Case Study: The Best Construction

It’s a phrase that you learn if you grow up Lutheran.  Put the best construction on everything, in association with the Eighth Commandment about not bearing false witness against our neighbor.  Luther’s idea is that we don’t simply abstain from doing harm, we seek to do well to our neighbor.  This means choosing to evaluate our neighbor’s words and deeds in as positive a light as possible.

What does this look like, though?  I mean, it’s easy enough when you get along with your neighbor and everything is hunky dory.  But what if that’s not the case?  
I’m a big billiards fan, and a few months ago I treated myself to a new shaft for my pool cue.  The guy I bought it from also offered to clean up my existing shaft (the cue is 20 years old, and needs some light maintenance and a new tip from time to time).  He told me it would take a week or so, and since he does this in his spare time, and because I had a new shaft to use, it was fine with me.
I was moderately surprised to get a call from him the next day saying the shaft was ready.  He came and dropped it off and life was good.  Until I started examining the shaft later in the day and realized it wasn’t mine.  I called him up to report the mistake and he apologized, said he’d pick it up and get me mine back as originally scheduled.
A couple of weeks passed before I called him up to ask him about the shaft.  He indicated he had it and would bring it the next night to a tournament we were both going to be playing in.  But when he gave it to me, sure enough, it wasn’t my shaft again – it looked like a pretty low-quality knock-off job.  In fact, it looked exactly like the one I had already given back to him.  I gave it back to him (again) and told him I wanted my shaft back.  He promised that if necessary, he would order me a new one from the manufacturer and it would be in hand in a couple more weeks.  
That was two months ago.  Given the busy season of Easter I didn’t push the issue and call him again.  Not that it didn’t cross my mind.  But I had resolved to do so next week.  Which is why I was very surprised when I came in the office today to find a shaft in a sealed plastic bag.  He had dropped it off a day or two earlier but hadn’t called to let me know.  
I could be really irritated that it has taken four months to get this resolved – and I am.  I could be frustrated at the lack of professionalism – and I am.  I could also be very skeptical about whether or not this is an actual quality replacement part for my shaft or not – and I am.  It’s sealed in a bag, but I have no idea where it came from or even how to find out.  I could be very suspicious about it and assume that it’s a cheap shaft rather than a quality one, and I certainly am suspicious based on how the whole affair has been handled.
But what to do about it?  I’ve deliberately not talked about the issue with the guys on my pool team very much.  I’ve wanted to try and do the right thing by not bad-mouthing the guy for his lousy service.  I’m sure he likes to pick up business from the guys in the league, and until I knew for sure that he wasn’t going to make good on his promises, it wouldn’t be right to bad-mouth him.
I need to put the best construction on the situation.  Which means not bad-mouthing him.  Even though I’d like to.  It means assuming that (since there’s no danger or lives at risk) he has done what he said he would, and ordered a replacement shaft from the same manufacturer as the original shaft.  I have to assume this, and keep telling myself this, even if I don’t really believe it.  I have to act like I do, and pray that I come to a peace about it.
Which is not what I would like to do in this situation, but I want to put the best construction on the situation.  
But why bother?  What if Luther’s wrong about his particular interpretation of the Eighth Commandment?  To try and sort this out, I have to be able to determine what sort of resolution should be hoped for in this situation, recognizing that different situations may warrant different answers to this question.  
Instinctively, I want to be right.  I want an apology.  I want him to prove to me somehow that this shaft isn’t a piece of junk.  Yet at the same time I have to acknowledge that it isn’t possible for him to do this.  My trust in him has been destroyed.  He could show me a receipt and it wouldn’t prove anything.  Unless there’s some sort of serial number on the shaft that corresponds to the receipt (which I really doubt there would be!), I’ll always have this doubt.  So what to do about it?  If I can’t be right, if I can’t be vindicated, what other options do I have?
I could remain self-righteous about the situation, which is what I want to do.  I could complain to everyone and anyone I met in the league and warn them against doing business with this guy, which is what I want to do.  But is that fair?  Maybe it was an honest mistake.  And maybe he really has done what he said he would do.  I have no real way to know for sure.  What if my complaining was really bearing false witness against him?   Hard to be self-righteous while violating one of the Ten Commandments.
The other alternative is to take Luther’s interpretation.  Assume the best.  Put the best construction on the situation.  It doesn’t mean I necessarily have to do business with the guy again, and I doubt I will.  But it does mean that I should refrain from bad-mouthing him to others.  I can provide honest feedback about his timeliness.  But I should also be able to say that he did eventually do what he said he would.  What this solution provides is the possibility of restored relationship.  The possibility of looking this guy in the eye some day down the road and not being mad or hurt or anything.  The possibility that I’ll be able to shake his hand and look him in the eye and say Good to see you again.  That seems like a pretty good goal.  
Certainly, if this were a life-or-death situation, I’d need to be a lot more careful about how to put the best construction on something.  You don’t allow someone to get away with something dangerous to themselves or others for the sake of best construction.  There are times when we need to err on the side of possibly bearing false witness, because the alternatives are far worse.  
But if I’m honest with myself, this is rarely the case.  In which case, I have to try and put the best construction on the situation.  Not because I want to (I don’t).  Not because he necessarily even deserves it.  But because as near as I can tell, it’s the right thing to do, and the best way to remain faithful to the Eighth Commandment.  
Applied theology is very often no fun at all!

