Life, Hope & Truth

From the November/December 2020 issue of Discern Magazine

Giving the Benefit of the Doubt

It’s easy to believe the worst about others. But we don’t know people’s hearts. What does the Bible advise about giving the benefit of the doubt?

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We can’t really know what people are thinking. We can’t read their motivations or intentions.

But often we feel the need to try to figure those things out from the clues we see and hear. We feel we need to know how to protect ourselves if someone is out to get us or wants to take advantage of us.

For many of us, it is easy to assume the worst in others. And perhaps it seems we aren’t often wrong. Most people don’t have our best interests at heart—they and we are usually focused on our own best interests.

And believing the best about others can make you seem naïve, unrealistic—what some might disparagingly call a Pollyanna.

Is assuming the worst always the best approach?

What does the Bible say about assuming the worst vs. giving others the benefit of the doubt?

What are the results of each of these choices?

Let’s consider some examples.

Example of assuming the worst

The book of Job is one of the most challenging books in the Bible, with deep and thought-provoking lessons. But it also has a story and lessons that jump out at you.

For example, consider the big gap between how God describes Job and how his three “friends” describe him. God says Job is a “blameless and upright man,” but his three friends pile up chapter after chapter of accusations against Job.

They figured Job must have done terrible things but was just hiding them. Here are some of the things Eliphaz attributed to Job:

“Is not your wickedness great, and your iniquity without end? …

“You have not given the weary water to drink, and you have withheld bread from the hungry. …

“You have sent widows away empty, and the strength of the fatherless was crushed. Therefore snares are all around you, and sudden fear troubles you” (Job 22:5, 7, 9-10).

He had no evidence to support his assumptions. These things were not true, and Job was hurt and felt he had to defend himself. Probably everyone can agree that Job’s three friends were “miserable comforters”!

But I’m sure the three friends just thought they were being realistic about human weaknesses and about cause and effect. They thought they were defending God.

Other biblical examples of jumping to conclusions

Job’s friends weren’t the only ones to jump to conclusions, of course.

  • The high priest Eli assumed the grief-stricken Hannah was drunk. Actually, she was silently mouthing a heartfelt prayer to God (1 Samuel 1:12-16).
  • Balaam assumed his normally docile donkey was becoming disobedient, and he struck her angrily. Actually, she was protecting him because God allowed her to see the Angel of the Lord with a drawn sword (Numbers 22:22-33). The donkey had to talk before Balaam gave her the benefit of the doubt!
  • After conquering the land of Canaan, the 12 tribes of Israel almost descended into civil war. The eastern tribes built an “altar” by the Jordan River, and the western tribes assumed it was for idolatry. Actually, the eastern tribes explained, they built it as a witness “that the LORD is God” (Joshua 22:10-34).

Why do we assume the worst about others?

Why do we tend to believe the worst in others? We might say, like Job’s three friends, that it is very often true!

Humans are weak and sinful, and it’s not logical or wise to ignore that. God warns that the human heart is deceitful and tells us not to put our trust in man, but in Him (Jeremiah 17:5-9).

If you believe the best about someone, you are very likely to be burned and disappointed. And you may be considered an easy mark or a gullible person.

So what is the balance? What can we learn from the examples and principles in the Bible?

Case study: Barnabas’ and Paul’s judgment calls

One thing we learn from the Bible and from experience: Human relations are not simple.

Consider the different judgments two men of God made about a young man who had traveled with them, but who had left them in the middle of a trip.

When the time came for the next journey, Barnabas wanted to give John Mark another chance, but Paul strongly believed it wasn’t wise. So these two pillars of the Church went their separate ways (Acts 15:36-40).

The Bible doesn’t say who was right—but in the end Mark did become author of a Gospel and “useful” to Paul as well (2 Timothy 4:11). I’m sure Mark was grateful for the encouragement and benefit of the doubt Barnabas gave him.

Biblical principles

Human relations are complex, so I don’t want to pretend that there is always a simple answer.

But let’s look at some passages that I think will show that giving the benefit of the doubt is generally better than always quickly believing the worst about others.

Warnings about jumping to conclusions

Proverbs warns us, “He who answers a matter before he hears it, it is folly and shame to him” (Proverbs 18:13). The same chapter points out the danger of only hearing one side of an issue (verse 17).

James also gives advice that can help us avoid sudden emotional judgments: “Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath” (James 1:19).

“Judge not, that you be not judged”

And we must realize our limitations. We don’t know other people’s thoughts and motivations. God does, but we don’t. In 1 Kings 8:39 King Solomon acknowledged in prayer to God, “You alone know the hearts of all the sons of men.”

The fact that we can’t read people’s minds and hearts is part of the reason Jesus said in Matthew 7:1-2: “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged; and with the measure you use, it will be measured back to you.”

“Judge” is from the Greek krino. According to Thayer’s Greek Lexicon, here it means “to pronounce judgment” and is used “of those who judge severely (unfairly), finding fault with this or that in others.”

Jesus went on to encourage us not to hypocritically point out others’ flaws while overlooking our own (verses 3-5). And He told us, “Whatever you want men to do to you, do also to them” (verse 12; see our online article “The Golden Rule”).

We don’t like to be judged harshly or misjudged, so there’s a case to be made for giving others the benefit of the doubt and even believing the best about them.We like to give ourselves the benefit of the doubt. We don’t like to be judged harshly or misjudged, so there’s a case to be made for giving others the benefit of the doubt and even believing the best about them.

Focus on the positive

God tells us to focus on the positive. The apostle Paul was certainly a realist, but he gave uplifting advice about where we should focus our minds.

He wrote in Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”

Notice that the list starts with whatever is true. We aren’t to be so desperate to believe the best that we ignore the truth. But the focus is surely on the positive.

Respond like Christ

Even though people are imperfect and will often let us down, how does Paul tell us to respond to them? Consider the beautiful (but very challenging) instructions in Colossians 3:12-14:

“Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering; bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another; even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do. But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection.”

Believing the worst in others makes all of this much harder. How hard is it to bear with and forgive someone if you assume he or she did something to you on purpose?

If you somehow find proof that he or she was really out to get you, you can deal with that then. But why not choose the easier route, and instead start with the assumption that the other person just made a mistake or did something without thinking?

Benefits of giving the benefit of the doubt

Jesus said, “Condemn not, and you shall not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:37). He also said, “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matthew 5:7). Not being condemned and receiving mercy are wonderful benefits!

Other benefits can include growing more like God in kindness, patience, forgiveness and love.

And people just respond better to positive expectations than to suspicion and negativity.

Plus we won’t be like Job’s miserable comforters, assuming the worst and misjudging people.

Considering all these factors, I hope you’ll agree that giving the benefit of the doubt is worth the benefit of a try!

About the Author

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett

Mike Bennett is editorial content manager for the Church of God, a Worldwide Association, in the Dallas, Texas, area. He coordinates the Life, Hope & Truth website, Discern magazine and the Life, Hope & Truth Weekly Newsletter. He is also part of the Personal Correspondence team of ministers who answer questions sent to Life, Hope & Truth.

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