Giving Others the Benefit of Doubt

Bob RoaneCounseling, Joy and Peace, Loving and Trusting God, Wise living

Surely the human mind and heart are deep, mysterious, unsearchable, and complex. (Psalm 64:6 paraphrase)

Christ-like Love

Christian mercy includes giving people the benefit of doubt and not making assumptions about them. Various Scriptures lead me to this conclusion: “The purposes of a person’s heart are deep waters, but one who has insight draws them out….For who knows a person’s thoughts except their own spirit within them?…Love always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres….The Lord does not look at things people look at. People look at outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.”1

Jesus Christ enables and reminds us to imitate Him and not to judge a book (a person) by its cover (appearances). It’s dangerous to guess that people have character flaws with little or no evidence. Our opinion should only be as strong as our knowledge of people and circumstances. Scripture reminds us not to jump to conclusions hastily because we are often wrong and then over-react. It’s arrogant to presume we fully understand someone, their motives, or their purposes. In making assumptions, we create unnecessary bias in our heads that becomes a false reality to us. That’s bad.

We Are Not Competent to Judge

If we don’t understand someone, let’s not guess but rather ask for clarification to make communication as clear as possible. Let’s not assume we know all there is to know about a situation or person or suppose worst case scenarios. We can’t read anybody’s mind and heart. Only God (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit) can do that. We are mere mortals, so we should be humble and reluctant to judge anyone.

Do not be quick with your mouth, Do not be hasty in your heart to utter anything before God. God is in heaven and you are on earth, so let your words be few. (Ecclesiastes 5:2)

Let’s give people a break and assume the best, unless we have weighty evidence of bad intentions. Don’t take it personally if someone is late, cancels plans, forgets something that’s important to us, or doesn’t answer an e-mail or voice mail. Let’s remind ourselves that they probably don’t mean to be inconsiderate. Maybe they’re just overwhelmed by other demands or concerns. When I get busy and distracted, I drop the ball sometimes. I require extra grace from others often, so I need to do the same for them.

Giving People Slack

Author Gretchen Rubin warns that cutting people slack is most needed when we are feeling bad ourselves. Being upset, sad, or jealous makes us more defensive, suspicious, hypersensitive, uptight, and judgmental. “Love believes all things” (1 Cor 13:7) means thinking the best of others, giving them the benefit of doubt unless we have overwhelming proof to the contrary. Christian love is not gullible, but it means not rushing to think the worst. Jesus’ followers must not act that way. Self-centered people take themselves too seriously and take everything personally. That’s a wearisome way to live. In Christ’s Golden Rule, He commands, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.”2 Surely that includes cutting people slack.

When we see something negative in others or we’re suspicious about their motives, let’s slow down before we conclude that they are morally wrong or bad. Christ-like love doesn’t mean being a sucker,3 but we can slow down and suspend judgment. Jesus says, “A person’s wisdom yields patience; it is to one’s glory to overlook an offense.”4 Christ modeled this practice of overlooking faults in people and He puts His Holy Spirit in us to help us copy Him.

Covey’s Awakening

Author Steven Covey learned this lesson the hard way. He was riding the New York City subway when a father with three unruly children entered the same train car and sat across from Covey. The kids were out of control and made a ruckus. Covey scolded the father for letting his kids disturb others. The father answered sadly that they were just returning from his wife’s funeral. He explained that the children were usually well behaved, but were now acting out their grief. The father said that he didn’t have the energy to correct them right now. Covey felt like a jerk for pre-judging and he shifted his thinking immediately. Now he felt compassion, empathy, and support for this family, once he knew their larger story. He saw the situation from a different perspective, realizing their bigger issues.5

Most of us are acutely aware of our own struggles and preoccupied with our own problems. We sympathize with ourselves because we see our own difficulties clearly. But let us be kind to others, for most of us are fighting a hard battle. When you meet someone, treat them as if they were in serious trouble and you will be right more than half the time. (John Watson)

Further Thoughts

What’s the lesson? Give people a break. Their lives are usually more complicated than we know. If someone cuts in line at the store, don’t assume they are rude or slighting you. Maybe she’s a great mom, rushing to get home with medicine for a sick child. If someone’s cell phone rings during a meeting, don’t assume they are inconsiderate. Maybe they need to take a call from an aged parent in a nursing home or just forgot to turn the ringer off. We all make similar mistakes.

Author Richard Carlson observes that we get worked up about things that, upon closer examination, aren’t really big deals. We focus on little problems and blow them out of proportion. Carlson observes that we spend so much energy “sweating the small stuff” that we lose touch with the kind things people do for us and show us. On a similar note, Dr. Les Parrott wisely urges: Seek grace and mercy from God and others every day. Accept grace and mercy from God and others every day. Show grace and mercy to others every day.

“Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you….The Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive.” (Eph 4:32; Col 3:13)

Don’t forget that we need and keep on receiving forgiveness from the Lord. So, in turn, we should be kind and forgiving to those around us. The Bible teaches we forgive because God forgives. Since Jesus calls us to forgive others up to seventy times seven times when it comes to moral wrongs, shouldn’t we overlook that many non-moral things that tick us off? Since God puts all our sins behind His back, shouldn’t we do the same with smaller offenses others commit?6 Let’s give other people the benefit of doubt whenever possible. Christ and His gospel demand no less.

Go in peace, beloved. Walk with King Jesus today and be a blessing to others!

Notes (various translations):  1 Prov 18:4; 20:5; 1 Cor 2:11; 13:7; 1 Sam 16:7.    2 Matt 7:12.     3 Prov 14:15.     4 Prov 19:11.     5 Adapted from Covey, The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People (1989), p. 30-31.     6 Matt 18:21-22; Isaiah 38:17.