The Danger of Assuming

By: Tim Ritter

This is the second installment in our 5-part series, Wisdom for Charity. In our last post, we looked at how the drug epidemic can complicate charity to the homeless, even making it toxic, and therefore we must seek wisdom. It begged the question, do the consequences of our charity matter, or only our intentions? 

Paul may help. In Romans 13:10, he condenses the Ten Commandments into one rule by defining love, saying, “Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.”

The Law is to love. Love does no harm.

Consider the following allegory, adapted from Duane Elmer’s Cross-Cultural Connections: 

One day, a monkey wanders far from home and comes to the jungle’s edge for the first time. There he finds a beautiful meadow and stream. He’s never seen anything like it. Excited, he walks across the meadow and gazes into the water. To his surprise, he sees a strange animal flailing wildly beneath the surface. It is a fish, fighting against the current as it swims upstream. 

“This animal is in trouble,” thinks the monkey. “I should help.” 

Overcoming his fear of the water, he jumps in, grabs the fish with both hands, and wades to the bank. There, he lays the fish on the warm, dry sand to recover.

“I’ve done good,” thinks the monkey, leaving the strange creature to rest peacefully.

“I saved that poor little guy. He was struggling in there, but he’s okay now. He probably just needs a nap.” 

Pleased with himself, the monkey strolls triumphantly back into the jungle to share his heroic tale with the tribe.

What’s wrong here?

Well, we know a bit about fish. Fish breathe through water, not air. They don’t rest well on land. But our protagonist didn’t know this and made a big mistake. He didn’t help the fish. He killed it.

But he wasn’t cruel. He acted with good intentions, trying to help a stranger in need. In his mind, he was sacrificial, courageous, loving.

The issue isn’t the intention of the charity, but its effect. Good intentions don’t cut it. Loving well matters. Just ask the fish.

For wandering monkeys and Christians alike, charity means more than serving others with loving hearts. Love demands a certain level of aptitude. It requires the wisdom and willingness to know and do what is actually good for another.

The monkey, like us, meant to do no harm, so what caused his good deed to backfire?

Ignorance and assumptions.

The monkey was ignorant to the truth about fish. He didn’t know what hurts them or helps them or even what they are. Instead, instinctively, he made it up.

And while his ignorance made him unhelpful, his assuming made him dangerous.

Instead of admitting to the confusing newness of the stream and stopping to ask some crucial questions, he assumed answers. These false assumptions led to disaster.

The real tragedy of this allegory, however, is not just the fate of the fish, but what follows. The happy ending actually implies an epidemic.

Unaddressed and uncorrected, the monkey affirms himself and heads home blind to the damage he has done. And not only blind, but blinder, assured of false wisdom about their aquatic neighbors. Then, in sharing his side of the story, he will propagate the tragic misperception throughout the whole tribe. And those monkeys, strangers to fish themselves, will tragically come to celebrate the charitable business of pulling fish from water.

This illustration offers warning and wisdom. Our tendency to assume much and affirm ourselves can make charity tragic. It can even plague an entire culture of deed-doers. We must avoid this because charity, by nature, aims to be effective. Consequences matter. Love does no harm. Charity that isn’t actually loving is, well, for the fishes.

If wisdom calls us to move beyond cheerful giving to effective loving, then we must listen and learn from those we seek to serve. We cannot love those we do not know. This is especially pertinent to cross-cultural ministry and challenges much of the American short-term mission culture, but it also pertains to our discussion on panhandlers. Wisdom points past dogmatic positions on aid and toward real-life relationship. Perhaps the next time you walk past a beggar, ask yourself, “Do I love this person enough to get to know them?” If the answer is ‘no’, your charity may not be charity after all and runs the risk of toxicity. And if the answer is ‘yes’, well then forget the money. Give them your time. You may find that is what they really wanted all along.

-Peruse our schedule of blogs we will post every other Friday here & read our first post on the Panhandler Conundrum: Wisdom for Charity