11 Responses to “Case Study: The Best Construction”

  1. Gary Says:

    “. . . in vain do they worship me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” You leave the commandment of God and hold to the tradition of men.
    Mark 7:7-8 ESV

    Luther went way overboard interpreting the 8th commandment the way he did. And you, in turn, appear to be over-interpreting Luther.

    The 8th commandment forbids falsely claiming to know or not to know something, which claim would have the effect of bringing another to harm. It doesn’t forbid all false speech. For instance it doesn’t forbid deceiving someone who has no right to the information they seek from you and who you suspect may plan to use the truth to harm your innocent “neighbor”–Kant’s famous “murderer at the door” scenario. And it certainly doesn’t enjoin us to always assume that other human beings only choose the best actions and act on the best intentions whenever we ourselves aren’t watching them.

    Regardless of your well-meaning desire to find an interpretation of the story where “he did eventually do what he said he would,” and where nobody’s feelings have to be hurt, the truth is he did not do what he said he would. He said he would repair your original shaft, which never happened. In fact if I understand your story correctly, you never saw that original again. By not sharing the facts of your interaction with this man with the rest of your league, you would be implicitly endorsing his work. This in turn could bring others in the league to preventable undeserved harm.

    Imagine there is a shy person in your league knows your reputation as a guy who cares about using the best equipment, and this person also happens to know that you have done business with with the cue shaft repair man in question. Such a person might, without consulting you first, go to your repair guy, and wind up even worse off than you are now. A less self-assured person might not even have the courage to point out that the item received was not the original. All because they reasonably figured, “Paul Nelson wouldn’t go to this guy if he weren’t legit.”

    By your reluctance to share the facts of your story with potentially interested parties, you go even farther that Luther intended. And Luther himself (albeit quite high-mindedly) added to the text of the 8th Commandment. He added very well-meaning, very pious content to the text. But he added an injunction to the scriptures that the scriptures themselves don’t contain.

    If Luther’s overreach, combined with your over-eagerness to follow the interpretation found in the Catechism rather than the scriptural text itself, were to help bring an innocent third party to harm, you and Martin Luther would have unwittingly conspired to reprise the role of the Pharisees in Mark 7.

    For further meditation upon how the Confessions themselves and Lutheran veneration of them does violence to the teaching of scripture, give this a read:

  2. Paul Nelson Says:

    Thanks for the response, Gary.  Plenty to think about here!  The article you linked to was helpful as well.  Yes, we must always recognize that Lutheran Confessional documents do not hold the same inerrant status as Scripture, and therefore we must treat them respectfully, but critically as well.  I’ll also note that the article you reference doesn’t specifically take issue with Luther’s interpretations of the Commandments, and we are still in the habit of teaching Luther’s explanations as acceptable.  This in and of itself does not ensure that we are right, as the Markan quote you start with is a necessary reminder of.  But it may mean that we have a difference of Christian opinion as to how helpful Luther’s interpretations are.

