How to make a problem much, much worse

I have applied all these things to myself and Apollos for your benefit, brothers, that you may learn by us not to go beyond what is written, that none of you may be puffed up in favor of one against another.  -1 Corinthians 4:6

What’s the quickest way to a fight? What’s the fastest way to transform a small conflict into a raging fire of anger? While my answer to this question may be somewhat subjective, it is based on the text of Scripture above and the opportunities I’ve had to see this in action many times over. 

Without further ado, here it is: the easiest way to make a small problem big is to assume you know the motives of the person with whom you’re disagreeing. Or, as Paul writes, to “go beyond what is written,” to move the disagreement into uncharted areas of the map. When someone has hurt you in some way, it may be the most natural (and sinful) reaction to convince yourself that you know why they did what they did. Giving into this instinct, though, is a surefire way to add hurt to hurt, making a fire rage where it barely smoked before.

“You lied to me.” Or, “You lied to me because you hate me.”

“You didn’t choose me to be of that project.” Or, “You didn’t choose me to be part of that project because you don’t believe in me.”

And so on. Perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of such treatment and don’t need convincing, but here’s why this is a huge problem:

To assume motives is to attack where someone can’t defend. If you accuse me of lying, I can either defend myself or repent. But if you accuse me of hating you, there’s likely no way I can prove to you that I don’t. It makes the fight extremely unfair (which is, of course, one of the reasons we do it) and further divides rather than seeking peace (Romans 12:18).

To assume motives takes the place of God, which is always a bad idea. Proverbs 16:2 states, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes, but the Lord weighs the spirit.” The thing is, when you start peering into someone’s soul to judge their motives, you may well be right. Or not. But the heart is a deeper ocean than our diving gear equips us for. Only God, not you or the other person, is able to know the heart and weigh it accurately.

Motives aren’t unimportant, but in the middle of conflict our concern ought to be for our motives as we ask God not to search their heart, but to “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my thoughts!” (Psalm 139:23) And we leave their motives in God’s hands as only He can judge them well.

If you keep this warning in your back pocket, your next disagreement may be resolved much more smoothly, to the glory of God.



  1. Ellen Olivetti June 27, 2014 at 4:08 am #

    Jared, there is an excellent article on motives by Edward T. Welch, entitled “Motives: Why Do I Do The Things I Do?” that dovetails very nicely with this blog post. Not only should we not be attributing motives to other people, we should always be searching our hearts and asking the Lord for wisdom in determining what our motives truly are. But, I agree with you, so many interpersonal problems would be solved if we just resolved to always think the best of the other person and stop attributing to them motives that then influence our future actions.

  2. Pete June 28, 2014 at 7:25 am #

    The modern method [of argumentation] is to assume without discussion that [your opponent] is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly. In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it Bulverism. Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than the third — ‘Oh you say that because you are a man.’ ‘At that moment’, E. Bulver assures us, ‘there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and then explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.’ That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth [and Twenty-First] Century.

    –C. S. Lewis, “Bulverism,” in God in the Dock, p. 273

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