benefit of the doubt

Life Together: Benefit of the Doubt

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My sermon notes of January 22nd, 2023, at St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.

Our next foundational practice for building our relationships and community is the exercise of giving the benefit of the doubt. The online Cambridge Dictionary says that giving someone the benefit of the doubt means to believe something good about someone, rather than something bad, when you have the possibility of doing either. It’s a choice to believe the best of someone, even when we may have a doubt about their intention, meaning or justification. In biblical language, it’s thinking the best of one another and making every effort not to judge.

“Do not judge, so that you may not be judged. For the judgment you give will be the judgment you get, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye but do not notice the log in your own eye? Or how can you say to your neighbor, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ while the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye. Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.”

Jesus, Matthew 7:1-6

We Aren’t the Judge

The case for not judging one another is one of the strongest in our scriptures, and sometimes the most difficult to practice or accept. Again and again we’re called to stop our tendency to judge and to open ourselves to believing the best in one another. We just read it, Jesus commanded it: do not judge. He points out in a wonderfully comic way the fact that we’re all in the same boat… I can’t be all about pointing at and focusing on the speck of sawdust in my friend’s eye while I’m swinging a plank around from my own eye! It’s a funny and tragic image.

Jesus calls us to use the recognition of a speck in another’s eye as a catalyst to examine ourselves and take appropriate steps in our own lives. Now, taking care of the plank in my eye doesn’t free me to then judge, but in fact prepares and enables me to be a helper. Taking care of myself and dealing my own issues is never a license to judge, but a prerequisite to be able to help.

James picked it up and included it in his letter, asking us a good question: “Who are we to judge a neighbor and speak evil of them?” He offers I think a couple of good answers even as he asks his rhetorical question. First, it’s not our job to judge and pass judgement on others, as though we were the Judge and not under the same expectations and in the same boat as others. And second, we don’t know everything. We don’t know enough to judge people as good or bad and condemn them, speaking evil of them. We don’t even know with certainty what we’ll be doing tomorrow.

Non-Judgmental Spaces

Oh, there will still times when we speak from anger, express ourselves in ways we don’t intend, or simply fail to love one another as we ought. Practicing the benefit of the doubt doesn’t mean that suddenly hurtful things and judgmental things aren’t ever going to be said, but we have an arena to unpack them, together. We have an opportunity to move forward, together. We don’t judge people, even for their mistakes, and we can move forward, past mistakes. We create the space for a couple of other foundational practices we’ll come to in February, asking for and giving forgiveness.

Jesus is famous for creating this non-judgmental space with the people around him. I wish his church was as famous for it. You probably recall the story of the woman we’re told was caught in adultery in John 8, and brought before Jesus to face judgement… only Jesus didn’t judge her. He dispersed her accusers and seeing in her what they could not or would not, sent her out to do better. He did this with Zacchaeus, a despised tax collector, a cheater and a crook who had swindled the people, but Jesus saw in him the best and said, “Let’s get lunch together. I’m coming to your house.”

This is definitely easier said than done, but I believe this is doable. I also realize it’s going to take a lot of prayer, practice and effort on our part. I think I was first pushed to consider the benefit of the doubt as a true expression of our biblical command not to judge, when I entered into spiritual direction almost 15 years ago with a wonderfully wise old Jesuit Priest in Georgetown, Fr Leo Murray. As we journeyed together through the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola I discovered the words that St. Ignatius wrote for spiritual directors about the benefit of the doubt, like 500 years ago. He wanted those giving spiritual direction to do everything they could to avoid judging the person receiving spiritual direction… even when the person seems to be way off base, wrong or deluded.

“In order that both he who is giving the Spiritual Exercises, and he who is receiving them, may more help and benefit themselves, let it be presupposed that every good Christian is to be more ready to save his neighbor’s proposition than to condemn it. If he cannot save it, let him inquire how he means it; and if he means it badly, let him correct him with charity. If that is not enough, let him seek all the suitable means to bring him to mean it well, and save himself.”

St. Ignatius, the Presupposition from the First Week

We’re not all spiritual directors or engaged in direction, but can you hear in the words of St. Ignatius the practices we’ve been talking about, and more importantly hear in our scriptures? How much more constructive and community-building might our conversations and relationships be if we more and more intent on believing the best of one another and pursuing the deepest and most honest understanding and comprehension of one another possible?

What hurtful words might be forestalled by believing the best of the person to whom we speak? What cycles of hurtful words might be broken when the benefit of the doubt is remembered and a greater desire to understand comes into play?

Pearls and Pigs

Have you ever wondered about the last lines from the Gospel reading today? “Do not give what is holy to dogs, and do not throw your pearls before swine, or they will trample them under foot and turn and maul you.” I used to wrestle with what exactly Jesus is saying in those words, and I was not helped by English Bibles which break those lines into their own section like a detached stand-alone piece wisdom. I think those words are very much attached to what Jesus has talking about. I believe that Jesus is giving a somewhat comic and tragic image of what it looks like to lose the value of the person in front of us (the pearl, what is holy) and to throw them to the destruction of our judgement (the dogs and pigs). Falling into a judgmentalism that forgets the value of the people before us is as crazy and dangerous as throwing our valuables before the destructive force of mad animals and expecting a good result. Our judgmentalism is a destructive wildness that will come back to haunt us.

Now imagine the community that deeply values one another and cherishes one another as the greatest of treasures! That’s what Jesus is building in us! Believing the best of one another, may we grasp every opportunity and make every effort this week to listen and understand one another. Can we have a couple more Bible verses? St. Paul says in Colossians 3:13&14 in the CEV says it this way: “Put up with each other, and forgive anyone who does you wrong, just as Christ has forgiven you. Love is more important than anything else. It is what ties everything completely together.”