    I’ll respond at more length later – I have to run to a meeting at the moment but wanted to make sure your comment was acknowledged & posted.

  3. Paul Nelson Says:

    I’m going to respond to this somewhat piece-meal due to time constraints.  

    I like the Mark quote.  I’m assuming Jesus knows what He’s talking about, though whether what He is warning about in these verses is what I (or you!) are doing remains to be seen.  

    I don’t know if I agree with you or not about Luther going overboard.  He may well have, but if so, in a way that Lutherans 500 years later continue to see fit to instruct catechumens in.  Does this mean Luther (or Lutherans today) are right in doing so?  Not necessarily.  All it says to me is that the issue is probably not as clear-cut as you make it out to be.  

    Does the Eighth commandment forbid lying?  This is an interesting question, and one that I’ve wondered about more than once.  Lying doesn’t have a specific commandment dealing with it, though by extension (perhaps over-extension?) I think that the Eighth, Fourth, Fifth, and Seventh commandments could all be brought to bear in different ways.  Whether that is warranted or not is another matter.  If not one of the Ten Commandments, the overwhelming anecdotal Christian understanding seems to be that lying is wrong.  Avoiding lying is what we should strive towards.  Whether ‘polite’ lies (Does this dress make me look fat?) count towards this is always a matter of debate.  But few Christians seem to have an issue with the idea that dishonesty is wrong.  

    Bearing false witness against a neighbor clearly is a matter of lying.  It implies a willful fabrication or alteration of truth to portray your neighbor in a negative light.  It doesn’t specifically indicate not speaking the truth when you know it, though I think most folks would say that this indeed could be tantamount to bearing false witness.  I agree that it doesn’t necessarily address all false speech – though it’s certainly a smaller cross-section of speech that doesn’t involve someone else.

    Going into a full exploration of Kant’s philosophy of categorical imperatives is pretty huge here, and I don’t think it a wise tangent.  The better and more relevant approach would be to ask whether Scripture seems to approve of deception/lying under certain circumstances or not.  Not whether or not Scripture describes deception occurring – it certainly does that since it deals with human beings.  But does it actually say that lying is permissible under certain circumstances?  That’s a trickier question.  Your second assertion of assuming only the best of persons’ actions and intentions when we aren’t watching is more at the heart of my particular application of putting the best construction on everything.  

    He did not return my original shaft, true.  But his proposed – and my accepted – solution to this after the fact was to order me a new one.  Do I wish he had repaired and returned my original one?  Of course.  But he didn’t.  And to explain this fact, I have to make a decision on how to interpret the events.  Did he deliberately lie to me and say he was going to do one thing when he intended all along to do something else?  I have no idea.  Did he deliberately attempt to give me the wrong shaft back, hoping I wouldn’t notice?  Perhaps.  Can I know this?  No, I can’t.  

    What could explain this?  Poor organizational skills.  Panic.  Poor eyesight.  Unforeseen personal problems.  Any number of things, frankly.  Could he be inherently dishonest, lying to me from the start as part of a master plan to obtain my 20-year old cue shaft?  Sure.  Can I prove that?  No.  Should I attempt to?  That’s the question at hand, as I see it.  

    I could believe that he intentionally lied to me repeatedly.  Does this solve anything?  No.  It’s quite possible that he just isn’t very organized, since he does this in his spare time.  Is disorganization unprofessional?  Sure.  And as I mentioned originally, do I need to put my trust in him again?  No.  But should I represent his actions to others as intentional falsehood?  I don’t think so.  And I reach that conclusion both by Luther’s explanation and the general ‘feel’ of what it means to be a good neighbor to this guy.  

    That doesn’t mean that if someone asks me my opinion of his services, I can’t describe what happened – I didn’t get my shaft back, it took four months for the situation to be somewhat resolved, and that I’m not particularly happy with the service I received.  But I don’t – and shouldn’t – represent him as intentionally dishonest.  Not without more information to go on than what I have.  How I am a good neighbor to the person who inquires about my satisfaction with his services is another issue and situation.  

