“The one who states his case first seems right, until the other comes along and examines him.”
Solomon’s wisdom echoes through the ages. Many people think a book written almost 3,000 years ago cannot have anything to say to our technological age, but Proverbs feels especially relevant in our foolish age. Solomon’s words on money, words, work, marriage, and family cut through our foolish notions and reorient our hearts towards God’s wisdom. The proverbs often confront us in ways we would not anticipate. They force us to reevaluate our most-cherished habits and to repent of our deepest-held notions.
Proverbs 18:17 strikes at the heart of one of our culture’s favorite pastimes–engaging in confirmation bias. Confirmation bias causes us to evaluate stories in light of our preconceived notions about what is true. We hear a story, filter it through our preexisting grid, and develop a snap judgment about it without hearing the other side of the story.
Solomon’s words in Proverbs 18:17 force us to reevaluate this practice. Solomon agrees that the first side of the story always sounds right, especially when it reinforces what we already believe to be true. However, he also said that the case falls apart when another person examines him. The story that seemed so juicy when we first heard it often loses its luster when the rest of the story comes into view.
A Case Study
A few weeks ago, a conservative Christian speaker drew attention when she said she had been disinvited from a speaking engagement at Cornell University because of her biblical views on marriage. The Cornell Political Union scheduled Jannique Stewart to speak on abortion as a “moral wrong.” As with other CPU events, Stewart would speak for 30 minutes and put forward her position before a Q&A with the audience. Then, the audience would have a debate and vote on where they stood on the issue.
Everything seemed fine until Stewart says a representative from the CPU called her to say they would not allow her to speak because of her views on sexuality and marriage. (She believes sex should be reserved for marriage and that marriage should be between a man and a woman.) In her Facebook post detailing the cancellation, she accused the CPU of saying that having her on campus would be “tantamount to allowing a racist to speak who held pro-slavery and pro-holocaust views.”
The response to her announcement was swift. FoxNews personality Todd Starnes hosted her on his radio show to talk about the controversy. Robert P. George, McCormick Professor of Jurisprudence at Princeton University, jumped into the controversy, saying it further cemented the left’s legacy of branding everyone who disagrees with them as a hater and a bigot. He also said, “Evidently, no Catholic, Evangelical Protestant, Eastern Orthodox Christian, Orthodox Jew, or Muslim, who believes what his or her faith tradition teaches about sex and marriage is permitted to engage in debate at the Cornell Political Union.”
Most conservative evangelicals would agree. We see our faith and moral commitments under assault from some of the highest levels of American life, particularly at the University level, so any story we hear that smacks of bias against Christians confirms what we already know to be true. We buy the story hook, line, and sinker without taking the time to investigate further.
In addition, CPU President John Baker said that the canceled her appearance because of security concerns. He said, “We had discovered information [about] her past advocacy activities that could potentially lead to a situation in which the security of our members was jeopardized. And to prevent security risks we would have had to be able to afford security and that’s not something we’re able to afford at this time.”
Here we have a classic example of two people telling two completely different stories. Ms. Stewart says she was disinvited because of her views on marriage and the CPU claims that has nothing to do with her cancellation. I don’t know Jannique Stewart and have never heard her speak, nor do I know anyone affiliated with the Cornell Political Union, so I cannot testify to either’s character or integrity. I do not know who is telling the truth and who is not.
Confirmation bias causes us to take sides in stories like this because one side of the story fits our preexisting narrative about the world. This is especially true in our social media culture, where we tend to develop strong opinions based on incomplete or inaccurate information. Then, we share these stories based on incomplete or inaccurate information and they spread to other people, causing them to take sides without enough information. If you believe that Christians are persecuted by colleges, you will be tempted to believe the story despite evidence to the contrary. In fact, you will be tempted to believe the story without any further investigation.
Solomon’s words force us to learn a different way. Wisdom dictates that we listen to two sides of the story before we make up our minds. If we only hear one side of a story, we will likely believe stories that are either partially or completely untrue. If we are people who love Jesus, who is the truth, then we cannot abide believing and sharing an untruth.
Proverbs 18:17 forces us to stay silent until we know the truth. This means doing something counter-cultural in the social media era–don’t share stories or your opinion about a story until you have investigated its truthfulness. “This sounds true to me” is not enough. “I’ve heard of other stories like this” will not suffice. Allow the story to be cross-examined. Hear the other side of the story so clearly that you can articulate it yourself. Only then should you speak up and Solomon has plenty to say about how you do.
“Why Our Culture Needs a Strong Dose of Proverbs“
For Further Reading:
Proverbs by Ray Ortlund
God’s Wisdom for Navigating Life by Tim and Kathy Keller