Please Do & Please Don’t Assume Motives

Though we boast of great things and take confidence in our knowledge, we are actually finite little creatures bound by a million limitations. In fact, our knowledge is so limited we don’t even really know ourselves. We often lack clarity about the motivations behind even our best or worst actions. We can do great things for the Lord while still harboring sinful motives; we can do terrible things that dishonor the Lord while still harboring noble motives. Our hearts are deceitful and desperately wicked. Who can know them but God himself?

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Yet we are so quick to assume the very best about our own motives and the very worst about others’. Surely this is some of what the psalmist cried for in Psalm 139: “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts! And see if there be any grievous way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting!” Surely this is what Solomon wanted us to know when he said, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.”

That’s hardly all the Bible has to say about motives. Though 1 Corinthians 13 is a popular wedding text, its foremost purpose is not to guide the relationship between a husband and wife, but the relationship of one believer to another. And in that text, God tells us what love demands of all of us. If we’ve been touched by the love of God, this is how that love ought to manifest itself as we relate to others: “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13:7). Several of these words and phrases speak to the matter of motives.

Love bears all things, which means it never gives up. It never grows weary of bearing with another person in their best and worst deeds. Love believes all things, choosing to believe the best about other people rather than the worst. It puts aside sinful cynicism to assume others are operating out of good motives instead of poor ones. Love hopes all things by looking toward other believers with the sincere desire that they are operating out of the best of intentions and the hope that they will accomplish great things for the Lord. And love endures all things, by not giving up quickly, but persevering through sin or the appearance of sin. It is quick to forgive, quick to overlook an offense, and slow to cast doubt.

And if 1 Corinthians 13 does not already do enough to call us to examine what we assume about others, we can turn as well to James 3:17–18 where we read that “the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.” We can turn to the sobering words of 1 Corinthians 4:5: “Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.”

Here is what I conclude: It is sinful to assume bad motives; it is sinful to not assume good motives. So when you see a tweet that jumps out at you, don’t immediately interpret it as saying something contentious or defensive. When you read an article or see a video, choose to grant the grace of believing and hoping and bearing and enduring all things. Think of that person as a brother or sister in Christ and choose to look for the best possible, not the worst possible, explanation.

It’s good to make assumptions if the assumption is that a person’s motives are good; it’s sinful to make assumptions if the assumption is that a person’s motives are bad. When we look at other Christians—their beliefs, their words, their deeds—love calls us to assume the best rather than the worst. Love calls us to regard them with hope rather than suspicion. Out of love for God and our brothers and sisters, we ought to grant them the same mercy, the same grace, the same hope we grant ourselves.