As I have mentioned on a few occasions, I’ve been reading Randy Harris’ Living Jesus, a guide to the Sermon on the Mount, which is practical, insightful and challenging. Of course, I have just described the Sermon on the Mount itself, but Harris’ commentary places Jesus’ timeless words into modern terms that graciously calls each of us to the hard truths of Christ’s most famous lesson.
One of the principles that Harris puts into modern focus is discussing the Golden Rule in terms he dubs the “benefit of the doubt principle.” In almost any given situation, you can see what is happening or what has been said by assuming the best about someone or the worst.
Most of the time, we go around assuming the worst possible scenario. It’s the beam in our eye that Jesus was warning us about. The clerk at the store who is curt to us is a rude person who needs to learn customer service skills. We don’t consider instead the possibility that the clerk may have distractions like a sick child at home or bills he is having trouble paying that are making it hard for him to concentrate on the task at hand.
If we respond to the clerk without the benefit of the doubt, we are probably just as curt back, not smiling, and may even complain to the manager. But, if we give the clerk the benefit of the doubt, we might smile ourselves, give the clerk a compliment, or admit that it seems like the clerk is having a rough day as we empathize with the feeling.
Try this the next time you encounter a “difficult” person, and note the amazing turnaround that is possible.
But, the change in attitude that comes with treating people with the benefit of the doubt isn’t just for the people to which you offer it. This principle affects you perhaps most of all. You might, in fact, call this the happy principle, because when you start giving people the benefit of the doubt, it is almost impossible to stay in a negative state of mind.
Thoughts such as he hates me or she thinks I’m stupid or no one appreciates what I do, etc. all fall under a different lens when the benefit of the doubt is applied. Instead of jumping to the worst possible conclusion, if we consider the problems others might be facing as well, if we realize that the world doesn’t revolve around us, then we are more likely to be happier people.
Sometimes, a different perspective can come as easily as deciding to assume that another person’s “bad” attitude has nothing to do with you, isn’t actually directed at you, and shouldn’t be taken personally. What if you respond to a “bad” attitude with concern for the other person or just with a friendly response that refuses to be “baited?”
Living according to the moral system Christ calls us to live in the Sermon on the Mount really requires us to stay in touch with the workings of the Holy Spirit in us. That Holy Spirit guidance gives us the ability to offer the benefit of the doubt to others, to see past the beam in our own eye before we even notice the speck in somebody else’s. And when we put our ego aside enough to actually do that, we’ll find that we’re happier, calmer people.
When we walk according to the benefit of the doubt, we’ll find that we feel the love of Christ in us and toward others more often. Just as Jesus was able to point out how no one had the right to judge the condemned woman but was still able to call her to “go and sin no more,” when we lead with love, staying on the narrow path is an easier pill for everyone to swallow (see John 8).
But this benefit of the doubt principle is easier said than done, for the ego is a strong thing, constantly pulling us from the guidance of God. Part of us wants to feel hurt, put upon, wounded. And that part wants somebody else to blame. If we have to embrace the concept that it is our choice how we react to the information that bombards us daily, we have to master putting God’s way first and our ego second. Mastering the ego is mastering the concept of the benefit of the doubt.
Of course, there are times when the benefit of the doubt might not be possible. If someone is heading toward you with a drawn knife, you’d best take evasive action. But, most of the time, choosing to see others in the best possible light is exactly what we have the opportunity and obligation to do if we are really trying to walk with Christ:
“Why do you look at the speck of sawdust in your brother’s eye and pay no attention to the plank in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ when all the time there is a plank in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the plank out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:3-5)
We are so quick to give ourselves a break. No one can be more creative than we are when we start making excuses for our own failings. We don’t want to be too hard on ourselves, after all. So, next time you are tempted to be harder on somebody else than you would be on yourself, get creative. Give the other person a blessing to you both–the benefit of the doubt that leads to peaceful, and happy, living.