A funny thing happened today.
I was standing in a hallway at the university, waiting to go into a math exam, with several of my fellow students. We were discussing sleep—specifically, how little we manage to get. I am running a severe deficit just now; I think I’ve had 12 hours total in the past three nights. Finals are coming up. Projects are nearing due dates. We are all in the same boat, so I’m not whining. But, as we talked about it, one of my classmates used the f-word in expressing his frustration. Now, it is certainly not unusual for a college student to let a curse word slip out, but I suddenly realized how little I hear that word from my classmates.
Recall that I am a forty-something undergraduate. I am the same age as my classmate’s mothers. So, perhaps it is not unusual that they hold their tongues around me. I just assumed that since we are all math majors in upper level classes, we all naturally practice a deeper level of professionalism than the freshmen do. Today, I realized that I made that assumption about my cohorts not just for the times they are around me, in and out of class, but for all the time.
I have assumed, in other words, that because these bright, young men and women are on their best behavior every time I see them, they must always be like that. I see them and automatically always assume the very best about them.
That caused me to wonder if it is a good thing to see only the best in others. Certainly, I will end up surprised at times when the alternative makes an appearance. I might even get disappointed when people don’t live up to the expectations I have for them. I might even get my feelings hurt. I’ve heard people claim that the surest way to defend against getting disappointed is to expect the least from everyone they encounter. Is that the best way to go through life, though? What effect do I really have on the people around me when I default to seeing them in their best light first? Can I find an answer to these questions in the Bible? What does God’s Word have to say about what to expect from others?
I went looking with a topical search for Biblical instruction about trusting others to want to be their best. I found a lot of instruction for relying on God rather than our neighbors in the Old Testament. Likewise, I found a lot of instruction for serving others in the New Testament. But what about treating others with the expectation of goodness? I think I found the answer in Matthew’s account of The Beatitudes: Matthew 5:1-48.
1 Seeing the crowds, he went up on the mountain, and when he sat down, his disciples came to him.
Picture that. Jesus saw the crowds, and must have wanted to explain something important to His disciples. He took them aside, and sat down. I imagine a warm, spring-like breeze stirring His hair as he sat on a flat rock on the mountainside. The disciples gathered around Him, sitting on the ground, watching Him closely. They must have known by then that when Jesus spoke to them purposefully in this manner that He was giving them the secrets of His kingdom.
2 And he opened his mouth and taught them, saying:
3 “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
The alternative to being poor in spirit is surely arrogance, and arrogance does not seek the kingdom of God. Arrogance expects others to fail. I know my spirit is poor, though my love for my Lord is great, because there will always be room to grow in spirit.
4 “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.”
For those times my heart aches from loss or disappointment, I shall be comforted. Therefore, it is okay to take a risk with others. If I have acted within the bounds of God’s will, He will make it safe for me and comfort me when I need it.
5 “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.”
The opposite behavior is ill-will toward others, and willful disregard of God. Meek behavior is gentle, humble, and purposefully in submission to God. When I am meek, I act as a vessel of God’s will. I serve others. I lift them up. When I do so, I receive the best rewards that my earthly existence can provide. Note that “best” does not imply “financial gain.” I’m talking about soul-stuff, the really best stuff.
6 “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be satisfied.”
Indeed, seek and you shall find; knock and the door shall be opened to you. When I am in a state of thirst for righteousness, I want others to receive the best of the world, too: righteousness, justice. If I hunger for righteousness, I will be satisfied. Expect the best in others in order to see the best in others.
7 “Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy.”
My mercy toward others will ensure my own from God.
8 “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.”
I should insist on a wholesome environment. It is healthy, kind, uplifting, and good. I should not go along with the crowd while it curses and gossips. If I insist on purity in my own heart, I set that example in others by my actions. And when I expect the best from them, I am able to see God working in the world.
9 “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God.”
Peace should naturally trump vengeance, aggression, power, and control—peace in my heart, peace in my dealings with others, peace to forgive, peace to be forgiven, and the peace that others feel when they know I have confidence in them.
10 “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”
This will happen. I will expect the best and sometimes be disappointed. At times, others may deride me cruelly for my faith in God. But I believe that His way is good. I have seen the evidence of it before my very eyes. So I stand firm with the quiet power of the Lord Jesus Christ in my heart because I am a citizen of the kingdom of heaven.
11 “Blessed are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. 12 Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so they persecuted the prophets who were before you.” (ESV)
Today, in the hallway, after my classmate let loose that curse word, three seconds of silence went by as all eyes turned toward me. I had a choice. I could have let the moment slide right by in implicit approval. Or I could expect the best of my classmate.
“Watch your language!” I said, smiling at him, “I’ve never heard you use that word before.”
“I know,” he said. “I realized it the moment it came out of my mouth.” He blushed and looked down at his shoes.
Everyone laughed and continued the conversation just as we were before. A different classmate then shared quietly with me that she didn’t feel comfortable around that rough language either. I felt good about my expectations for my classmate. I’m sure the encounter worked to lift him up (and possibly others there as well). I was able to stand firm in my belief and in my faith, which lifted me up, too.
Some people may conclude that if I insist on seeing only the best in those around me, I am fooling myself because I don’t see the real person underneath the gloss of good behavior. I disagree. I maintain that the roughness, the crudeness, the bravado is the mask. I am seeing what is real: the best in them.