Beware of Imputing Wrong Motives to Others
“TELL me. Why didn’t you greet me on the street the other day? What have you got against me?”
“We met? No, I can’t remember that!”
“That’s impossible! We passed and you even looked into my eyes, but didn’t greet me! What have you got against me?”
Did you ever experience or witness a situation such as this true-life incident? Perhaps you have seen an even more serious instance when wrong motives were imputed to someone. Unfounded suspicion and distrust are not pleasing to God. This is evident from the devastating results to which these traits can lead. Consider what occurred in Biblical times with the nation of Israel.
After the conquest of the Promised Land, two and a half Israelite tribes took possession of their assigned territories on the other side of the Jordan River. There they built an altar, not for the making of offerings and sacrifices but to serve as a witness that they and their descendants had not abandoned true worship. But the other tribes imputed wrong motives, suspecting these Israelites of falling away from Jehovah’s worship, and therefore decided to wage war against them. Happily, the situation was clarified and the contemplated military action was not taken.—Josh. chap. 22.
King David once sent his servants to comfort King Hanun of Ammon over the death of his father. But the Ammonites wrongly suspected David of having sent the men to act as spies, and therefore greatly humiliated them. This even led to war, in which the Ammonites and Syrians suffered a great defeat. What disastrous consequences for imputing wrong motives!—2 Sam. chap. 10.
WHEN NOBLE MOTIVES ARE QUESTIONED
On various occasions, in the days of the early Christians, wrong motives were imputed to persons. For instance, this happened to the apostle Paul. Therefore, he felt impelled to write: “I did not burden you down. Nevertheless, you say, I was ‘crafty’ and I caught you ‘by trickery.’” Yes, certain fellow believers in Corinth wrongly argued that Paul was not acting out of love. They improperly imputed wrong motives to that faithful apostle.—2 Cor. 12:16.
An outstanding example is found in the case of God’s Son. He came to the earth with the noblest of motives, continuously endeavoring to honor and vindicate Jehovah God. Nevertheless, he was falsely accused of blasphemy. (Matt. 26:64, 65) Catastrophic results were experienced by those who purposely imputed wrong motives to God’s Son, becoming guilty of his murder and of endeavoring to block the way of salvation for many people.—Matt. 23:29-39.
Wrong motives have been imputed even to Jehovah God. Satan and his demons maintain that God does not rule out of love. Rather, the Devil contends that Jehovah egotistically withholds something good from humans in setting moral and ethical boundaries for them. Moreover, Satan holds that God “buys” obedience. (Job 2:3-5) In a similar manner, the noble motives of God’s servants are questioned by Satan. Why, the Devil ‘has accused them day and night before our God!’ (Rev. 12:10) Certainly, godly individuals would never want to emulate Satan in unjustly imputing wrong motives to others.
GUARD AGAINST MISCONCEPTIONS
What can Christians learn from the Bible record? For one thing, it is possible to misunderstand the attitude and motives of others. The Ammonites did so when David sent men to comfort King Hanun. Today, an individual may be shy and retiring. Perhaps he also has a stern facial expression. Others might wrongly conclude that he is cold, proud and unloving, although that may not be the case at all.
Sometimes people incorrectly impute laziness to others. But the one they consider lazy may be doing his utmost. Because of some physical weakness or health problem, he may not be able to do more or to work faster. So it is good to realize that, for many reasons, not all persons are equally productive or efficient.
At times, wrong motives have been imputed to those who have simply been trying to show loving consideration for others. For instance, in a certain office several persons take turns answering the telephone even after regular working hours. They need not sit right at the phone waiting for a call, but may do something else in a room nearby. One day, a responsible individual not on duty was right at the telephone when a call came in. Considerately, he answered it so that the person then on duty would not have to interrupt activity in a nearby room. Unfortunately, however, the one on duty imputed a wrong motive instead of thanking the thoughtful individual for his loving assistance. A minor matter? Yes, but it illustrates the need to guard against misconceptions in assessing the attitudes and motives of others.
GIVING OTHERS THE BENEFIT OF THE DOUBT
Seeing the sad consequences of imputing wrong motives to others, we certainly want to refrain from doing this. Christians are wise to give others the benefit of the doubt. This is in harmony with the divine principle expressed by the apostle Paul, who said that love “believes all things.” (1 Cor. 13:7) Adherence to this principle certainly means trusting a fellow Christian in cases of doubt, instead of being unduly suspicious of him.
