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Learning to live with our assumptions

Ned and Ed are brothers. There were born on the same hour of the same day of the same year to the same mother. They are not twins. How can that be?

It’s my privilege to be teaching a group of young men about teaching. The class essentially has two parts:  having something to say (as opposed to having to say something) and then knowing how to say it. In the first part, we spend time talking about how we are to listen to God as He speaks to us through His word.

Each week, I put a little riddle on the board like the one above. The purpose of it is to show how our assumptions can get us into trouble. For example, the answer to the riddle above is Ned and Ed are not twins—they are triplets. They have another brother (Fred). Of course, the riddle is set up in such a way to get us to assume that we’re only talking about two brothers and thus the conundrum. It’s hard for most of us to step back and ask a question like, “Is it possible that Ned and Ed have another sibling who was born at the same time as them?”

It’s important to make the point here that assumptions aren’t inherently bad. In fact, they’re quite natural and we couldn’t live without them. If you don’t believe this, think of all of the assumptions you make during the course of a day. You get out of bed assuming that the time on your phone or clock is correct. You assume the water will work when you start to brush your teeth. You assume your car will start. You assume your gas gauge is reasonably accurate. While driving to work, you operate on the assumption that it’s safe to go through the green light because the opposing traffic has a red light.

Assumptions are little hunches we follow throughout the day because we have to act upon most things without being fully informed. After all, there’s a very strong possibility that the light for the opposing traffic is red but we don’t absolutely know that. Nonetheless, we need to go when our light is green. The good news is that on the whole, our assumptions are accurate and reliable. That’s also the problem because we make so many successful assumptions we can become dull to the possibility of being wrong.

Assumptions become wrong whenever they interfere with the opportunity to be better informed. They become wrong when they get in the way of listening to others. They are especially dangerous when they stand between us and God. The story of Naaman in 2 Kings 5 is a classic example.

Naaman is a big deal—he’s commander of the army of Syria. Unfortunately, he has contracted leprosy and for all of his rank and power, he is helpless. In desperation he goes to see Elisha, one of Israel’s prophets. Elisha does not even come out of his house when the commander of the Syrian forces arrives in his chariot. Instead, he sends out a messenger telling Naaman that if he will dip in the Jordan River seven times he will be healed.  

Naaman is enraged—mostly because this does not line up with his assumptions of what he thought would happen (see v. 11ff). Fortunately for his sake, he is talked down from this position (v. 13). He decides to do what Elisha said and is healed. But his assumptions almost cost him his life!

Assumptions become quite costly when we decide to hold on to them rather than be better informed or listen to others. They are hurt us as well as others. They can be toxic to relationships. And they can certainly stand in the way of our relationship with God.

The answer isn’t to stop assuming—but to recognize our assumptions and their limitations.  Doing this means we are ready and willing to expand beyond them whenever the opportunity presents itself.

“Speak, for your servant is listening” (1 Samuel 3:10).

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