We are all wannabe detectives, which is, I think, part of the fascination with detective shows down through the years (Perry Mason, Hawaii 5-0, Dragnet, NCIS, CSI,) The show presents us with several possible suspects, and we look for “clues” to determine who committed the crime.
The reality is that we are hard-wired to do detective work. Our minds almost constantly assess data and draw conclusions. It’s core to life.
Subconsciously, we are constantly asking—and answering—the question: “why.” I wonder why that building is damaged? I wonder why he’s not turning right on red? I wonder why the teacher is staring at me? I wonder why the mattress tied to the hood of that car is shaking violently?
But our minds never stop there. The next layer is “I’ll bet it’s because…” “I think this might be the reason.” Again, this is normal and healthy. Seeing the flapping mattress, you may conclude that the tie-down has loosened and will be releasing its cargo soon. If so, you will stop driving behind the “mattress car.”
Assessing people’s actions is altogether different in that it brings in the question of motive, good or bad.
Let’s say that Joy and I always communicate bank withdrawals to each other, and I discover online that $200 has been withdrawn, and she hasn’t said a word. Why didn’t she tell me about that? Possible reasons?
She bought illegal drugs.
She specifically planned to tell me later.
She purchased a surprise gift for me.
Our bank account was hacked.
Some of them are negative theories and some are positive. Invariably I “pick” one of the options as the “truth.” And then I confidently act on that belief.
Here’s an example. I come to my wife, Joy, and tersely ask “Where did you put my car keys? I had them on my dresser but they’re not there anymore!”
Let’s retrace my detective work. Less than a minute earlier, I look for my keys on my dresser, but they are not there. Instantly, my brain is assessing why and creating scenarios: I don’t remember moving them. The dog could not have moved them because…we don’t have a dog. Somebody had to move them. I live with a certain somebody– my wife, Joy–who has on occasion moved something off my dresser.
My lead theory is that Joy moved them, but when I talk to her, I have concluded my theory is truth, leading to my irritated question: “Where did you put my car keys?”
Pastor Andy Stanley suggests that we have two options when evaluating somebody’s actions. We can either believe the best or assume the worst. Our choice is far more significant than we realize. He cites a fascinating study he saw in Marcus Buckingham’s book, The One Thing You Need to Know,
Researchers did a study of successful relationships. They researched couples who had been together 10 years or more. They assumed that couples living together that long knew each other’s weaknesses and simply came to grips with them. They discovered something pretty different. The couples had what you might call “unrealistic” views of each other.
They would ask one how he would rate something like his patience. Separately they would ask his spouse to rate his patience. Invariably, she would give him a higher rating than he gave himself. And vice-versa. He had a higher view of her than she herself had.
Their advice for couples? “Find the most generous explanation for each other’s behavior and then believe it.”
It’s wonderful counsel. However, God put that wisdom in the Bible 2000 years ago when he said, “Love always believes. Love always hopes.” (The Bible, NIV, 1 Corinthians 13:7) Love believes the most generous explanation.
There is another route we can take: we can assume the worst. It grieves me just how quickly my mind is drawn to the worst scenarios. “I’ll bet she was thinking this!” “He was probably covering something.”
The Bible describes this sinful part of us that influences our thinking. It’s one reason why negative explanations come to my mind so quickly and powerfully. In my worst moments (irritated stressed, discouraged), a positive explanation doesn’t even come up! This is where love must rise up and make a choice. Love works to envision the best scenarios and then chooses to believe the most generous explanation.
Understand, the most generous explanation isn’t always the right one, but as a friend told me recently, “Being right is overrated.” Love is not obsessed with being right; love is focused on bringing out the best in others. In our “detective work,” we can find ourselves more interested in being right than doing right.
If I believe the best explanation for what you did, but it turns out there was another reason, I appear naïve or foolish. It feels much better to “be right,” which is why we end up saying things like “See, I was right. I just knew you’d forget again. I just knew you’d be late. I just knew you’d spend too much.” Bravo. I “win,” but at what cost?
Think about it. When you hear that “I just knew you would” language from a parent, from a spouse, from a teacher, from a friend? How does that make you feel? Doesn’t it ramp up your feelings of affinity and love?’ Uh, probably not. What it does create, however imperceptibly, is distance. It undercuts love.
It is more important to believe the best and be wrong than to assume the worst and be right.
Here is the beauty of believing the best. It fosters encouragement. It engenders hope. It communicates love. It encourages better choices. Truth is: People tend to live up (or down) to what we expect from them.
This doesn’t mean we should ignore wrong or negative behavior. Love shares concerns. Love sets boundaries. Love makes hard choices…but even when people fall short, love chooses to believe the best the next time. That’s what love does.