How to REALLY Give the Benefit of the Doubt

How to REALLY Give the Benefit of the Doubt

In 1860, Dr. Thomas Inman recommended that his fellow medical professionals not prescribe a medicine for a cure if they weren’t sure it would work. Dr. Inman encouraged his colleagues to “give the patient the benefit of our doubts.”

We hear this phrase and think that all it means is that we should stop being so critical, minimize our differences, and assume the best in people. In one sense that is true. But giving someone the benefit of the doubt has more to do with the one giving the benefit than the one receiving it. When we give someone the benefit of the doubt, we tend to think that it is tantamount to saying “They are probably just having a bad day” or “I’m sure she didn’t mean that” or “He must not really understand everything that he’s saying.” When I say these things to myself, even in all sincerity, I am still placing the onus of the problem on the other person. I am still claiming that the reason there is tension or division is because of a deficiency of some kind in the other person, not me. The problem is due to something lacking in them, not me.

To truly give someone the benefit of our doubts is to assume the humble posture and perspective that says “There may be something I am not seeing correctly” or “Perhaps I don’t have my facts straight.” To really give someone the benefit of the doubt implies that we have some level of epistemic humility as we hold our viewpoints and opinions in dialogue with others. It also means that we own up and admit as much to the other person when we recognize this to be the case.

This is in part what the apostle Paul means in chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians when he writes…

1 Corinthians 13:4–7
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

One of the ways we display the kindness and patience of love with others is by bearing, believing, hoping, and enduring all things. That list of “all things” that Paul mentions is a way of saying that love gives the benefit of our doubts to others. How can we increase our love for others and decrease our resentment of others? By properly giving others the benefit of our doubts.

So how do we do that?

A major prerequisite for really giving someone the benefit of our doubts is knowing the functional distinction between convictions, persuasions, and opinions. This is imperative because it is rather common to find these three things being used interchangeably and synonymously in conversations in our culture. But there is a world of difference between a conviction and an opinion. And as such, there is a world of difference between how you should hold, view, and communicate a conviction in comparison to an opinion.

Let’s briefly look at each of these so that we know what we are talking about and how to more genuinely give others the benefit of our doubts.

Conviction-something you hold to be true without question or concern. “I am willing to die for this.”

Persuasion-something you are inclined to believe but you are open to be challenged on. “I am willing to fight for this.”

Opinion-something you are drawn to but you could take it or leave it. “I am willing to let go of this.”

This is not an exact science, nor are these categories meant to be static. As we grow, learn, struggle, and experience things throughout our lives we should expect to see persuasions move to convictions and convictions move all the way down to opinions. And perhaps we might expect something to move into a fourth category that Dr. Martin Luther King referred to as “pious irrelevancies and sanctimonious trivialities.” Things that no one should care about because no one else cares about them.

Simply having a clear and functional understanding of these categories can help us tremendously as we engage in conversation and debate with people. But we must do the hard work of clarifying and admitting to ourselves and to others which category this subject falls into for us.

Problems arise in relationships and conversations when we hold opinions as strongly as we do convictions and vice versa. Additionally, we find tensions develop when we miscategorize other people’s convictions, persuasions, and opinions. It might be a worthwhile exercise in your next heated conversation with a co-worker or family member to simply ask them what category this subject falls into for them? You may find that framing the discussion in the proper category may mitigate a great deal of unnecessary tension and conflict.

So as we think about giving people the benefit of our doubts, one key way we can do that is to first admit to ourselves that we just might be expressing an opinion disguised as a conviction. This reminds me of that great scene in the Pixar movie Inside Out where a box of opinions and a box of facts spill over and get mixed up. And the character Joy says “All these facts and opinions look the same. I can’t tell them apart.” This happens so often in conversation.

If we are to grow in genuine love for others then we must learn how to genuinely give the benefit of our doubts. And that requires knowing the difference between our convictions, persuasions, and opinions.

But knowing is half the battle. The other half is found in communicating each of those categories with grace, humility, and slowness.

As the New Testament writer James so convincingly declares…

James 1:19
Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger;

Just because you have an opinion doesn’t mean you must share it. Think through if what you want to share needs to be shared. And if it needs to be shared you should ask yourself if now is the time. And do you have all of the information you need in order to speak up?

There is timeless wisdom in the book of Proverbs on this subject. Here are just a few nuggets of stinging insight.

Proverbs 18:13
If one gives an answer before he hears,
it is his folly and shame.

Proverbs 18:17
The one who states his case first seems right,
until the other comes and examines him.

