For another thing, I would have been more suspicious of my own desires to confront her and would have given her more of the benefit of the doubt. We are all so quick to excuse our own actions and give ourselves the benefit of the doubt, because we know what we are going through. We know the sacrifices we are making and the struggles we are experiencing. But we don’t know everything that others are going through. We assume that they do not have any real problems, or we don’t care, and, as a result, we are less gracious with them than we are with ourselves.
One of the reasons why we don’t usually give others the benefit of the doubt is because we frequently lose sight of the sinfulness of our own sin. We forget that we are—just like the Apostle Paul—the “foremost” of sinners (1 Tim. 1:15). When we are walking closely with Jesus, this should be our daily attitude and perspective toward ourselves. Let me explain what I mean with an illustration. My wife and I used to live in Jackson, Miss., in a house that had no overhead lighting in the living room. It only had one outlet that was operated by a light switch. That meant that we almost always had very dim lighting in that room. At most, one or two lamps would be on. Every time I looked in the mirror, I would notice how tan my face looked and how clear my complexion was in the dim lighting. But when I would look in our bathroom mirror—which had something like twenty light bulbs arrayed all around the mirror—I would look completely different. I would look pale, as if I hadn’t seen the sun in years, and every defect in my face would be immediately visible. That always bothered me, until I realized that it was a picture of the Christian life: the closer we get to the Light (i.e., to Christ), the more defects we will see in ourselves, and the farther we get from the Light, the fewer defects we will see.
When you and I are walking closely with Christ, we will, like Paul, see ourselves as the “foremost” of sinners. And if we see ourselves as the foremost of sinners, we will give everyone else the benefit of the doubt. We will be more gracious to them and more patient with them, because, whatever their failings may be, those failings will all fall short of our own estimation of our own defects. We will be slow to criticize, and we will be suspicious of our desires to confront. We may still need to confront, but we will do so differently, because we will see ourselves as the foremost of sinners and everyone else as better than ourselves, and we will treat them all accordingly.
The historian Philip Schaff records a great example of this attitude in a letter that John Calvin wrote to Heinrich Bullinger in 1544. In this letter, Calvin says, “Often have I been wont to declare, that even though [Martin Luther] were to call me a devil, I should still not the less esteem and acknowledge him as an illustrious servant of God.” I can’t help but think that one of the reasons why we see so little of this attitude in Christian circles, especially online, is that we are not walking closely with Christ. We are not keeping near the Light. And, as a result, we think far too highly of ourselves and not highly enough of others.
Giving criticism is frequently necessary, but if we cannot give that criticism constructively, then we ought not to give it at all. Destructive criticism does more harm than good. It tears down and often hurts a brother or a sister and only serves to build ourselves up. How different would things be if we were actually motivated by love for others and if we actually approached the giving of criticism from the perspective of regarding ourselves as the foremost of sinners? If we were able to do this, the watching world might just see more of Christ in us and begin asking for the reason for the hope that is in us.