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When our oldest daughter was three-years-old, she was into Blue’s Clues, the thirty-minute television show about a dog that left blue paw prints as clues. If the viewer found three blue paw print clues during the show, it would lead them to the solution. She loved that show as she sat and watched with her handy-dandy notebook. This show taught her many things, one of which was what a paw print is.
Part of how a child learns is through mutual exclusivity: one label for a variety of items in one family. An example of this is if you showed a child a flathead screwdriver and said that it was a screwdriver. If you pulled a Phillips screwdriver from your pouch and showed it to the child, she would call it a screwdriver, too: one label for a variety of items in one family. She would not distinguish between a flathead or Phillips.
If you showed her a hammer, she would not call it a screwdriver because it’s from a different family of tools. But a screwdriver—or anything that looked like one, regardless of what the tip looked like, i.e., awl, would be a screwdriver from that point forward. When our children were toddlers, I told them that all liquid drinks were beer, so they requested a beer when they thirsted. My mother-in-law did not appreciate my twisted humor. Not sure why.
One evening Lucia, Tristen, and I were going out to eat at a Mexican restaurant. After pulling into our parking spot, Tristen started proclaiming loudly from the backseat that she saw a clue, a Blue’s Clue. I picked her up from the car seat and asked her where she saw a Blue’s Clue. She pointed to a black SUV that had a Clemson Tiger paw print on the back of it. The Blue’s Clue was orange.
The color of the paw print did not matter to her. Because children can only think through the narrow interpretive filter of mutual exclusivity, they will define similar varieties with one label. The facts of the matter were not powerful enough to change her presupposition, which gave her the interpretation; that all paw prints are Blue’s Clues no matter what color they are.
Though my kid story is cute, the ramifications of this truth are far-ranging and potentially detrimental if a person’s presupposition is not in line with God’s Word. Every person you know, including you, is subjective in how they look at the data. Nobody can look at the facts of something and interpret them objectively. Because our presuppositions can be all over the map, how we view similar things will be different.
Assigning a “one-size-fits-all label’ to something became acutely evident many years ago when I was counseling an abused middle-aged lady. The abuse happened three decades earlier. As she looked at my Bible, it reminded her of God the Father. Because of her traumatic childhood, she had already assigned a label to the word “father,” which gave her a horrific view of our heavenly Father.
I met an adopted young man who struggled with authority. He did not want anyone to tell him what to do because he, like my abused lady friend, had already assigned his presuppositional definition to the word father. His father was not there for him. When he was there, he was abusive. That was many years ago. His adoptive parents had to learn how the facts of his current rebellion were getting lost in his past interpretation of a father.
There was a young lady who married a man because she saw him as her protector. She never said it this way because it did not occur to her while dating him. It was only after her husband became an adulterer, which was evident during dating because of their mutual fornication. She never connected how he was during the dating season to what it could mean decades later. Her father was so mean to her that her presuppositional filter obscured the minor offenses of her boyfriend. She wanted something so badly that she could not see that she was going to marry a future adulterer.
You’re no different from my female counselee, teenage friend, or disillusioned wife. We all have a filter that colors how we interpret our friends and the world. This reality does not have to scare you, and it shouldn’t if you have access to the objective truth that keeps you balanced and practically functional. More on that later.
I was counseling a couple, and I wanted to prove my presuppositional theory. I placed my water cup before them and asked both of them to describe it. The wife said many things about my mug, including the aesthetics, chip on the rim, and so forth. The husband responded afterward by saying only one word: Arizona. The earth tones of the mug reminded him of the southwest United States.
Two people were looking at the same fact—my mug—but talking about it differently. Why does this matter? The people in your home, church, and world are just like this couple. The way they talk about wearing a face mask, racism, politics, and America flow out of the historic shaping influences in their lives. The upshot is that they will not see things the way you do.
Whether it’s your spouse, child, parent, church member, or political opponent, if you don’t understand this truth, you will talk past the person you should be trying to understand because proving your point is the only thing that matters. If this is true of you, then discerning others and potential reconciliation with them will never happen. Two people can have radically different interpretations of a particular situation and both can be right because it’s true to them.
A discerning spouse, family member, friend, or opponent will know this essential truth about epistemology, and it will position them to respond with competence, compassion, and courage. Knowing this truth does not mean you will agree with everyone or reconcile with someone who thinks differently. It does mean you will, minimally, be able to engage the differing viewpoints with the understanding that leads to meaningful solutions.