    I’ll stop there before dealing with the issue of implicit endorsement.  That seems to be a huge kettle of fish if applied on a regular basis.  Thoughts so far?


  4. Paul Nelson Says:

    It was interesting (ironic?  God thing?) – today at our Circuit Pastor’s meeting we had a gentleman from Ambassadors of Reconciliation, a Lutheran peace-making group (one of their founders visited with us at the communal house in St. Louis, remember?) do a brief presentation on the basic principles their group works with, including various responses to conflict ranging from extremely unhealthy to healthy.  It was a good refresher on the material that I trained in about four years ago up in Seattle with Peacemakers.  It hadn’t come to mind in the discussion here, but there’s some good stuff to think through (a Lutheran perspective that isn’t specifically from Luther directly).  

    I left off last night on your assertion that my decision to utilize this guy, coupled with a decision on my part not to spread word of how things worked (or didn’t work) with “the rest of your (my) league”, I would be implicitly endorsing his work, and leading others to harm if they decided to trust this guy simply based on knowing that I have utilized him.  That’s a big can of worms, to say the least.  Particularly given the very hazy nuances of the situation.  If anyone asks me if I was happy with his work, I can (and will) share that I wasn’t happy.  How far do I have to go with that?  How do I phrase it?  That is ripe area for putting the best construction on everything.  Do I accuse him of theft?  Do I assert that he is unscrupulous?  Do I simply describe the interactions that have resulted in me not receiving my shaft back?  How I go about sharing my experience honestly is where a great deal of construction gets done.  

    You assert is that I am obligated to tell everyone I meet in the league how unhappy I am with this guy’s work.  That seems bordering on breaking even the strictest interpretation of the Eighth commandment, and not just Luther’s spin on it.  Obviously I don’t want to sugar-coat things if someone specifically asks me my opinion of this guy’s work (including this guy himself).  I want to be honest, but I don’t have the right to speak more than what I know (based on the definition you started with).  

    So I agree with one of your points – that our Confessional documents are guides and are not to replace Scripture.  But I maintain that part of their guiding value is to challenge us, to allow the hard words of Scripture to challenge us.  Words that insist that being right or self-justification is not the goal of human relationships.  Words that remind us that at times it is better to suffer injury than to risk injuring the name of Christ (1Corinthians 6:1-11 comes to mind, though I acknowledge that this passage is specific to interactions between Christians.  I think there are some applications that extend beyond this context though, if tenuously).  

    At the end of the day, I can’t think of a purely Scriptural source that would justify me spreading potentially harmful words about this guy around to anyone and everyone, to protect myself against possibly being held responsible somehow by  my silence.  But I’d be open to references from Scripture that you can think of.  I certainly don’t want to fall into the guilt of the Pharisees in Mark 7!

  5. Gary Says:

    Paul, I apologize for taking so long to reply. Believe me that this conversation has been on my mind daily since I first read your post. Only now do I find myself with the time and inclination to address your rebuttal with the careful consideration it deserves.

    I’ll start at the third paragraph of your second reply and try to respond to you sequentially, thought-by-thought, paragraph-by-paragraph:

    The fact that Lutherans over the years haven’t found fault with Luther’s catechism by no means suggests to me that the issue is any less clear-cut than I have made it out to be. Lutherans, by definition, treat Luther’s catechisms and the other Lutheran symbols with a level of reverence others rightly reserve for Holy Writ itself. Were they to demote them even slightly they would cease to be Lutherans. This tells us nothing whatever about the exegetical accuracy of the Confessions, only that Lutherans, as such, refuse to question their accuracy–a form of begging the question.

    I’ll grant that historically the overwhelming majority of Christian literature assumes that the 8th commandment (using the Lutheran enumeration) forbids lying outright. I submit that this assumption is one of convenience, perhaps borne of the fact that it is easier to get our children to always tell us the truth if we dispense with a more nuanced interpretation of the commandment and just tell them that God is against lying, at all times and under any and all circumstances. While perhaps effective for pedagogical purposes, this method runs us hard up against the scriptural praise Rahab receives for doing just that–lying, lying to the divinely appointed authorities no less.

