It was a few months after surgery and the bills started arriving. Thirty thousand for this, forty for that. My medical bills were racking up. Thankfully, the co-op to which I belong (and my godly wife) had a handle on things and were coming through in the clutch. But there was one reimbursement that was absent, and it was a big one. A check from a co-op member in the sum of about $20,000 was supposed to come in to pay the hospital, but it was late. One month. Then two. I lost my cool on more than on occasion. “Where is that check?!” “Who is this person keeping us hanging like that?” “What is their problem? Don’t they know that we have six-figure bills here?”
Then my wife got the letter. Along with the check was an apology from the individual. “I am so sorry that this is late. I have cancer and am going through rounds of chemotherapy right now, and, because of that, have been experiencing memory loss.”
I wanted to crawl into a cave and never return. The Holy Spirit necessarily and lovingly crushed me with conviction. The judgmental spirit. The speed with which I assumed the worst. It was sinful. And it’s something I have struggled with far too often.
“Love…believes all things” (1 Cor. 13:4, 7). Love believes the best about one another.
Believing the best does not mean “believes everything that we hear to be fact,” “refuses to believe that someone committed a wrong,” willful gullibility, or denial of anything negative. That is not loving, but lying. Solomon cautions us here: “The naïve believes everything, but the sensible considers his steps” (Prov. 14:15).
To believe “all things” needs to be understood in the context of 1 Corinthians. The church struggled with self-exalting attitudes, a self-preferring demeanor, pride, and, consequently, a lack of love for each other. There was suspicion, cynicism, and judgmentalism. And it was unacceptable for people claiming the great name of Jesus Christ. Believing the best about one another is an essential form of loving one another (1 Cor. 13:4-7).
One way that believing the best could be defined is this: erring on the side of believing a favorable reality of another’s actions and attitudes as opposed to suspicion or cynicism, until clear evidence shows otherwise.
Love errs on the side of believing a favorable reality. We are to believe the best for at least two reasons. First, we are not omniscient like God. We do not know everything about others’ motivations, circumstances, hurts, trials, and complicating life situations. If we were not present, we do not know exactly what happened or what was said. Second, we believe the best because we are to love our neighbor as ourselves. The combination of the two looks like believing the best.
But too often we are bent on suspicion, cynicism, and judgmentalism. “I’m sure they did that because…” “I bet they said that because [insert unfavorable conclusion]…” Really? Are we omniscient? Do we have infallible insight into another’s motivations? It’s best to remain cautious of making a conclusion about someone until we know the information. We are to beware of thinking that we know everything going on with other’s motivations, thoughts, situations, actions, and complicating struggles. When we fail to believe the best so as to come to an uninformed, incorrect, and condemning conclusion, we hate the person and commit the sin of judging (cf. Matt. 7:1).
Additionally, failing to believe the best is often a worship problem; a form of idolatry. We worship our own wisdom and opinions with the result that we think that we have things all figured out. Subsequently, we may make presumptuous, judgmental conclusions, and believe the worst. We hold an inflated view of our own discernment, our intellect, and our ability to figure things out, such that we quickly adjudicate matters, while feeling proud of ourselves for doing so. Perhaps at the root of it all is idolatry: we have made an idol out of our own thinking abilities.
“Well,” some will say, “I am just a good judge of character…” You are a judge, no doubt, but that’s about it.
Believing the Worst Spiral
We could cite many ways in which we sin here.
“I’m sure they haven’t contacted me because…”
“I bet they didn’t like my Facebook status because…”
“I bet I didn’t get chosen for that ministry position/job/task because…”
Maybe the reason we didn’t get chosen for something is because we are not as great as we thought we were. Believing the best about others may also mean repenting of believing so favorably of ourselves.
And we’ll even fail to believe the best in positive matters. “I’m sure that they complimented and encouraged me/them because…”
Or maybe it’s been three consecutive weeks since anyone has initiated conversation with you at church. You start thinking, “What’s the problem? No one here cares about me. Forget this.” Despite the command for us to reach out to each other, we are to believe the best. Maybe all the moms and dads that day were trying to keep their kids from burying their greasy hands in the doughnut table again. Maybe the church members all had a difficult week or are in some trial. Maybe everyone is running around serving and ministering, or reaching out to other visitors. Maybe they are sinners like you. Maybe God sovereignly had no one talk to us so that we would see and confess our self-focused attitude. And even if no one at our church cared for us, it’s not the end of the world. We are not commanded to joyfully plug into a church because of how much people like us, but because Christ died for us, God commands us to, and we are to reach out to others. This is not to say that we should stay in an unsound church, but that we are to believe the best.
Other situations often go down like this: One side incurs hurt from another’s sin. Instead of asking questions, getting the full story, and fighting to give others as much grace as we give ourselves, we close off, dig in our heals, and make myopic conclusions. The other side reacts similarly. Views are formed. Self-righteousness fuels it. Bitterness vines its way throughout hearts and minds. We’ve created division and Christ’s name is shamed.
But the mature Christian takes a different route. First, they marinate in the glory of God and the cross of Christ such that when sinned against, they fight to avoid taking into account a wrong suffered. They push pause on speculation. They restrains their thoughts. They pray for strength and the individual. Then they ask the other person questions. “Ok, I think I saw this or heard that. Could you help me understand what was going on?”
Sometimes we will believe the worst by avoiding coming alongside someone to show them their sin by assuming that they will not be receptive. “I’m sure they will not listen to me…” Maybe. But that does not abrogate our biblical responsibility to believe the best. How will we know until we try? And the same goes when another is confronting us. We have the opportunity to believe the best about their attitude and action. We ought to preach to ourselves, “They are probably confronting me because they love me, they want to obey God, and help me experience the joy of obedience.”
Growing into Believing the Best
I wonder how our relationships might change if we gave each other as much grace, leniency, and benefit of the doubt as we do ourselves? When it comes to others, we are proficient prosecutors, even, and especially, when we do not have all the data. When it comes to ourselves, we are pervasive permittors, believing the best about ourselves even it is unwarranted. But we are to consider others as more important than ourselves and outdo one another in showing honor (Phil. 2:3-5, Rom. 12:10). Among other things, that will look like believing the best. This is the art and skill of relationships and it is life-changing.
If you struggle like me to believe the best, the solution goes deeper than telling yourself positive things about people. At the root of not believing the best is an inflated view of self; it’s self-worship that looks down from its throne on others. It’s a self-worship problem. Thus, the answer is the cross of Jesus Christ. He died on the cross for people like you and me who commit the sin of idolatry; of hating others; of failing to worship him. Thankfully, he eagerly forgives and empowers us to love each other by believing the best. Then, he empowers us by the Spirit to put on righteousness so that we may obey in these areas. For example, memorizing verses like these proves helpful here:
“He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” (Prov. 18:13).
“The first to plead his case seems right, until another comes and examines him” (Prov. 18:17).
As we fight to believe the best about one another in our relationships, we will just be more pleasant people to be around. Further, we will please God by walking in love and thereby experience the joy of the Spirit’s unity with each other.