Most people who read this post regularly, and nearly everyone who ever attends one of our worship services, knows the importance that I place on loving our neighbors as ourselves. It is part of my closing benediction on Sundays, and it is a critical component of living out the Christian life. If the command were simply that we should love our neighbor, that task alone would seem incredibly difficult at times. However, it is the addition of those two extra words, “as ourselves”, that takes the difficulty of the task to a much deeper level, requiring much more understanding. Perhaps nothing exemplifies this as well as the notion of giving someone the benefit of the doubt.
When we do something, we generally have a clear understanding of both our motives and our intentions. Most of us believe ourselves to be “good”, and therefore most of what we do is done with good motives and good intentions. If something goes wrong, at least we know that we meant well. And if it goes right but is perceived poorly, we know that our intention was for it to be a good thing even though it didn’t work out that way. Because we know ourselves, we know that we were trying to do something positive no matter how it actually turns out. The simple fact that many well-intended actions have ended disastrously doesn’t matter when we know in our hearts that we didn’t mean for things to go wrong.
When someone else does something, we generally do not have a clear understanding of their motives or their intentions. We draw from what we know about them (not necessarily giving weight to whether or not what we know is true, or represents the full story) to ascribe to their actions both what we think they were trying to do and what their motivation was. If we don’t like them, we are far more likely to allow that to color our interpretation of what they are doing. If we don’t understand what they are doing, or don’t like how it seems to be turning out, we are quick to judge them as having bad intentions, motivated by some perceived character flaws.
If we don’t give someone else the benefit of the doubt, we are likely making three mistakes. The first is that we are overestimating the goodness of our own character relative to the character of others. We are all deeply flawed, sinful people capable of making mistakes and causing excruciating pain. The second mistake is that we overestimate the evil of others’ character relative to our own. The evil that our worst enemies are capable of is actually no worse than what we ourselves are capable of. Finally, we fail to realize that loving others as we love ourselves means using the same scales when we set out to judge someone that we judge ourselves with.
Only God can see the true heart of man, and thereby understand the motivations and intentions behind various actions. We aren’t God, so we need to stop assuming that other people are purposefully doing things to harm or annoy us. Love others by giving them the same benefit of the doubt that you automatically give yourself. If there is an outcome that seems wrong, instead of assuming the worst in the other person, talk to them and see what they were trying to accomplish. Perhaps, by understanding the other person’s motives and intentions, you will see that they were trying to do something good, and that you might be able to help them do something even better. But even if you don’t talk with them, at least be willing to consider that they may have had good motives and intentions.
Peace and blessings – Pastor Aaron