    (Preceding paragraph covers paragraphs 4 and 5 of your 2nd reply.)

    I agree with you that the subject at hand is addressed only tangentially, if that, by the Kantian categorical imperative. I only mentioned Kant by way of introducing a familiar example wherein I believe lying is the only scripturally sanctioned action. Perhaps skipping Kant and going straight to Rahab would have been a wiser tack.

    In encouraging you to share the truth of the interaction with potentially interested parties, I certainly didn’t mean that you should speculate as to the motives of the man or interpret the facts in a way that supposes access to knowledge which you clearly don’t have. I only meant to show that your adherence to Luther’s “best construction” clause was ironically motivating you to withhold truth from people who may need access to it in order to avoid potential harm. This outcome would serve to undermine the spirit of the 8th commandment (that innocent people deserve the benefit of the truth and we have a duty not to deny them said benefit.)

    (Preceding paragraph also addresses your 8th paragraph and most of paragraph 9.)

    Regarding your admirable and clearly scriptural desire to “be a good neighbor to this guy,” again Luther’s interloping is having the ironic effect of perverting the effect of your

  6. Gary Says:

    Somehow (and you are by no means alone in this error) your desire to fulfill Luther’s embellishment of the 8th commandment has put you in a mindset to show extra Christian love and mercy to the person who seems most at fault in this case. Unfortunately this good impulse comes at the expense of others who are not at fault at all. Of course we are to be good neighbors to all, even to those who do us harm. But does this mean that those who do us harm automatically jump straight to the top of the list of people deserving our neighborly consideration? What about those who have done us no wrong at all yet from whom we feel compelled to hide the ugly truth of another’s actions? When and how will we get around to being good neighbors to them?

    Does the 8th commandment mean that we should wait until they come to us asking whether a certain “neighbor” is trustworthy? As I pointed out earlier, they may never find the courage to do so. In fact, if they are operating under the same unreasonable onus that Luther places on all Christians to “put the best construction on everything” they might intentionally avoid asking such questions for fear of breaking the 8th commandment. (If you think that this is starting to get silly, I don’t disagree. Such silliness is but one of the absurd consequences we reap when we imbue the scriptures with meaning that can’t be reasonably derived from the text itself.)

    Moving on to your third reply to my comment, beginning with paragraph 1:

    I remember vividly our conversation with Ted Kober of Ambassadors of Reconcilliation that evening. To this day that group’s mission strikes me as being as close to the heart of the gospel as anything any Christian group has attempted to live out.

    To the question: “how far do I have to go with that?” I say you don’t HAVE TO go anywhere with that. There is nothing in the 8th commandment (or any other that I’m aware of) that enjoins you to go about spreading the word of what a disappointing interaction you had with this guy. I merely want to posit that Luther’s idea that the 8th commandment actually forbids you going about telling the TRUTH about your experience just because that truth happens to be unflattering to someone else is rubbish.

    Again, I did not assert that by the 8th commandment you are obligated to DO anything. On the contrary, Martin Luther did that. He took a commandment that PROHIBITED doing something (lying to harm a neighbor) and turned it into a commandment that REQUIRED ALWAYS doing something (putting the “best construction” on everything). In doing so Luther took a rule that God had defined quite narrowly, in effect saying, “You offend Me whenever you claim to have witnessed something you have not witnessed in order to hurt someone else,” and broadened it into a rule that we all violate regularly whenever our account of an occurrence does not paint the rosiest picture possible of every individual involved, regardless of the truthfulness of our testimony.

