Are Assumptions Leading You Towards Devastation?

Aug 15, 2022

It’s funny what sticks in your mind. I don’t recall many details from the classes I took in high school with Mr. Ross, but I do remember three items. 1) The stories he told about liberating a concentration camp in World War II as a soldier in the military. 2) His gracious agreeing to be my sponsor for a self-directed psychology class as my small high school didn’t offer this subject. 3) Telling the class there was a reason the first three letters of “assume” were fitting. To his credit, he also nurtured a love and appreciation for history, which also remains intact.

Assumptions may be one of humankind’s deadliest traits.

Assumptions may be driving you towards devastation.

In health care, diagnoses are decided, and medications are dispensed with undefined assumptions factoring in as much (or more) as lab results and physical examinations. Outcomes can be lethal.

In education, test scores and behavioral observations provide just enough information for a label, whether formal or informal, to be stuck onto a student. Assumptions are made but seldom articulated. Results can influence the remainder of one’s life.

In business, politics, churches, families, friendships, and every human interaction, assumptions exist. And often with devastating consequences.

It’s impossible to live without assumptions. I assume the driver next to me isn’t going to swerve into my lane. I assume the iced tea passed to me by the server isn’t poisoned. I assume if I don’t file my tax return the IRS will not be happy and will not rest until they are.

But some assumptions lead to avoidable disasters.

In the Old Testament story of the Israelites, beginning in Joshua 22:9, we see this truth. After long periods of warfare, it was time for the tribes to embrace a settled life. All the fighting wasn’t finished, but the bulk of their time was to be invested in building homes, livelihoods, villages, and cities. Two and a half tribes had elected to remain on one side of the Jordan River while the other nine and a half were on the opposite bank.

The 2.5 group got busy building an altar. Today, altars, whether plain or ornate, are located indoors and serve one or two purposes: 1) A place to pray; 2) A table to hold elements of worship – incense, communion, holy water. In the Joshua account, altars were outside and constructed for burning sacrifices – animal and plant. They were sturdy, large, and weatherproof. Symbolic and practical. They weren’t just today’s equivalent of a photo backdrop; they centered the people spiritually.

The 9.5 group heard about this altar-building and were, literally, up in arms. The people amass, weapons in hand, and storm off to the Jordan River. Phineas, son of a priest, accompanied by ten leaders – one from each of the 9.5 tribes, confronts the altar-building rebels. “Why have you decided to turn away from God and build this monstrosity? You’re going to bring judgment on all of us!” They recount two true stories to support their outrage.

(Note: Assumptions are nearly always supported by past examples.)

Do you hear the assumptions? The question wasn’t, “Uh, would you please explain why y’all are building this altar?” It was “You’ve turned away from God!” The altar wasn’t even finished but the conclusion was.

Do you hear the concern? “We’re going to suffer God’s punishment because of your decisions! That’s not fair! We’re not going to let that happen!” And they weren’t. They weren’t prepared to just destroy the altar but the people. Blood would cover the ground, not just stones.

To be fair, the 9.5 side had a legitimate concern. They were justified in needing to clarify what was happening. The problem wasn’t their inquiry; it was the assumptions mixed into it.

Not surprisingly, fear had cemented assumptions into the 2.5 side’s altar-building enterprise.

Fear and assumptions often hang out together, inciting each other to increasing levels of paranoia and arrogance, charting a course of devastation.

The 2.5 group responded by saying they’d peered into the future and saw the day when the tribes on the opposite bank would say, “Y’all aren’t part of us. You don’t have any right to worship our God. Then our descendants will stop following God. We’re afraid that’s going to happen, so we’re being proactive. We’re building this altar so it will stand for generations as a physical proclamation ‘We have the same rights to worship God as you.’”

The 9.5 leaders calmed down after hearing the explanation and said, “Oh, okay. That makes sense. Good to know.” And the weapon-toting congregation returned home, grateful they could bury their hatchets rather than each other.

“All’s well that ends well” isn’t necessarily true. Much angst would have been spared had people not made assumptions in the beginning.

The 2 ½ tribes could have sent representatives to the other tribes expressing their concerns and proposed solution. Even if they failed to do this, the 9 ½ tribes could have sent a delegation asking what the purpose of the altar was rather than instilling fear in the entire populace and wasting everyone’s time.

A lot of anger and despair could have been avoided had inquiries been made rather than assumptions.

There was nothing inherently wrong with building the altar; it was why (fear) and how (with assumptions) that it became a problem. There was nothing wrong with the others wanting to know what the altar’s purpose was; it was moving from a need-to-know to assuming-to-know which nearly led to bloodshed.

What might be a legitimate concern or activity of yours that’s motivated by fear or assumptions? You can replace the first three letters of “assume” with these: “ask.”


©Stephanie D. Smith


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