Why assuming the worst about other people’s motives is so deadly – and how we can break the cycle.
Few things are as complicated, contentious or corruptible as our motives. French thinker Francois de la Rochefaucauld captured the reality of the human condition when he said, “We would frequently be ashamed of our good deeds if the world could see the motives that produced them.” Samuel Johnson summed up the heart of the problem even more succinctly: “Actions are visible, but motives are secret.”
The Bible is littered with warnings about our motives. When informing Samuel that David was his choice for King of Israel, God told him: “The LORD sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the LORD looks on the heart.” (1 Sam 16:7) Much of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount is spent warning his hearers against doing outwardly impressive acts with inwardly corrupt motives (Matt 6:1-18). And in Paul’s celebrated (but often misunderstood) chapter on love, 1 Corinthians 13, he tells us that even the best actions are worthless if done without love.
Our motives are so important, but so easily corrupted.
Yet as tricky as motives are, there’s one sure way to make the whole issue even more complicated, hurtful and destructive: judge the motives of other people as harshly and as negatively as possible.
If you’re like me, you’ll know how easy it is to fall into this trap. Sometimes it can be subconscious. “Last time someone did that to me, it meant this – so it must mean this again.” Or perhaps, “If I did that, it would mean this, so because you did that it must mean this too.” Sometimes our ability to judge others fairly is impacted because we’re hurting, so we take it out on those around us. Maybe we’ve been burned before, and don’t want to be hurt again. Maybe we’re exhausted, and our judgment suffers. Or maybe there’s really no excuse and we’re just plain sinful. Whatever the cause, pre-judging the motives of others or assuming the worst about someone else is a recipe for relational disaster.
Every day, we observe other people’s actions or find ourselves receiving end of the consequences of those actions. Your husband gets home late from work – again! Your colleague makes a big decision that you don’t understand. Your friend fails to share that important piece of news with you. Countless possible actions – but we don’t always know why. “Why did he do it?” “What was she thinking?” And for many of us, rushing to judgment and thinking the worst of people is an all-too-easy response.
Certainly, we need to beware of the opposite danger: a foolish naivety that prevents us from grasping the realities of sin or that leads us to wrongly assume that ‘what you see is what you get’ or ‘I’m sure they didn’t mean anything by it’. Living in a broken world requires great wisdom and balance.
However, applying some shrewdness and common sense to our relationships is one thing. Assuming that people are operating with sinister, ulterior motives is quite another.
When we fall into the trap of attributing motives and thinking the worst of others, the damage to our relationships – and to our very selves – can be massive. We’ll alienate the people around us and impair our ability to relate to them with love, kindness and generosity of spirit. We’ll find ourselves being civil to people on the outside, but inwardly nurturing resentment and using the voice in our head to curse them. We’ll infect our churches or ministries with unnecessary anger and distrust. We’ll become unable to lovingly and humbly rebuke others when that really is needed (cf. Gal 6:1). We’ll start to think of ourselves as being superior – focusing on the (perceived) sin in others’ lives, rather than the real sin in our own lives (cf. Matthew 7:1-5). We’ll miss the reality that while no one is perfect, God works in people’s lives and enables them to ‘love one another earnestly from a pure heart’ (1 Peter 1:22). Perhaps most of all, we’ll give bitterness a foothold – and the more bitter we become, the more our default position will be to think badly of others. A cycle of destruction and hurt that feeds on itself is created.
How can we break the cycle, or begin to strike a healthy balance? Here are a few simple suggestions:
- Consider the alternatives: when in doubt about someone’s motives, take the time to stop and consider the alternatives. Don’t just focus on the worst possible perspective, or on what it would mean if you had done the same thing. If your natural tendency is to automatically assume the worst, force yourself to also assume the best. The reality might be somewhere in the middle, but considering the options will at least help you to avoid false assumptions.
- Ask the question: Instead of assuming, take the time to ask the other person! It sounds so simple, but it’s a step that is so often missed. “I noticed this happened, but I wasn’t sure why. Do you think we could have a chat about it?” Very often, there’s an explanation that, when sought and shared, will be constructive (not destructive) to your relationship.
- Leave final judgment to God: Consider Romans 12:19-21: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord. To the contrary, if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” Even in the worst-case scenario, when we’re faced with someone whose motives are corrupt, we’re still to respond with love. How much more when we don’t know all the facts and we can’t see the heart! Entrust yourself and the situation to God, and respond in a way that’s shaped by both his sovereignty and his grace.
- Remember ‘the golden rule’: “So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the Law and the Prophets.” (Matthew 7:12) What motives would you like others to impute to you? What hidden assumptions would you like people to make about you?
Motives are such tricky, slippery things – they bring enough complications of their own. Let’s not make it worse by assuming or second-guessing what we think is motivating other people.