Proverbs 18:2
A fool takes no pleasure in understanding,
but only in expressing his opinion.

Proverbs 17:28
Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent.

My paraphrase of that last proverb goes like this. “If you aren’t smart, try shutting up.”

In a day and age when convictions are held like opinions and opinions are shouted as if they were convictions we could stand to learn a great deal about the loving practice of really giving people the benefit of our doubts. But that’s just my opinion.

Dear Skeptic

Dear Skeptic

This article is taken from Christ Community’s Connect magazine, Summer 2019, Volume 1. 

If you are reading this, you probably attended a service at Christ Community. I hope you liked it.

But just because you attended doesn’t mean you are sold yet. Maybe sticking around and actually becoming a part of Christ Community is still a big question for you. Maybe you are skeptical of this whole church thing in general. Trust me, I get it. 

I didn’t go to church growing up, so even after I became a Christian, I was deeply skeptical of the church. I brought a lot of baggage with me, and it took me awhile to work through it. 

Obviously, now I’m a pastor, so I’m a pretty big fan. But I still encounter so many folks who are open to faith and learning more about Jesus, but really don’t want anything to do with church. 

If you are nodding along, this article is for you. Here’s the thing: I really, really don’t want you to give up. Not yet. Keep coming! Why? Glad you asked! Here are a few things I’ve learned that have helped me along the way: 

There’s nothing more relevant than church. 

One of the major issues about church I needed to work through was the assumption of “irrelevance.” For me, it went like this: The church is a part of the past. I don’t need an institution to tell me what to believe. And aren’t they just a bunch of backwards-thinking weirdos anyway? 

What I’ve found over the years is I couldn’t have been more wrong. The church, when it’s done right, is one of the most important, practical, and challenging spaces for me personally every week. That isn’t to say that church is always entertaining and fun. It isn’t. Sometimes we talk about hard stuff. Things that need to change in our society. Things that need to change about us. Sin. Death. Pain and suffering. Loneliness. Hard things. But relevant things. 

You may not always agree with what you hear or what others around you believe, but church is a place that is deeply committed to the truth. I can’t think of a more relevant topic than that. 

It’s okay to have doubts. 

I used to think that church was only for you if you were sure you believed in Jesus and the Bible and all that stuff. That’s not true. There are many people in our churches who aren’t sure, and many people who still have questions and doubts. 

We work hard to make Christ Community a place where doubts are not only allowed, they are welcomed. Even if you aren’t sure what you think about Jesus or the Bible, you are welcome here! 

Christians aren’t all hypocrites. 

I hate that I have to say this, but I do: the church has always and will always struggle with hypocrisy. Even Christ Community. That’s part of what it means to work with people: we aren’t perfect and we often present ourselves as something we really are not. The recent slate of pastors and churches imploding due to moral failure is a sad but relevant example. 

And wondering if the church is full of hypocrites like that is a fair question. I’m here to tell you the answer is No. There are amazing people who model the love and grace of Jesus in our church. I know I’m biased, but it’s true. I would hate for you to miss out on some amazing Christian people because someone somewhere made a mistake. 

There is real community here. 

Now, I’m not saying there is perfect community here. But it’s real and available to you. My perception is that real friendships and committed relationships are harder than ever to come by. Once you leave the controlled environment of high school or college, the workplace and the internet are the biggest ways we try to connect with other people. Those are fine, but they don’t hold a candle to what is possible in the church. 

The church is one of the few places left where people gather, not only to worship and learn, but to get to know each other and support one another in present and embodied community. Again, it’s not perfect, but it’s real. And we’d love to have you. Speaking of which…

The church needs you! 

Maybe you’ve never thought of it this way, but church skeptics are great for the church. It’s how we see things differently. It’s how we get better. It’s how we grow and reach more people. Seriously! 

I recently had coffee with someone who attends our church but is not really sure what he thinks about it yet. I left with ten ideas of how to love people like him even better. I told him, “We need you!” I’ll tell you the same thing, we need you! 

Maybe you are still on the fence. That’s fine. But please know that our doors are always open to you, and we would love to have you in our church family. I hope we will see you back on Sunday!

A Simple Yet Profound Question

A Simple Yet Profound Question

In my years of ministry, I have found myself asking this one question many times, in many ways, and with many people. It is a question that appears to be quite simple at face value, but when it is honestly considered and responded to, it is one of the most profound questions that can be asked. I have found no other question to be as efficient in getting to the heart of a person’s personal faith and spiritual formation. And one of the beautiful things about this question is how it can be universally asked and applied to both Christians and non-Christians.

