Being ‘benefit of the doubt’ people

October 20th, 2014

My husband and I went to a mediocre marriage seminar a few years ago. I only remember one thing the speaker said that day, but it was worth the price of admission: “Think of the most generous explanation for your spouse’s behavior and believe it.” Wow! Beautiful thought. Hard to do.

That advice is transferable to other situations, too: Think of the most generous explanation for anyone’s behavior and believe it. Imagine how our interactions with others would change if we cultivated that mindset.

Most of the time, in our interactions, we engage in what psychologists call “mind reading.” We attribute inner, hidden motivations to peoples’ external actions, things they have never said or expressed. We really only know the “what” of the things people say to us; we rarely know the “why”.

People may come across as unkind or harsh, even cruel sometimes, in what they say or do. The truth is, we don’t actually know someone’s motivations or what is “behind” what they say and do.

Have you ever thought: “That person doesn’t like me”, “They are out to get me”, “They want to hurt me”, “They are a mean person”, etc. when someone says or does something hurtful? The truth is, we don’t know why someone says or does something unless they tell us why.

If we are going to attribute a motivation to what people say and do, why not pick a kind motivation, a forgiving one, a generous one? Why not be “benefit of the doubt” people?

I so often return to the account of Jesus being nailed to the Cross. Jesus’ response to the people nailing painful spikes into his wrists: “Father, forgive them. They don’t know what they are doing”. Talk about a generous explanation for someone’s behavior! Don’t you want to be more like him? I’d give anything to love like Jesus did.

Sadly, Jesus’ response would not have been my response. I know it wouldn’t have. I know it because I know what my thoughts have been when I have experienced hurt or betrayal in much less significant forms than what Jesus went through. I have attributed evil, hurtful intentions to the bringers of pain. I have attributed mean-spirited attitudes to these people. I have questioned their relationship with Christ and whether they even know him at all (that is, when a slight or wound comes from a professing Christian).

Any, all or none of those ungenerous attributions may be true. But I don’t actually know the true, inner motivation of another — and I never will. I am not the Searcher of hearts and the Creator of all things. I am a flawed human being who misinterprets people on a regular basis, projecting my own “stuff” onto others instead of giving them the benefit of the doubt. What would it look like to face every attack, every slight, every grouchy moment with the same prayer of Jesus: “Father forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing”?

The vast majority of people don’t set out to harm or injure others. Out of their own brokenness and pain, however, they sometimes do. Most of the hurt I’ve personally inflicted on others has happened unintentionally. I never remember a time when I thought, “I really want to hurt someone today”. Still, it happens sometimes… probably more often than I know, one hundred percent more often than I intend.

Most times, we will never know someone’s inner motivations or intentions (chances are, they won’t either — so much of that is hidden in places so deep inside us that we don’t even consciously have access to it.) Given that we are always going to have to speculate as to why someone did or said something, why not speculate generously? Why not give people the benefit of the doubt? Why not take on Jesus’ attitude that they really don’t know the pain or hurt they are causing?

Philippians 4:8 advises us: “Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”

I’m challenging myself to think pure, lovely, admirable things about the actions of others. Not only is that a kindness to them, but it brings a lot more peace to me, personally. Then I don’t have to spend my time and energy stewing about the bad someone intended toward me. I can, instead, give them the benefit of the doubt and pray for them, because they didn’t know what they were doing. (Praise God for having grace on me for all the times I caused harm without realizing what I was doing). Then I can release that person and situation into God’s hands, and move on to spending my energy on staying as close to Jesus as I possibly can.

Let’s be “benefit of the doubt” people. Give people the gift of the most generous explanation for their behavior. And believe it!

Tina Fox blogs at

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