Your first goal is not to seek the truth but to pursue understanding. Do you know what the other person is saying and why they are saying it? Years ago, I asked a teenage girl why she loved God. She said, “I love God because He first loved me.” I told her to stop it—to cease parroting back her Sunday school answers. She was shocked because she thought that she should say what I expected. I was not interested in the truth but in her truth. It’s when you know why a person thinks the way they do that you will help them.
You will sabotage reconciliation opportunities when you blow by what a person genuinely believes by making so doggone sure you’ve punctuated the conversation with your view of the truth. The young teen was relieved to know that I was not interested in the truth but in her truth. I needed to know what she thought rather than playing her Christian game.
Imagine for a moment if I let her get away with her Sunday school answer. I would have left our counseling session thinking it was a victory for Jesus because she loved God. She would have left believing it was a waste, though she did pull one over on me. If the most vital thing to you is to communicate the truth at the front end of a conversation, you may never know what and why a person thinks the way they do.
Ultimately, your truth won’t stick because you have not understood the other person or helped them root out any untruth. What you will do is lay down a veneer of God’s truth on their version of the truth, which will create an entangled mess that will smother and kill His Word. If you were to lay the truth upon the rock of God’s Word, it would stay, and eventually, that person could build a surer structure. You cannot do this until you know them the right way.
Your first aim is to find out their truth. With my daughter, I needed to know what she was seeing, why she was interpreting it that way, and then decide if it was something to correct or overlook. I chose to smile and overlook it because it was not the time to expand her categories beyond her mutual exclusivity framework.
With the adopted teen struggling with authority and the middle-aged abused woman who had a skewed view of God the Father, there was long-term heavy lifting required. Their shaping influences had ensconced them into case-hardened thinking that was going to take time to unearth so we could lay that surer foundation. With my teenage Sunday school parrot friend, my goal was to release her from Christianeze, rote responses that permitted her to stiff-arm anyone who dared to find out her real truth—that she hated God.
When you talk to anyone, there will always be three truths: What you believe. What they believe. What God says about the matter. We can mess up any of these in many ways. Too often, Christians can be the worst about banging home the truth because they are so right. “Holding their opinions loosely” is a foreign concept for too many of us.
Your best shot at getting to the truth while helping another person is to make sure you’re balancing the four-fold means of grace that God gives us for thinking through disagreements. This teaching is a cornerstone of our Mastermind Program. I call it the four C’s.
The possibility of messing up any of these four means of grace is high. Humility is the foundation that will aid you in these communicative endeavors. The proud person who may know the truth is on a singular mission to make sure the hearer gets it. They do this without taking the time to discern how that person arrived at their truth. Sometimes you must deconstruct before you construct.
The irony is that no matter what we think we know, we only know it subjectively. Every human enters into every text of Scripture through a preexisting presupposition. I’m not saying that you can’t know the truth; I am saying if you don’t hold what you know in humility, the truth you do know may alienate others more than reconciling with them.
My daughter was not lying about the orange paw print that she told me was a Blue’s Clue. She was misinformed due to a limited understanding of how things work in her world. You, too, have illustrations of a child saying something that is not true, though it’s true to them. The key here is that lying is a motive of the heart. Lies come from a heart that desires to deceive. My daughter was not deceptive, though ignorant.
The rebellious teenage boy or middle-aged woman was not lying. They were misinformed. The Sunday school parroting teenage girl was lying because she was afraid of me getting too close. She used lying to hide genuine fear. If you’re impatient with folks or don’t love them like Jesus, you won’t take the time to dig into the possibilities of why they think the way they do.
Perhaps you don’t have the intellectual skillset to operate at the intricate levels of psychology—the study of the soul, according to God’s Word. It’s not fair to expect everyone to be proficient at understanding people in these ways. Minimally, you can do these few things.
Rick launched the Life Over Coffee global training network in 2008 to bring hope and help for you and others by creating resources that spark conversations for transformation. His primary responsibilities are resource creation and leadership development, which he does through speaking, writing, podcasting, and educating.
In 1990 he earned a BA in Theology and, in 1991, a BS in Education. In 1993, he received his ordination into Christian ministry, and in 2000 he graduated with an MA in Counseling from The Master’s University. In 2006 he was recognized as a Fellow of the Association of Certified Biblical Counselors (ACBC).