Ok, I think I have built up the suspense enough. Here is the question…

Who do you say that Jesus is?

Now I know what you are thinking…”Reid, you clearly had a deadline and just threw this Sunday School question together last minute.” This question actually comes straight from the words of Jesus Himself in Matthew 16. Jesus first asks His disciples in a general sense who the people say that He is.

This first question is not that dissimilar from a question someone today might ask inquiring about the various views, theories, and opinions that are out there about Jesus. The disciples proceed to share with Him what they have heard from other people.

Then Jesus turns to His disciples again and asks the question in a more pointed and personal way.

“But who do you say that I am?”

It’s almost as if He is saying, “Ok, those may be some of the views out there about me, but I want to know what you think. What is your view of me?” There is something about this question that, when understood and asked clearly, prevents us from giving a pat answer. It almost demands that we open up and give a very honest reply. A reply so real that it surprises you when you hear your own answer.

You see, it is one thing to have a theory about God, or a view of Christianity, or even an interpretation of some of Jesus’ teachings. But when you get down to brass tacks and ask yourself, “Who do I say that Jesus is?”, what you find is that the answer you give reveals more about your heart and your very life than perhaps any other question can.

And here is the beauty of this question. It doesn’t have a shelf life. It is a question that can, and indeed should, be asked for the rest of our lives. The other great thing about this question is that it is a question generator, in that it will inevitably lead to further questions and conversations.

So if you are looking for a way to diagnose your own spiritual health, facilitate a meaningful conversation among other believers in your life, or engage in thoughtful dialogue with someone who is skeptical of the Christian faith, consider adding this question to your tool box. But be sure to ask it of yourself first. Who knows, you may find your own answer to be surprising.

Doubting Our Doubts

Doubting Our Doubts

For most of my life, I did not believe in God. I simply had no use for someone I could not see, could not hear, and could not touch. In the same way we shed foolish beliefs in Santa Claus or the Easter bunny, I thought mature adults can (and should) outgrow their need for a mythical father figure who lives in the sky. And even in the moments when I was tempted to believe, I could always fall back on my doubts. I always had an explanation, or a question, or a cynical thought, that could help me explain away my need for God to be real. The fever would break, and I could go back to my rational life.

Until one day, my doubts failed me.

I was 16, in a hospital room with my unconscious father. He had gone in for surgery, only for his surgeon to discover cancer. He was quickly diagnosed with lymphoma, and it was serious. I realized my dad was probably going to die.

Death as a concept was not new to me. And in the moments that snuck up on me, when the reality of death caused me to fear, or to wonder, about the true nature of this life, my doubts were there to comfort me: Well, no one really knows what happens when you die. Death is nothing to fear. It’s a natural part of the process. When death was an acquaintance, these were enough to keep him out of the living room.

But when death became a presence in my life and threatened to take away someone I loved, I turned to the only place I had ever found answers: my doubts. They talked a lot, but explained very little: Don’t be sad. Your dad, like you, and everyone you love, is a collection of cells and electrical current. When the switch turns off, it isn’t tragic. It’s inevitable. Live it up now! Your turn is next.

I knew in that moment that all of these thoughts, as disturbing as they were, were a logical conclusion based on my premise: there is no God. But deep within my soul, everything in me knew that was wrong. My dad was more than chemicals. And my love for him was more than a biological illusion. When I raised the point with my doubts, they shrugged.

A new thought occurred to me: should I doubt my doubts? Were the basic assumptions I had made about life and truth and God actually as trustworthy as I had been led to believe? It was a dangerous question, and for years I wrestled with the unsettled feeling it caused. But even in the moment, I realized it was the most important question I had yet asked in my young life.

Doubting my doubts did not make me a Christian (that’s another story). But it did make room in my mind and heart for the idea that I might be wrong. My father’s diagnosis (and he’s fine today, by the way) had led me to a conclusion I knew was false. Doubting my doubts allowed me to re-examine the premise. Maybe God was a better explanation for my experience of reality.

Doubt is not an enemy of faith. In fact, even in my own story, it was a catalyst in my journey for truth. But we should never take our doubts at face value. They are not nearly as trustworthy as they tend to present themselves. If you are reading this and you find yourself full of doubts, I understand. But take a minute and turn all your questions against them. You may be surprised by what they say.

How Do We Grow as Christians?

One of the greatest obstacles to faith, at least in my experience, is when people feel like Christianity doesn’t change anyone. “Christians are just like everyone else,” one might say. “What’s the point?”

