The Benefit of the Doubt
And Abraham said, “Because I thought, Surely the fear of God is not in this place. And they will slay me for my wife’s sake” (Genesis 20:11).
Abraham is often recognized as a champion of the faith; indeed, he is reckoned as the “father” of all who believe in God after him (Romans 4, Galatians 3). Nevertheless, there are times when his faith was not as strong as it should have been, and this often involved his relationship with others around him.
In Genesis 20:1-18 the story of Abraham and Abimelech is recounted. Abraham is sojourning in Abimelech’s land, but has no confidence in Abimelech or the people. He is convinced that they are so ungodly as to choose murder over adultery (Genesis 20:11)! He tells a half-truth to Abimelech that could have led to disastrous consequences had God not intervened (Genesis 20:1-7). Ultimately, Abimelech looks more righteous than Abraham, since he, at least, acted with integrity (Genesis 20:8-16).
Sadly, this was not even the first time Abraham had done this very thing: he did it in Egypt years earlier with, no doubt, similar motivations, and it led to similar results (Genesis 12:10-20). One would think that Abraham would have learned his lesson!
What motivated Abraham’s tragic and faithless behavior? He did not know the people of Egypt or the south of Canaan, and he therefore assumed the worst about them. He was certain that there was no fear of God or intention of acting honorably among them. Therefore, despite God’s promises and God’s ability to protect him, he continually acted in worldly ways in counter-productive attempts to preserve himself.
These stories of Abraham illustrate for us the necessity of giving others the benefit of the doubt.
As human beings, it is easy for us to focus on the negative and think the worst about other people. This is why Paul commands believers to do the contrary: to focus on the positive (Philippians 4:8) and to think the best about others, especially those of the household of faith (Romans 12:17-18, Ephesians 4:25, 31-32).
Giving others the benefit of the doubt is critical to healthy, functioning relationships. We all like to think that our judgment about others, their actions, and their motivations is sound, but we all know of plenty of times in our lives when we have misread and misinterpreted what others were doing. This is why there are so many exhortations to not judge or to watch one’s judgment (Matthew 7:1-5, Romans 14:10-13, James 4:12). We do not know people’s hearts; we can only see their actions, and actions can have different motivations!
This can be illustrated in every kind of relationship. Consider the husband and wife who are sincerely well-intentioned in their love for one another, and yet often act in unloving ways. What if they thought the worst about one another and the motivations for each others’ actions? A miserable relationship or divorce is in their future. Churches are often torn apart because Christians assume the worst intentions or worst attitudes in one another. Tension often exists among family members or co-workers in a business for similar reasons. And then we have the larger conflicts between segments of a population or between people of different nations, based in part on the assumption of the worst motivations and intentions on the part of the other.
This issue ultimately boils down to trust. As Christians, we are to be full of faith: both trusting in God, being willing to trust in one another and others, and being dependable in turn (Acts 6:5, Galatians 5:19-22). When we assume the worst motivations or purposes in one another, we demonstrate a complete lack of faith in them. But if we give others the benefit of the doubt we show that we trust in their better nature, and our relationships with them can grow and prosper!
If we give others the benefit of the doubt there will be times when the worst motivations are true and we will be disappointed and hurt. However, if we do not give other s the benefit of the doubt, we should not be surprised when we have many relationships that have become toxic. We also should not be surprised when our actions are seen in the worst possible light, for why should others give us the benefit of the doubt when we do not give it to others (Luke 6:31)? Abraham, the father of the faithful, rarely looks as foolish as when he has failed to give others the benefit of the doubt. Let us learn from him and be willing to have faith in one another, giving the benefit of the doubt!
Ethan R. Longhenry