As a newspaper journalist, I’m used to whispered accusations of “bias” playing on continuous loop—they’re just in the air, like piped-in Muzak.
But sometimes it isn’t a whisper. One particularly loud accusation came in the form of an irate message from a local musician. He was more than a little upset that I failed to list his band’s next gig on my newspaper’s music calendar. Why was I biased, he demanded to know, against his band?
A band I’d never heard. A band whose name I barely knew. But toward whom I, obviously, must hold a secret resentment.
The truth, I meekly tried to assure him, is much simpler. I am frequently overworked—and human. Trying to carry a number of responsibilities in my hands, I let one slip.
The shortest distance between two points might be a straight line, but when the distance is between two people, we tend to zig and zag. Certain that every matter matters as much to the other party as it does to us, we are sure that any failure to connect becomes freighted with meaning. If there is a crack in the relationship, it must be a canyon.
I might expect this bent logic in the world of writers and readers. Yet somehow I still get surprised when I find it in the church.
Christians are supposed to be people of the golden rule. We hear Jesus’ call to love our neighbor as ourselves and intend to heed it knowing that meeting our neighbors where they are is never easy.
Then we try to live it. It turns out neighborly love is more comfortable when it requires giving someone our shoes instead of metaphorically placing ourselves in theirs. When the music swells, when the blood boils, when we’re sure we’ve been wronged, Jesus’ expectation seems like a pipe dream. Love might bear, believe, hope and endure all things—but surely not these things.
In the heat of the moment, we blink and miss that believing the best about someone is a vital form of neighbor-love. Our greater faith should lead us to good faith.
Each of us knows ourselves to be more than flesh and blood, muscle and bone. We are complicated, a cluster of experiences, influences, and emotions that run deep. We are living unique stories, and want to be treated as if that’s true. Our expectation is to reap the benefit of the doubt and win a general vote of confidence that our intentions are good and we never meant for things to go that far.
But when we’re hurt, we don’t always love our neighbors like that.
Instead, we assign intent and assume motive in ways that would crush us if the situation was driven in reverse. Like pundits reading election maps we are quick to call the outcome, sure we won’t be proved wrong. Our lack of confidence in their character is revealed when we sum them up with a terse sentence:
He’s the worst.
They’re trying to undermine me.
Foregoing the possibility of a simple answer, we commit the sin of simplifying other people.
Most friends aren’t trying to break our hearts or bruise our egos. Most church members aren’t trying to put us in our place. So even when it puts the pain in painstaking, we must force ourselves to start small and simple, to turn over pebbles before we put our backs into toppling boulders. People make mistakes. They forget. They say things that sound light years from what they meant. They don’t count the cost of unintended consequences. Maybe we misread them.
Choosing to believe the worst in someone erases all the hard, beautiful work we’ve done learning someone. We vow to go to the wall for people we worship next to or minister with; if pressed, we’d call up years of history and cite all the ways they’ve loved us well. If we’re not careful, in messy moments, we’ll sweep away all that history along with the broken glass of our feelings.
It isn’t that our instincts are insignificant. They matter—and sometimes the grievance is as true as the ache we endure.
But when our lived history with someone outweighs what seems to have happened in a moment, we’d do well to read the scales again. Rather than put a foot in our mouth, we stick that same foot in the door, cracking it open to the possibility of restoration.
Writing people off only drips the poisoned ink of discontent into our own hearts. Soul care requires avoiding expedient solutions. When we work through disputes gradually, in good faith, we love our neighbors and ourselves—two sides, Jesus says, of the same coin.