This doubt isn’t limited to the skeptics. If you have been a Christian for any amount of time, you probably feel like you should be farther along than you are. That you aren’t living up to what you know is right. That even where you want to be better, you just aren’t. It can happen early in your faith; or it can happen well into maturity in your faith.

Growth in faith is absolutely possible, it absolutely changes people—and it is really hard work. You’re never too mature for this. What does the Bible teach us about Christian growth?

2 Peter is a great place to focus. This whole letter is about growth. But how? Peter gives us three principles of Christianity that we cannot forget as we think about growing.

Our motivation for growth…

First, he tells us that Christians should have a new motivation for growth. Here is how Peter puts it in 1:3-4:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.

This is a radically new vision of motivation for growth: our motivation begins with God’s divine power, God’s calling, God’s promises, God’s initiative. Supernatural growth in character, in wisdom, in freedom from sin and addiction, is possible first because of what God has done. The gospel, the good news of what God has done, is our new motivation.[1]

Peter says we have been equipped with all things that pertain to life and godliness. When we give our lives to Christ, and His sacrifice on the cross purchases our lives, God says come grow in Me and with Me. He knows we are a mess, but He’s committed. And our response to His commitment, our motivation, starts with a joyful obedience, not a fearful one.

Our strategy for growth…

We also have a new strategy for growth. Peter continues in verse 5:

For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. For whoever lacks these qualities is so nearsighted that he is blind, having forgotten that he was cleansed from his former sins.

Peter is very specific here about the nature of Christian growth. He says, “make every effort to supplement your faith.” We see that our initial faith in the gospel, our trust in what Jesus has done, must lead to growth. The Christian life, though motivated by a joyful obedience, must result in growth. Otherwise our faith is not genuine. That is why Peter says “supplement your faith.” This Greek word for “supplement” has the idea of rounding out your faith, completing it, making it whole or full-bodied.

Faith in this sense is where we start, and by the resources God gives – His Holy Spirit, the Bible, the church – we begin to furnish it with growth in character and wisdom, which Peter lists specifically here: virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, affection, and finally love. Faith is something we always need, but it is meant to lead to real growth in our lives.

God certainly finds us and saves us no matter where we are in life, morally, emotionally, relationally. He is not afraid of our mess. But He does not want to leave us where He finds us. Growth toward Christ-likeness is the whole point of the Christian faith in many ways. It is not secondary. And it is not magical or mystical or God’s job alone. Peter says, not to God, but to us:you, all of you, make every effort to add virtue to your faith. There is work not simply for God to do, but for us to do. The growth we need is supernatural, to be sure, but it’s not magical.

It takes practice.

The Bible is so clear that the person we become, our character, is largely the product of the little habits we practice in our lives. The small decisions. The daily routines. And it even gives us disciplines, practices, to help us focus on the small things. There are many of them, but I’ll mention the “big three”: daily Bible reading, daily prayer, and consistent community with other Christians. If we just did these consistently, I think we would see dramatic results.

The idea is, if we are re-orienting ourselves to God’s Word, asking God for help and direction, and allowing other people to hold us accountable and push us on, these disciplines serve us well; they help us grow and practice being the kind of people who have the character traits Peter lists here.

Our purpose for growth…

But even with the proper motivation and strategy in place, there is something else Peter teaches here, a third thing we need to keep growing. The Christian faith also gives us a brand new purpose for growth. Read verse 10: “Therefore, brothers, be all the more diligent to confirm your calling and election, for if you practice these qualities you will never fall. For in this way there will be richly provided for you an entrance into the eternal kingdom of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

Peter hints that there is a divine purpose for all this stuff, all these ways in which God wants us to grow. Peter says that somehow these qualities (godliness, steadfastness, love, self-control, knowledge, etc.) are preparing us for Christ’s kingdom. Our growth, our holiness, is not the entrance fee to Christ’s kingdom, or the price you pay for the pleasures of heaven in the next life. They are the pleasures of heaven in this life, right now.

God knows the most pleasurable and free life possible is found in service, in generosity, and in faithfulness as a follower and apprentice of Jesus. Christian growth is not about making you worthy of Christ’s kingdom. It’s preparing you for it, so that you can fully experience the joy that awaits us there.

Even our growth, that part of the Christian life we often feel we owe to God, is a tremendous and good gift from Him. He doesn’t want something from us. He wants something for us. That is why Peter can say so boldly: make every effort to ADD to your faith. The more we do so, the more of heaven we can experience now—today—in our lives. Keep growing!

[1] The gospel is the good news of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection, which, if you trust Him above all others, saves you from sin and gives you new life.