Sometimes the people in our lives behave in confusing or offensive ways.
Over the lifespan, each of us develops explanatory models to assist us in understanding our own and others’ behavior. These models are highly subject to error.
One of these is what social psychologists label “fundamental attribution error.” This means that when someone behaves in a way we don’t like—another driver cuts us off in traffic, or cuts in line at the market, for example—we tend to believe that this is because they have some sort of internal character defect of laziness, carelessness, or selfishness.
In contrast, when we are explaining our own similar behavior, we attribute it to external forces and circumstances. When I am the one in the wrong, I quickly rationalize that I had a good excuse based on my circumstances. I had a very important meeting to get to, perhaps. But when you commit a wrong, it is because there is something fundamentally wrong with you!
I’ve discovered that the assumption of good will is one way to counteract this error. Key relationships require a level of trust if they are to be healthy. I must be able to assume you have good will toward me, as I believe I have good will toward you. This means that you can trust that as much as it lies in me, I will always seek what is good for you. I genuinely want life to go well for you, and I’m not just in it for myself. And my assumption is that you hold the same intention toward me.
Because it is based in subjective assumptions, and no one is perfect, there is an element of vulnerability in the assumption of good will. For instance, before I see a new counseling client for the first time, I assume that he or she will bring good will toward me. In other words, my client, who is seeking help from me, is not going to try to hurt me in the process. This keeps me open, friendly, kind, and curious as I begin to get to know him or her.
I could be proven wrong, and have been on rare occasions. But I maintain the practice of the assumption of good will, because the vast majority of the time I do experience good will. Could it be that the expectation of good will directly influences the outcome, like a self-fulfilling prophecy? Could it also be true that despite the sin, evil, and brokenness of the world around us, there are more basically good-willed citizens than bad-willed ones? I’ll leave that to observers more astute than I.
I believe that assuming good will is an essential element of honor within spiritual communities. I believe it is pleasing to the Lord when we forego our paranoia and skepticism and expect from others a good and godly response when we make an effort to connect with them.
When Jesus sent out his disciples, he prepared them with the belief that they would encounter men and women of good will who would bless their mission and show them hospitality. The Bible does not record any of the names of “persons of peace” they encountered on their journey. But it does say that they returned with glowing reports of widespread healing and deliverance as the demons fled from them. They must have found persons of good will who gave them places to stay and places from which to launch the ministry. They may have had to shake off some “dust” of bad will as well, but if so, it did not prevent their overall success.
Jesus and his Apostles consistently teach us to love our enemies, with the result that they become no longer enemies. If we insist on seeing them as enemies, we will be unable to bring the gospel of the kingdom to them. We will be defensive and unable to walk in good will. But if we suspend our assumption of enemy status, we are allowing the possibility that our influence will warm them, feed them, and change their hearts toward God.
If you tend to assume bad will from people because you’ve been hurt a lot, I understand. But I challenge you to experiment with a shift in your assumption for a month. Try on the assumption of good will, and see what happens within and around you!