My husband had come home from a long day of work, the kids were already in bed, his dinner was cold, and so was his wife. Not literally, just in her soul. With every minute that ticked away on the clock, I’d transformed from happy Caroline into a true ice queen, with death icicles that shot out from my eyes like lasers. He was very late, and I took it very personally. Two steps in the door, he looked at me apologetically as his phone rang again. I made plans to go full-on Elsa the second that phone call was finished.
But as I listened to his half of the conversation, I was struck: Oh man, he’s been through a lot today. Not only that, but it was clear that his late arrival had nothing to do with me or his affections for me. As my icy heart began to melt, I mentally chastised myself for my lack of compassion. That phone call was God’s grace to me, a forced pause offering me insight into the true nature of his day.
But what about when we aren’t offered that insight? What about when a friend forgets your birthday, a parent says something that offends you, your pastor fails to greet you in the church lobby, or your kid behaves embarrassingly, and you have no context for why he or she did that?
Friend, in those moments of offense when we are not offered the insight we need to easily extend compassion, we can do something radical: extend compassion anyway. This beautiful gift is called the Benefit of the Doubt.
I mean, sure, everyone likes chocolate, fuzzy socks, and the heart candies that taste like chalk (okay, maybe we don’t really like those), but truly, the best gift you can give someone for Valentine’s Day—or any day—is the benefit of the doubt.
The benefit of the doubt is the common grace displayed in our judicial system (“innocent until proven guilty”) but without that sticky business of trying to build a case and prove guilt. Essentially, it is a generous presumption of innocence accompanied by a refusal to investigate. The benefit of the doubt says: He probably didn’t mean it that way; She didn’t intend to hurt my feelings; They probably weren’t trying to be malicious.
Offering the benefit of the doubt might feel like one of the steps in How to Become a Doormat, but it’s actually a strong, gospel-centered act for three reasons:
It Is an Act of Humility
When we offer the benefit of the doubt, it is our humble acknowledgment that only God can see the heart (1 Samuel 16:17). When we start to presume that we understand others’ motivations for their behavior, we are in dangerous devil territory, because it means we think we are like God. Pride is at work because though the Bible teaches that God is the only judge, we have set ourselves up as judge (James 4:12). When we humbly offer our offender the benefit of the doubt, we recognize God’s rightful place on the judicial bench, and we recognize our rightful place as His faithful servant, called to love, redeemed only by His grace.
It Is a Reflection of God’s Grace
In the parable of the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:21-35), a man fails to be generous in a small way when he himself has received exponential generosity. To this man, the master angrily says, “You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?” When we generously refuse to hold offense against another person, it honors God and is a small reflection of the favor we ourselves have received from Him. If you are struggling to extend grace to another, consider: Do I fully grasp the grace that God has extended to me? Oh, what a worthwhile pursuit it is to investigate God’s grace towards us!
It Is Freeing
The mental work it takes to build a case against someone and to bear the anger the perceived offense warrants is like Cross-Fit for your soul—really exhausting. Your soul has important work to do, but it is not this work. When you refuse to do that particular heavy lifting, you free your energy for what actually matters: loving God and loving others. Both parties benefit from the gift of the benefit of the doubt—the offender is unburdened from explanation and free to enjoy relationship with you, if appropriate, and you are free to rest in the grace you have in Christ and enjoy relationship with Him and your offender, if appropriate. Furthermore, you have the freedom to pursue the better work of ministering to them. “How have you been doing?” may be just the question to ask to uncover the hardships they are facing.
As we faithfully engage the world around us, offenses are inevitable, even with those who love us dearly. But when an offense occurs, we have the opportunity to offer the gift of the benefit of the doubt and do the holiest work there is—love.
“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” 1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (ESV).
That night when God convicted me to do the hard, holy work of love, I put down my ice queen crown, my anger, and demands for explanation. Instead, I offered my husband the affection and safety he needed. Somehow that night, our home felt brighter and warmer. The shift in atmosphere was a palpable lesson: The benefit of the doubt is often the best gift I can give.
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