There’s a world of difference between How shall I know this? (Zechariah) and How will this be? (Mary). Zechariah’s question conveys, “I don’t believe you — yet. But go ahead, I’ll give you a chance. Do you have some way to prove it, so that I know it will happen?” As if a visit by an angel on your luckiest of days isn’t proof enough.
You see, Zechariah had been serving God as a priest for many years. But on this day, he won the lottery — literally. He was chosen by lot to enter the Temple of the Lord and burn incense. This would have been a once-in-a-lifetime deal. Some priests never had the privilege.
The icing on the cake? Better than icing, actually: An angel shows up. Zechariah hears the amazing prophesy about his future son, and then he has the audacity to ask for a sign. He gets one! Muteness and deafness for the next nine months. Meaning, Elizabeth won all their arguments.
Gabriel’s announcement to Mary is even more amazing. “Your Son is going to sit on the throne of his father David.” He’s going to be the Messiah. Son of the Most High (God). He’s going to be the greatest Person who ever lived or ever will live.
Mary responds with confusion, but not unbelief. She doesn’t say, “How do I know this will be?” She says “How will this be?” In other words, “I believe you. But how is God going to do this?” Her response shows faith, submission, and the receiving of God’s promise. Her question is best understood in that context.
The Questions We Ask
Their responses provide examples for us still today. Consider the subordinate-superior relationship in the workplace. When a subordinate receives a new or unexpected duty, he may have “how” questions (as did Mary). But the first thing his superior needs to feel from him is trust. Compliance. “If you need me, sir/ma’am, you can count on me!”
God’s Word instructs us to serve our earthly masters with “sincerity of heart, just as (we) would obey Christ” (Ephesians 6:5; Colossians 3:22). So our normal disposition should be one of submission. It’s not a popular word these days, but it’s the proper one for most supervisor/employee relationships.
If we start there, we can ask questions like Mary did (preferably face to face), and our questions will be received better for it. “Is this something I’d work on with others, or would I be driving it entirely? Is there a deadline?”
The Trust We Display
Feelings are huge in relationships. Bosses can feel their subordinates’ trust. When a superior feels good about her employee’s submission, she’s more likely to return that trust, give the benefit of the doubt, and be flexible.
Once we give our boss what he needs, then we can talk logistics and methods. If we start with “what for” or “why me” sorts of questions, however, our superiors may not see that as willing compliance. They may perceive it as pushback. It’s hard, but we must be sensitive and mindful to that potential perception.
By first giving them what they need, we’re honoring the principle of Philippians 2:4: “Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others.”
Notice this verse assumes we’ll also look out for our own interests. It’s impossible not to. “No one ever hated his own flesh” (Ephesians 5:29). The test is whether we can love our neighbors as we love ourselves. Only the Holy Spirit can enable this kind of love.
What If the Boss is Untrustworthy?
Zechariah and Mary were receiving promises from God. We receive orders from fallible humans.
Generally, we should give others the benefit of the doubt. Love “believes all things” (I Corinthians 13). But we live in a fallen world. Some managers will tell you to do X, but be surprised that you didn’t do Y.
Even here, I think our bosses needs to feel a measure of submission, trust, and respect from us. An untrustworthy boss is still an authority ordained by God. I Peter 2:18 reads, “Servants, be subject to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the unjust” (emphasis added).
That said, be wise and proceed with caution. Document your boss’s instructions. I once worked for a man who talked a lot, but forgot 80% of what he said by the next day. The problem was, you never knew which 20% he was going to remember. He’d give you 10 requests, over a time frame in which you could only do two. But you weren’t sure which two he’d later ask about!
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I’d look for verbal hints on which ones really mattered. I’d also send a quick e-mail. “I’m tackling X first. Then I’ll go on to Y.” I did my best to pick out X and Y from all that he said. By e-mailing him, I was giving him a way to correct me. If he didn’t, and I guessed wrong, I could refer back to that e-mail.
If I had questions, I would frame them as requests for clarity. “George, just so I’m clear, it’s my understanding that you’re telling me to pull sales numbers for the third quarter and to look for patterns by geography, right?” That phrase, “it’s my understanding” is non-confrontational. It invites correction. It’s not as blunt as “you said” or “I know.”
Then there are those times when supervisors make unethical requests. I hope you do not experience them. If you do, look for the most positive yet honest way to present your response. “Bob, here’s what I can do.” Morph the request into what you think it should have been, were he or she a better boss.
Your tone should still be, “I want to submit to your leadership. I want to promote our group’s success. But what you just asked? I can’t do that. Can we brainstorm another way that I can help? Or how about I send you some alternative suggestions by the end of the day?” Extreme cases, of course, should be reported to the appropriate legal authorities.
Submission to Authority is Good!
Bottom line, submission to authority is beautiful. Jesus submitted to His Father, doing all that he was commanded (John 14:31). He did nothing of his own authority (John 8:28; 5:30).
By submitting to our earthly authorities, we honor God, love our neighbors, make the gospel look beautiful (Titus 2:9-10) and silence the mouths of those who might say we are “too heavenly minded to be of earthly good” (see 1 Peter 2:15).
We should be like Mary, not Zechariah. Default to trust. Display compliance. Then, if necessary, ask questions.
Alex Chediak (Ph.D., U.C. Berkeley) is a professor and the author of Thriving at College (Tyndale House, 2011), a roadmap for how students can best navigate the challenges of their college years. His latest book is Beating the College Debt Trap. Learn more about him at www.alexchediak.com or follow him on Twitter (@chediak).