  7. Gary Says:

    Put another way, Luther took a commandment we could only violate by commission and made it one we constantly violate by omission. The 8th commandment, in Luther’s hands, joins that group of rules that we are continuously breaking whenever we are not ACTIVELY doing something. Any time we find ourselves resting from the act of putting the best construction on SOMETHING we are technically violating Luther’s 8th commandment. No, I don’t really believe that this is what Luther meant in his explanation, but neither do I think it’s mere chance that delivers us a list of immanently doable instructions in the Decalogue. Contrast Luther’s 8th which technically forbids sleep as one who is sleeping is not out putting the best construction on something. Again, silly? yes, but this is silliness that can be avoided by letting God speak for Himself in the scriptures and by refusing to put words (or meanings) in His mouth. God knows full well just how silly and persnickety human beings can be. Knowing His rules would be used as the basis of both religious and civil law down through the centuries and handled by legalists, pedants, and other nit-pickers; in the Decalogue God was careful only to give commandments which could technically be obeyed by everyone all the time. If this were an “Obeyable Commandment Writing Contest” I’d have the score: God 10, Luther 0.On the other hand, your insistence that one is only duty-bound to share the truth when it is specifically asked of him/her, while perhaps fulfilling the letter of “Do not bear false witness against your neighbor,” certainly violates its spirit (which means to provide access to the truth to those who would justly benefit from it being made known.) At this point one might become curious whether obedience to Luther’s interpretation isn’t in the end a convenient cover for dereliction of duty. It is easier by far to hide behind the Catechism when our duty to our neighbors may be urging us to make a big ugly public mess–one that we would much rather avoid. To be clear, when I say “duty” I don’t mean duty as defined by any of the Ten Commandments. I mean the duty to “do unto others as you would have them do” and to “be a good neighbor”.Moving on, when you say, “But I maintain that part of their guiding value is to challenge us, to allow the hard words of Scripture to challenge us,” (I’ve lost count of the paragraphs at this point, sorry.) I wonder why the scriptures need the help of the Confessions in order to issue us a proper challenge. Don’t the words of scripture themselves suffice? Anyone can add meanings to the scriptures that the texts themselves don’t convey. How arrogant are we Lutherans to bind ourselves to the extra-scriptural teachings of men and tell ourselves that by doing so we are somehow being better Christians than were we to merely obey the scriptures as written?

  8. Paul Nelson Says:

    Thanks for the responses, Gary.  I knew you’d be getting back to me – one of the things that I appreciate about our relationship.  Neither of us can bear to let someone else have the last word  

    Agreed – just because Luther said it and we are Lutherans doesn’t mean he’s right – something we readily admit about some of his more polemic and vitriolic statements.  I trust that at some point in eternity, likely over beers, he will literally kick my ass for disagreeing with him.  Somehow, my idea of heaven includes the idea that we’ll be able to get into knock-down-drag-out-fist-fights-or-German-MMA-style-pub-brawls and get up still brothers (and/or sisters) in Christ.  It’s not something I preach on from the pulpit, but there you go.

    In any event, tradition doesn’t make it right – agreed.  Luther had a few things to say about that himself, so it’s ironic that we have to clear that consideration still today!  

    Rahab’s situation is an interesting one.  She lies for self-preservation reasons, without a doubt.  Yet at the same time, God is at work.  Do we have in Rahab a situation where the admonitions we have to civil authorities a la Romans 13 are suspended because the civil authorities are actually acting contrary to the revealed will of God?  It’s easy for me to read Joshua 2:8-14 as so much self-serving rhetoric.  But might it  convey to the hearer that the fear of God that the inhabitants of Jericho felt was from their recognition that they were standing opposed to his will?  In other words, if the populace knew about this God and his people, why would they be afraid of him and his people, unless they knew that by remaining in their walled city rather than leaving it, they were placing themselves in opposition to him?  

    Granted, that’s a pretty curious interpretation.  But the context is interesting.  Rahab claims not simply to be saving her own skin – and she’s putting her skin at risk by lying to the authorities.  She’s claiming that the Israelite God and his people are common knowledge and there is great fear of them.  Did God give the inhabitants of Jericho clear warning to leave the city, a warning which they did not heed?  Beats me – but it’s a fascinating conjecture to take us further afield!  In any event, Rahab’s lying is placed in the context of actually being faithful to God’s plan.  Rahab – and all her fellow-citizens – had very good reason to fear that God would destroy their city for his people.  Yet only Rahab – in faith – is willing to act on that knowledge.  The revelation of God creates faith in her which she acts on when none of her fellow-citizens would.  Curiouser and curiouser.

