There’s this little known story toward the end of Joshua about the Israelites after they have conquered the Promised Land.
The Reubenites, Gadites, and half the tribe of Manasseh had asked for the first lands that had been conquered before they crossed the Jordan River. They were granted this request as long as they committed to fight with the rest of the tribes for the land on the other side of the river.
And they did.
Despite already possessing their inheritance, they fought right alongside their brothers to conquer the rest of the land. They kept their word at great sacrifice to themselves. And finally, they were able to return home.
The first thing they did when they crossed back over the Jordan to go home was build an altar to the Lord. This caused quite a stir on the other side of the river. Suddenly Israel was ready to go to war and destroy the two and half tribes who had fought so loyally with them. They assumed that the altar had been built so that these tribes wouldn’t have to travel so far to worship God like He’d commanded. They assumed these tribes were going to appoint their own priests and offer their own sacrifices, something that God had already forbidden.
When Israel sent delegates to confront these tribes, they explained their intent for the altar. They were afraid that future generations would forget that they were a part of Israel. They were concerned that this would cause trouble for both sides of the Jordan. The altar was a monument of remembrance…proof that they served the Living God too. What they had intended for the altar was something completely different from what was assumed about it.
Sarah’s best friend wasn’t responding to her texts and voicemails like she usually did. She’d been MIA all week, and Sarah assumed she was mad about their last conversation when Sarah had mentioned a bad habit that her friend had. This made Sarah mad too. After all, she’d only mentioned it out of love. She’d never expected her friend to cut off communication because of it.
When Sarah’s friend, who had been caught in an unusually busy week, finally did respond, Sarah had already decided to cut off the relationship, assuming it was far less healthy than she‘d believed a week prior. She refused to take any of her best friend‘s texts or calls, and they eventually grew apart.
There are two main dynamics involved in every misunderstanding…intent and assumption. Are we willing to stop, ask, and listen?
Stop. It’s in our human nature to assume. The Israelites did it. Even though their brother tribes had just finished fighting long battles with them for the same God, they assumed the worst about the altar. If they would have acted on that assumption without clarifying, there would have been senseless bloodshed.
Ask. What clarifies an assumption? Questions. If, after Sarah assumed the worst about her best friend, she would have asked why the friend didn’t respond as usual, she would have quickly realized that her friend was going through some stuff that week and couldn’t.
Listen. Because we are prideful humans and often assume that we know everything and are right all of the time, sometimes we have a hard time listening to understand someone’s explanation of their intent. How many times have you let your spouse explain something hurtful that they said, but because you were already hurt, didn’t believe their explanation of intent? Just me?
Because I have a strong gut instinct, I struggle with assumptions. My oldest son pointed it out to me a while back and since that day I’ve been more attentive to adjust in this area. As I am learning how to stop my prideful ego after it assumes and to instead ask questions, I am uncovering in my own life how many times I have “gone to war” because I misunderstood.
It may be uncomfortable to uncover assumptions and even more awkward to search out intent, but often those small inconveniences are much better than the havoc misunderstanding can wreak in a relationship. And to be sure, even if we do everything we can do to clarify, there will still be times when someone is still insistent on assumptions or refuses to reveal their intentions. There will be times when we unintentionally assume or act without the best of intentions.
But I’ve already seen the benefits of being aware of these tendencies in my own life. Maybe this will help you too.