Getting better acquainted with others may help us to avoid imputing wrong motives to them. Sometimes this takes months, or even years. But in many cases, the more information we have, the less we are in danger of imputing wrong motives to others.
WHEN OUR MOTIVES ARE QUESTIONED
But what if we are the ones to whom wrong motives are being imputed? How should we react? It is good not to take offense, for Ecclesiastes 7:9 says: “Do not hurry yourself in your spirit to become offended.” In the course of time, the other person may get to know you better and may correct his view. Upon appreciating that he was mistaken, he will love you all the more, especially if you did not react in anger. Certainly, Christians want to imitate God, who exercises self-control in the face of accusations. Also, Jehovah knows our motives, and he will comfort us. We will find joy if we continue to “trust in Jehovah and do good.” If he wants to vindicate us in some matter, he can do so at the proper time.—Ps. 37:3-8; Acts 15:8; 2 Cor. 7:6.
An especially difficult situation exists when a person gets counsel from someone who misjudges his motives. Whatever might be said in defense may be viewed as self-justification. In reality, however, the counsel may not apply because not all factors have been taken into consideration. Still, some well-meaning counselors may tend to question your motives if you try to point out the real situation. Hence, if the point in question is of little importance, you may choose not to say anything further to correct the counselor’s view, provided that no harmful results are to be expected from remaining silent. But it is not always required that you simply say nothing if your position or motives have been misunderstood. Obviously, it would be morally wrong to allow a lie to stand unchallenged. There are instances when it is appropriate to explain your position or attitude calmly, so that your conscience is at ease because you know that at least you made an effort to clarify matters instead of being guilty of weakly admitting to a false charge. Thereby the counselor may benefit, too, especially as regards developing balance in the giving of counsel.
A German proverb says, “If one lies once, one does not believe him anymore, even if he speaks the truth.” But this should not be so among Christians. If a person commits an error that becomes known to others, and a later development reminds some individuals of this past mistake, should they not be suspicious of this formerly erring person? Not necessarily, for love is not quick to judge a person. If we, although innocent, would be suspected of something just because we did that sort of thing in the past, would we not be distressed about the distrust shown toward us? Of course we would, for under the influence of God’s holy spirit, people have made tremendous changes for the better. It is also good to remember that “love . . . does not keep account of the injury.”—1 Cor. 6:9-11; 13:4, 5.
A NEED FOR CAUTION AND BALANCE
As we strive to follow the principle of not unjustly imputing wrong motives to others and of keeping balanced if our own intentions are misunderstood, we should remember that there is a need for caution. For instance, when Christians live under a regime that persecutes God’s true servants, certain officials may resort to trickery to get them to betray fellow believers. In such cases, how could a person believe every statement or promise made by the persecutors? The following principle of God’s Word applies to such a situation: “Anyone inexperienced puts faith in every word, but the shrewd one considers his steps.” And Jesus Christ told his followers to be “cautious as serpents.”—Prov. 14:15; Matt. 10:16.
However, Christians should trust and believe fellow worshipers of God so long as there is no definite evidence of disloyalty. We do well to recall the inspired words: “Who are you to judge the house servant of another?” “One there is that is lawgiver and judge, he who is able to save and to destroy. But you, who are you to be judging your neighbor?”—Rom. 14:4; Jas. 4:12.
Do you recall the case mentioned at the outset? One individual had imputed wrong motives to another who had failed to greet her. Well, in later conversation it was found that the man had just been lost in thought and had not recognized the woman. That was the only reason that he had not said hello. It was good that this woman spoke with the man about her impression and did not hold a grudge against him while at the same time not disclosing her thoughts. But an even better solution to this problem would have been to assume from the very beginning that the other person had merely overlooked her.
There is, indeed, a need for balance in evaluating the motives of others. Happily, there will be a time when no one on earth will be suspicious of the words or actions of fellow humans. Eventually, this will be the case in the new system of things under Kingdom rule. Everyone then will show love and will see the good qualities of others. No more will there be causes of offense, heartache, bitterness or discouragement. Until then, we should beware of unjustly imputing wrong motives to others.