Reflections and Blog

Believing the Best?

I want to return to Ecclesiastes 7:23-29 today as a few people asked me the same question regarding that passage over the last two weeks; I thought it would be useful to address the question publicly. The question is: How does Solomon’s teaching about not being too trusting fit with the Christian call to love and serve others? After all, doesn’t love “believe all things” (1 Cor 13:7)?

The answer is that genuinely loving others and wisely remaining guarded are not mutually exclusive actions; actually, God calls us to both. Consider that Jesus commands his disciples, on the one hand, to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mt 22:39), to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Mt 5:44), and to “not judge so that you will not be judged” (Mt 7:1). On the other hand, Jesus also commands his disciples to “be as shrewd as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16), to “beware of men, for they will hand you over to the courts and scourge you in the synagogues” (Mt 10:17), and to “beware of the false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves…You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:15-16). Furthermore, Paul commands the Thessalonians not to “despise prophetic utterances” but also to “examine everything” and “hold fast to that which is good” (1 Thess 5:20-21; cf. 1 Cor 14:29; 1 John 4:1). Paul also commands his apostolic representatives to appoint qualified elders in various places but without laying hands on anyone “too hastily and thereby shar[ing] responsibility for the sins of others” (Titus 1:5; 1 Tim 5:22). In various settings, then, Christians are called to extend and receive loving ministry without acting naively or recklessly.

As for 1 Cor 13:7 and the description that love “believes all things,” the verse certainly cannot be advocating blind trust in everyone and in whatever they say. Such would contradict all the verses cited above as well as common sense. A better understanding of the phrase is that love has faith in all things, that is, love is full of faith in God no matter the circumstances or people. In his commentary on 1 Corinthians, Gordon Fee puts it well when he says,

In saying “love always believes” and “hopes,” Paul does not mean that love always believes the best about everything and everyone, but that love never ceases to have faith; it never loses hope. This is why it can endure. The life that is so touched by the never-ceasing love of God in Christ (cf. Rom. 8:39) is in turn enabled by the Spirit to love others in the same way. It trusts God in behalf of the one loved, hopes to the end that God will show mercy in that person’s behalf.

Certainly, when it comes to the ambiguous words and actions of others, love will “believe the best” in the sense that love will refuse to condemn without sufficient evidence or choose to pronounce authoritatively what is going on in another’s heart (Rom 14:1-4; Mt 7:1-2). After all, love is not partial or prejudiced (James 2:1, 4). But, while full of faith and hope, love is not naïve.

What are some practical examples of wise love in action? One example is our church’s child protection policy; while we do not believe any adult in our midst targets children with evil intent (or vice versa), we know that such can happen at churches, even with people who seem to be the kindest and most trustworthy. So rather than cancelling children’s ministry, we will pursue it in a wise way that does not give opportunity for secret abuses or baseless accusations. Another example is giving to the homeless. Homeless persons will often ask for money, yet it is well known that some homeless use any received money on vices and not practical needs. So should one simply stop giving to the homeless? No, but neither should one be naïve. Give in such a way that you can be more confident that your giving does good: give food instead of money, help a person get connected to already provided state resources, or give money to someone only after you’ve gotten to know the true reason for his poverty. A final example is rebuilding marital trust after adultery. After the trauma of exposed adultery, the sinning spouse may claim repentance and then ask for forgiveness and acceptance again. But shattered trust is not so easily restored, especially after repeated violations. So rather than naively giving full trust again or refusing to forgive and give any trust, the wise and loving Christian will say, “I am willing to begin rebuilding our relationship and trust again.”

In sum, love and guardedness are not mutually exclusive principles. But even when we act in wisdom, letdowns and betrayals will still occur. This is why, as I said two weeks ago, our trust must ultimately not be in any person but in the God who is sovereign over all people and circumstances. When our trust rests with the perfectly reliable God, we can have a love that “believes all things.”

Questions to Consider:
1. Have you ever naively believed the best about someone to your own or others’ hurt?
2. What is the difference between sinful prejudice and wise guardedness?
3. Where has a past betrayal in your life caused you to overreact and no longer extend loving ministry?