1917) Giving Others the Benefit of the Doubt

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A definition of “giving a benefit of a doubt to someone” is “to believe something good about someone, rather than something bad, when you have the possibility of doing either.”  This  means that if someone you know does something strange/wrong, you assume he either made a mistake or had good intentions; instead of flat out thinking he’s a bad person.

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Giving the benefit of the doubt is useful when we don’t know the whole story.  And we never know the whole story.

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“The Reason We Assume the Worst When People Don’t Text Us Back”

by Joshua Rogers, June 23, 2014, at: http://www.joshuarogers.com

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     A dry cleaner has never lost my clothing before — that is, until last week when my pants turned up missing after a trip to the cleaners.  I looked all over my closet to see if the pants had slipped off the hanger, but they were nowhere to be found.  

     I should’ve figured they would lose them, I thought.  The business was in a little run-down shopping center in a rough part of the city, and the woman behind the counter was rude when I came in.  But I needed to get the pants back, so after looking one more time, I walked into the business and told the lady that she had returned my suit without the pants.  Not surprisingly, she was defensive.

     In broken English, the middle-aged Asian woman said I didn’t bring any pants in.

     “Ma’am, I wouldn’t have just brought in a suit jacket,” I said.   “Can’t you just check to see if there are some navy blue pants lying around somewhere?”

     She grew more defensive and said that she was positive I didn’t bring in any pants because she always double checks people’s orders.  This probably happens all the time, I thought.  We went back and forth a little bit more, and the more she defended herself, the more annoyed I got.  But then suddenly, I stopped and rethought everything.  I knew I hadn’t dropped the pants when I left the cleaners, but what if I had never brought them in the first place?  

     “Hold on one second,” I said, suddenly taking on a slightly more humble tone.  “I need to call my wife.”

     I called my wife and asked her to look in the drawer where I normally put the dry-cleaning.  Then the cashier and I waited for the verdict as my wife made her way to our bedroom.

     “Yeah, you’ve got some navy blue pants in here,” she said.

     I thanked her, got off the phone, and sheepishly said, “Ma’am, I’m sorry.  They’re at my house.  You were right — I never brought them in.”

     Maybe you hear that story and think it’s no big deal — it was an understandable mix-up.  Perhaps, but quite frankly, every day I fight the temptation to make negative assumptions about others, whether it’s the lady at the dry cleaners or my friends who have stuck with me for years.  For example, I get annoyed when friends don’t reply to a text, and on a bad day, I assume disrespect on their part.  For some reason, I don’t stop to think that maybe their phone rang as they were responding, and they just forgot to follow up.  Or maybe they were running late for an appointment and didn’t have time to reply.  Seriously, there are plenty of explanations, but for some reason, my mind gravitates toward the negative one.

   And how about that lady at the security desk who’s consistently rude when I try to speak?  It’s easy to take it personally and assume she doesn’t like me for some reason, but maybe her husband is abusing her, or maybe both of her parents died within the last year.  Or maybe she’s just shy, and maybe, just maybe, it doesn’t have anything to do with me.  

     Either way, when I give myself permission to project negative facts, motives, or thoughts onto other people, it often says more about my heart than it does the person I’m judging.  And what it says is that I’m not secure enough to give the same benefit of the doubt I want others to give me.  That is, I’m so afraid I’m not loved that every slight, every sign of disrespect becomes an event, an infraction that must be mulled over, resented and possibly addressed with confrontation.  In the economy of insecurity, I simply can’t afford to give people grace when they don’t meet my expectations.

     There is one way out of this cramped hellhole of insecurity, and it is through the wide open space of Christ’s love.  His love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (I Corinthians 13:7), but before we can extend that kind of love to others, we must first receive it.  And when I say that we must receive it, I’m not talking about the initial act of saving faith in Christ.  I’m talking about the saving faith of believing that today, Jesus is bearing with our weaknesses; that today, He is believing and hoping for the very best in us; that today, He is tolerating brokenness in us that we refuse to tolerate in others.

     When we unreservedly receive that kind of love — the kind of love we can’t earn and don’t deserve — we’re so much more willing to extend it to others.  And we don’t have to freak out and protect our fragile egos when someone lets us down.  We’re willing to assume the very best (which might actually be the truth), because we know there’s a Savior who’s already doing the same for us. 

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I Corinthians 13:4-7  —  Love is patient and kind; love is not jealous or boastful; it is not arrogant or rude.  Love does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right.  Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

I John 4:19  —  We love, because He first loved us.

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I confess and ask for your grace, because I have so often in my life sinfully spoke with malice and contempt against other people.   They depend on me for their honor and reputation, just as I depend on them for the same.   Help us all to obey this commandment, giving our neighbor the benefit of the doubt, and explaining their actions in the kindest way.   Amen. 

–Martin Luther, prayer to go with the eighth commandment.