Let’s go create cycles of love and encouragement! Let’s put the dogs in the kennel and the pigs in the pen, and keep the pearls around our necks! Let’s go into the week and into our homes and schools and jobs and make everyone wonder what’s going on with us, because we are lifting them up and treating them better than they might ever have imagined they deserve! Let’s go and do this so that they and you and I may flourish in God’s grace. Amen, amen and amen!

Be blessed, Rev. Todd

October 7, 2012 Redux in 2016

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Oct. 7 ~ Civility allows for the “benefit of the doubt,” a response of hope. #civility

*I know it’s getting hard to be hopeful, but we can do it!

Civility has everything to do with  hope, and giving the benefit of the doubt is often the first seed of hope that is sown in disagreement. When you give the benefit of the doubt you assume that the other person is not evil or irredeemable, even as they speak a position or opinion that is antithetical to your own.

When you do this you allow for many things to happen… you allow for them to nuance the things they have said. You allow them to keep speaking so that you might better understand them. You allow them to be a “work in progress.” And if we are serious about communication, then we recognize the progress needed by all of us.

Giving the benefit of the doubt also keeps the judgmental expressions off our faces. It keeps us from simply walking away. It keeps us from shutting down and giving up hope, and hope can be contagious. If we keep our hope alive, it just might spread and grow.

Stop the Spiritual Competition

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value othersLet’s agree to put an end to competition in spiritual matters, shall we? I’m talking about the need that we too often feel to assign motives and deficits of sincerity and spiritual wholeness to people who don’t agree with us. I’m also specifically talking about the gross misappropriation of scriptural passages to frame disagreement in a “I’m right because I love God” and “You’re wrong because you don’t love God as much as me” contest. In essence, it’s a form of spiritual extortion. If I disagree with someone, it is not kind, gentle or loving to create a dichotomy of motives in which I am seeking to please God and they are obviously just pandering to cultural and secular voices.

It’s Disrespecting of the Scriptural Witness.

We can and will disagree on religious and spiritual matters, regardless of the subject or text in question. To have a civil, Christ-like disagreement, we must give the benefit of the doubt to one another. When someone speaks of their faith, their sincerity, their love of God, their motives, their beliefs, their respect of scripture, or really anything, they should be taken at their word.

Yes, the scriptural writers said some things about motives:
~ Paul in Galatians 1:10, TNIV… “Am I now trying to win human approval, or God’s approval? Or am I trying to please people? If I were still trying to please people, I would not be a servant of Christ.”
~ Peter and John and then others in Acts 4:19 & 5:29, NKJV… “But Peter and John answered and said to them, ‘Whether it is right in the sight of God to listen to you more than to God, you judge.'” and “We ought to obey God rather than men.”
~ Paul again in 1 Thessalonians 2:4, NLT“Our purpose is to please God, not people. He is the one who examines the motives of our hearts.”
~ And Paul’s important and beautiful sentiment in Romans 12:1&2, CEB… “So, brothers and sisters, because of God’s mercies, I encourage you to present your bodies as a living sacrifice that is holy and pleasing to God. This is your appropriate priestly service. Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is—what is good and pleasing and mature.”

What we do not find in these scriptures or in other passages is a license to blanket our brothers and sisters who disagree with us with the intention or motive of pleasing people more than God. In fact, please notice that Paul affirmed it is God who judges hearts.

I’m willing to accept that those speakers in the New Testament had sufficient knowledge to express their own motives, and I accept them at face value. I am not however willing to listen to Christians quote and paraphrase the same words in ways that paint those who disagree with them as not wanting to please God or to follow God’s lead. That kind of thing is a gross misappropriation of scripture and needs to stop. It doesn’t help us move forward or create meaningful dialogue. Instead, it violates in word and spirit the command of Christ, “Stop judging others, and you will not be judged” in Matthew 7:1, and verses 1-6 for a greater context and exposition.

It’s Disrespecting of People.

Why am I writing about this stuff? I’m sick and I’m truly tired of the accusation, explicit and implicit, that I am affirming of my LGBTQ neighbors because I seek to please people more than God, or because I choose to follow the voice of culture above the voice of God. I am sick of others having to deal with that accusation and maligning of their motives.

I regularly give my non-LGBTQ-affirming friends and neighbors the benefit of the doubt that they are sincere and trying their best to both follow God and love people, as I do with them on other points of theological and exegetical disagreement. It’s only fair to take people at their word when they say they don’t hate someone. It’s fair to take people at their word when they say they want to please God and when they believe they are pleasing God. If their choice of words and actions do turn hateful, I won’t hesitate to point that out, and have on occasion such as here and here.

Honestly, it’s this kind of disrespect that keeps us from having meaningful dialogue and sharing on so many points of disagreement. We must be careful of what I have started calling “Self-Marginalization.” Self-marginalization happens when we speak and act in such a way that others are repelled and prohibited from engaging us. As Marshall McLuhan warned us that “the medium is the message” we would do well as Christians to make sure that our medium is not the language or action of spiritual competition, disrespect or un-Christlike judgement.

I’ll end with these words from the Apostle Paul, some of my most favorite’est Pauline verses in Philippians 4:4-8, CEB. These words reject competition and domination. These words orient us to gratitude and service. These words ring with grace and wisdom…

Be glad in the Lord always! Again I say, be glad! Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near. Don’t be anxious about anything; rather, bring up all of your requests to God in your prayers and petitions, along with giving thanks. Then the peace of God that exceeds all understanding will keep your hearts and minds safe in Christ Jesus. From now on, brothers and sisters, if anything is excellent and if anything is admirable, focus your thoughts on these things: all that is true, all that is holy, all that is just, all that is pure, all that is lovely, and all that is worthy of praise.

AMDG, Todd