    None of which addresses the issue of lying.  Was her lying justified because she was lying for God?  That’s an idea that still sits poorly with me.  Is that because of my upbringing, because of Christian cultural norms that make lying under any circumstance sinful, when really only lying under certain circumstances is sinful?  That’s certainly thought-provoking (and your response has had me thinking for the past couple of weeks as well!).  Is her dishonesty to be commended, or the larger picture of her protection of God’s people?  

    Hebrews 11:31 praises Rahab for her friendly welcome of God’s people, not her dishonesty.  James 2:25 commends her for “receiving” God’s people, and then for “sending them out by another way”.  It is not the particular act of dishonesty that she is ever commended for.  Much as Scripture ignores her profession (which was obviously not approved of), are we to read similar non-approval into Scripture’s ignoring (after the fact) of her dishonesty?  Was the dishonesty actually sinful, though she saw it as the only way to save the spies’ lives, and therefore the lives of herself and her family?  

    Since we’re clear that Rahab is not praised specifically for her lying, are there other examples in Scripture that are?  

    I think part of your first response also got cut off – there is a character limit for comments!

    I think the larger part of our contention however is perhaps a misunderstanding of my intended actions going forward.  Putting the best construction on everything in my mind means that in my thinking of this individual and his handling of the situation, I’m going to make up my mind not to be bitter and angry over the situation.  I won’t do business with this guy again.  I won’t encourage others to.  I’ll speak honestly about my experience and unhappiness overall with how things were handled.  But the best construction comes from how I choose to interpret his actions and the situation as a whole.  

    I can choose to presume malice or dishonesty on his part, but I have no basis for doing so other than the fact that he did not do what he promised initially.  I can choose to be hurt and offended and angered and bitter – but this doesn’t seem like a response in line with Scriptural admonitions towards forgiveness.  

    My other option (are there others?) is to put the best construction on it.  Maybe he was having a rough couple of months.  Maybe he got mixed up on his orders and then made some bad decisions to try and cover his rear.  I can choose to acknowledge that his service was sub-par, to say the least, but to leave it at that.  I don’t need to go after this guy.  I don’t need to press my claims against him.  I don’t need to malign him to others.  If the topic comes up, I’m not going to lie and make him out to be a better business person than I’ve experienced him to be, but I don’t need to let the issue fester inside of me, either.  

  9. Paul Nelson Says:

    Are the Commandments doable by everybody?  St. Paul seems to believe not.  Jesus in Matthew 5 draws the issue much more deeply than the Jews had learned to interpret the Decalogue.  They were confident that they could follow the law perfectly, inasmuch as they did not commit these sins physically.  Jesus makes it clear that the law applies not only to the members of their bodies, but to their hearts and minds as well.  

    The Commandments are obeyable intermittently and imperfectly.  There are times when I am not angry at my neighbors, but there are times when I am.  I may quickly subdue my anger and I should, but I have already sinned.  I can stifle lustful or covetous thoughts, but the fact that they were there in the first place is already sin.  I would suggest that the Commandments are not so easily separated into easy-to-obey Decalogue and impossible-to-obey Luther.  I see Luther doing something similar to what Jesus did – showing us just how deeply our sinfulness goes.  And as for creating a continual sin-of-omission situation, Luther (according to your logic, which you admit, I accept, and we both agree is being hyperbolic for the purpose of demonstrating a logical progression) plays a distant second fiddle to Jesus himself, who admonishes us to love our neighbor as ourselves.  If sleeping can absurdly be seen as violating Luther’s admonitions to best-construction-putting, certainly sleeping is violating Christ’s command to be always loving our neighbor?  

    Since we both would agree that these conclusions are ludicrous and unfaithful, the logic leading us to them is undoubtedly flawed.

    Regarding your application of the Golden Rule, I don’t expect to hear every time someone has a bad experience with someone else.  Facebook allows me this experience all-too-often.  My opinion of the people who have nothing good to say about anyone else is not that they are exercising their duty to love me as their neighbor.  I believe they are bitter and spiteful and damaged people.  I’m quite positive that Scripture as a whole leads us far more towards putting the best construction on everything than it does towards broadcasting our frustrations continually.  

