You have doubtless heard the old story about the optimist and pessimist having coffee together. When the optimist told his friend, “You always think the worst will happen and then it usually doesn’t,” his pessimist friend replied “Yes – see how well it works!”
It’s a silly story, but it makes a point. Even people of faith are often guilty of presuming the worst in everyday situations. Has it never happened to you? You don’t hear from someone you emailed for several weeks so you begin to think they are angry with you, don’t like you that much anyway, or whatever – only to finally hear back from them that they have been ill for a while. Or you find that the person you thought was a parking slob was dealing with a true emergency which denied time for proper parking.
These may be trivial examples, but if we allow it to become a pattern in our lives, presuming the worst can affect our relationships in more serious ways, especially if doing this leads to presuming negative motivation or actions on the part of those who are not guilty of them.
A classic example of arriving at such wrong conclusions based on presuming the worst can be found in the Book of Job, in the form of Job’s three friends. These friends doubtless loved Job and were concerned for him, yet they allowed themselves to presume the worst about Job’s character in looking at the limited facts they had available. It’s unfortunately a human tendency – a part of human nature that can even be manifested in human relations with God Himself. The Old Testament gives many examples of this among the Children of Israel as they encountered various problems before going into the Promised Land:
“You grumbled in your tents and said, ‘The LORD hates us; so he brought us out of Egypt to deliver us into the hands of the Amorites to destroy us’” (Deuteronomy 1: 27).
Many of these Israelites were obviously hard hearted and full of their own human nature, as the Bible shows; but their attitude of presuming the worst remains a lesson to us all. In fact, learning to assume positive intent on the part of those around us – and God Himself – is a vital part of spiritual maturity. Certainly we may be disappointed at times if we develop this attitude, and we should always be wise in our dealings with others (it’s OK to presume the worst about a person offering to sell you the Eiffel Tower or a bridge in Brooklyn); but we shouldn’t presume the worst without some indication to justify the feeling. Most of us have no problem in accepting the legal mantra of “innocent until proven guilty,” but sometimes we have to broaden our thinking to include that approach in our everyday lives.
Presuming the worst can often be just a way of accepting our fears or frustrations without properly dealing with them. The old saying really has some truth in it: “If you presume the worst of others, you will all too often assume you are right.” We need to make a conscious decision not to presume the worst and to assume the best whenever possible.