Author: William Williams | Editorial Department, Living Church of God
Have you ever been in a situation where you knew something you planned to do wouldn’t “look right,” but since you believed you weren’t going to “do anything wrong,” you went ahead with it anyway?
Perhaps the “Mike Pence” rule just seemed inconvenient that one time—especially if the circumstances really didn’t seem like the kind where anything truly compromising could happen. Maybe there wouldn’t be time for anything to happen. Maybe you and the people you planned to be with have good reputations, and people just know you better than to think you’d misbehave in some particular way or another. And maybe people should “mind their own business”—especially when such situations don’t always involve spending time with members of the opposite sex, but could simply be the kind of happenstance that maaaybe would look like you were doing something inappropriate on the Sabbath—when you weren’t—or juuust might seem like you were staying out late drinking and partying—which you don’t!
Of course, life is full of decisions, and not all decisions or actions can be helped regarding how others perceive them. If we worried about how our every single action might be perceived, we would certainly wastea lot of time. But we also know that God cares about how our behavior affects others, so it isn’t always worry but consideration. And when it comes to something that could seriously affect your reputation—or cause others to stumble—the matter deserves consideration.
The Appearance of Evil
“Reputation and the Appearance of Evil” was in fact Dr. Scott Winnail’s most recent Living Education address, and an especially vital topic for Christians today. Analyzing situations where individuals knew their decisions might give others “the wrong idea” was a chief part of his lecture. However, far from simply mowing down the assembled students with a list of “do’s” and “don’ts”, Dr. Winnail instead engaged in a give-and-take session about why people might inadvertently put their reputations at risk and how to avoid the appearance of evil—and he reminded them of the oft-repeated quote by Warren Buffett that a good reputation can take decades to develop, but be destroyed in five minutes.
Dr. Scott gave several examples of situations that can potentially tarnish one’s reputation, and what stood out most importantly to me was the absence of condemnation. Leaving behind most discussion of when people do fall into sin when they “skirt the edge of the cliff,” his focus was mainly on how to maintain a good reputation and make sure that pure motivations go hand in hand with—and even promote—pure perceptions.
Assume or Presume?
Throughout the discussion, a singular thought crossed my mind: presumptions lead to assumptions! We all know (or should know) that assume is a dirty word, but what about presume? If assuming is jumping to a conclusion when we don’t have all the facts (the very thing we don’t want people to do regarding our actions) presuming is assuming ahead of time how a certain thing will or should turn out (or how people will or should respond to those same actions!). And if, as Henry “the Fonz” Winkler was famous for saying, “Assumptions are the termites of relationships,” then presumptions are the overlooked food source that attracts them!
Dr. Scott suggested some questions his listeners should ask themselves before taking certain actions, including, “Why do I want to do this?,” “What are the possible outcomes?,” “How will my actions be perceived?,” and “Could someone imitate me and thereby fall into condemnation?”
In every case, here’s one bit of handy reasoning to add: “Don’t presume too much about how others will perceive your actions!” I’ve been told many times that “You can’t control what other people think,” but here’s a secret: you can, to a certain degree, by your own choice to “walk circumspectly” (Ephesians 5:15).
What looks like a duck…
As always, the best lessons are the ones we apply to ourselves, and thus I turn the lens around: Justifying something based on what people should think is a presumption. Thinking people will always know my future actions are honest based on my current reputation is a presumption. And stating that people should “mind their own business” is a naïve presumption at best—and a rejection of Philippians 2:29 and Romans 14:13 at worst. (Not to mention the fact that saying it out loud can easily become an example of just exactly what I’m talking about when someone takes it the wrong way and thinks, “Whoa, what a jerk that guy is.” If it looks like a duck, and quacks like a duck…)
With that, I can conclude:
- I’m not the arbiter of what others should think—so I should think out my own actions before committing to them, as Dr. Winnail stressed.
- I’m not the paragon of virtue I’d like to think of myself as—and I can’t place the burden of exonerating me on others, who have daily struggles and distractions all their own to think about.
- And I’m not by any means the one who gets to decide where others should be on the path to their conversion, such that I can blame them for “minding” my business—especially when my business breathes the same air God gave everyone else to swim around in.
Or so I should presume.