    Again, I’m not suggesting that I misrepresent this man’s interactions with me.  Lying on his behalf would be no better than complaining unduly about him.  I believe Luther’s putting the best construction on everything has more to do with my mindset.  I can dwell on how I’ve been harmed, and if I do that, my bitterness will find it’s way to expression quite readily in how I think and speak of this man.  If I decide that while I’ve been harmed, it was not necessarily intentional, then I am free to forgive him and to move on.  When someone asks me about his services, I can tell them I wasn’t very satisfied and that I’d be reluctant to trust him with my stuff again.  But I hopefully won’t feel the need to add any additional character-jabs or other unkind statements.  Just the facts, ma’am.

    As for letting Scripture speak for itself, huzzah!  However, we can say that only after acknowledging that such an exercise is, quite literally, impossible.  Because how we hear Scripture speaking to us is conditioned to a great extent by ourselves.  I interpret Scripture automatically as I read it.  I interpret it based on my experiences and background and education.  I have my own internal set of Confessions and creeds that would interpret Scripture for me without me ever even realizing it.  Thus, the usefulness of external Confessions and Creeds, formulated intentionally and more importantly, communally, as expressions and distillations of essential Scriptural truths.   These external Confessions and Creeds call me to conform my internal confessions and creeds, to suspect myself of error and bias and misinterpretation (while admitting that the external Creeds and Confessions could be guilty of this as well).  

    This is the arrogance behind the American heresies regarding Scripture and the faith.  Heresies that insist on reading Scripture as a promise for my personal and temporal happiness and joy, rather than eternal.  Heresies that insist that if I don’t like something Scripture says, I don’t have to pay attention to it.  Heresies that insist that I am the final arbiter (by the direct inspiration of the Holy Spirit, no less!) of the meaning of Scripture.  

    To combat these heresies, I seek to rely not on just my ideas, my interpretations, my understandings of Scripture, but on the overall corpus of faith and experience in the Church going back 2000 years.  These things as passed down to me in writings and teachings and confessions and creeds are not Scripture itself, but they convey to me how centuries of Christians have understood Scripture.  Therefore, if I come up with an interpretation that contradicts this long history of faithfulness, it doesn’t mean that I’m not right, but it means that I really need to carefully think over my position.  Centuries of very faithful and very intelligent men and women have crafted and defended and expounded upon Scripture through confessions and creeds.  If I believe myself to be so enlightened as to do without these things, I ultimately put myself (and anyone who listens to me!) in very great danger.  

    So while I can certainly agree that we could take Luther too far (absurdly), we can also take Jesus too far (absurdly), while at the same time suspecting that Jesus, and perhaps Luther, intend to take us farther than we reasonably expect.  Loving my neighbor(s) is ultimately the goal, but it looks different from neighbor to neighbor.  I appreciate your concern for my neighbors who may – without me knowing it – use my actions as a guide for their own decisions.  I would be curious as to how you think I would better serve my neighbors in this situation.  How do I prevent someone from making assumptions about my decisions?  Am I morally culpable for their assumptions?  How I prevent them?  Can I prevent them?

    Looking forward to more thoughts!

  10. Gary Says:

    Headline could read, “Henry Gribbohm loses his shirt (but keeps his wife-beater) and proceeds to violate the 8th commandment by reporting his suspicions to the police.”

  11. Paul Nelson Says:

    I saw your link to this on Facebook and chuckled.  I had to double-check to make sure that it wasn’t from The Onion, because it sure sounded like it.  

    I’m not entirely sure how this relates to our discussion.  The fact that this guy is probably not the sharpest knife in the drawer complicates the discussion somewhat, as I’m rather loathe to speculate on his train of thought.  He got a banana and $600 back out of the deal.  Does this prompt him to believe they carnie is trying to hide something and therefore he reports him?  Would the carnie’s innocence have been better demonstrated by a lack of mercy in refunding the guy some of his money?  Should the carnie have stopped the guy from ever losing that sort of money?  Who is being a good neighbor to whom?  

    I’d rather just repent for laughing at this guy than try to extrapolate Eighth Commandment violations!

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