Tag Archives: James 1:19

Generalisations, stupid & sensible

While at theological college I learned heaps. Mostly this was gradual and grain by grain. There were few ‘light bulb’ moments when a whole new thought clicked into place.

But I remember one light bulb experience.

It concerns generalisations. A fellow student, disgruntled for some trivial matter, shared his general view. “The trouble with all the rectors of Sydney is …”

What an insight this was for me – that a young student believed he had enough knowledge to generalise about well over 200 senior ministers. He knew! My flash of learning: what a stupid thing.

It’s not that generalisations are a problem. It’s that some generalisations are a problem. There are sensible generalisations and there are stupid generalisations. That day I decided I could not trust this student’s generalisations. But I immediately thought of a number of friends whose generalisations I trust.

generalisation T-shirtGeneralisation T-shirtI hear people make all sorts of general comments. They can be about men, women, single people, child-raising, churches, atheists, journalists, sports people, musicians, … I try to be careful, even wary. I want to know why do you say that?, how did you reach your that conclusion?

Many relationship issues arrive packaged as a generalisation. ‘My kids never listen.’ ‘My Bible study leader has a grudge against me.’ ‘My boss hates women.’ ‘My wife has no interest in sex.’

Church conflict shares the same packaging. ‘This church is not friendly.’ ‘No one trusts the pastor.’ ‘All the men are lazy.’ ‘The music team isn’t trying.’

What to do?
I suggest the best way to avoid stupid generalisations is to delay making sweeping statements. Before drawing wide-ranging conclusions, stay with the messy specific details. Listen first, speak later, and really delay anger (yes, it’s James 1:19).

Take the above example: ‘My kids never listen.’ That’s the generalisation – it’s one that can hurt both parent and child. The parent treats it as a universal truth, and might give up trying. The child will pick up what’s going on and likely conform to the expectation.

It’s usually more helpful to deal with specifics. Asking, ‘Why do you say that?’ might lead to: his room is still messy though I told him to clean up; during dinner I asked her about school but she didn’t really acknowledge me; it’s a busy month, so I need to make most of our time together, but it’s not working. Listen to the person, listen to the situation, listen to the details. There might then be a specific way to change.

Just this year I stumbled over the same idea expressed slightly differently. In The Fifth Discipline, Peter Senge warns against the ‘leap to abstraction’. With concrete evidence of short, impersonal staff meetings we might abstract a conclusion that the manager dislikes people. What we did not know is that she has a hearing problem made worse in group settings. Senge says to beware the leap to abstraction. Deal with the concrete as much as possible. Good advice.



Good-bad or good-better

You have a decision. You want to choose something good. But what will you call the option you don’t choose?

There are two ways of viewing this choice. Both are helpful, in the right place. I think one has come to dominate our thinking, unhelpfully. What I call good-bad thinking has taken over. I want to keep it, but also hold on to good-better thinking.


Good-bad thinking is just as the words suggest. We choose what is good, and what we reject is bad. I choose to drive at the speed limit (good!) – and choose not to fly through the red light (that would be bad).

Politics and election advertising communicates is always good-bad. Choose Party A, we’re good. Reject Party Z, they’re bad.

Unfortunately, the good-bad division has become a reflex way to think. It’s automatic. It’s so deeply-held that, when we say one thing, our listeners hear two things.

We say, ‘Evolution fails to explain all reality’ and people hear, ‘We reject science.’
We say, ‘Same-sex relationships are not marriage’ and people hear, ‘I hate gay people.’
We say, ‘Evangelism is of utmost importance’ and people hear, ‘Don’t bother caring for the poor.’
We say, ‘Don’t legalise euthanasia’ and people hear, ‘We don’t care about suffering.’

We did not say that second thing, yet it becomes the centre of the discussion argument.


Some decisions – perhaps even the most important decisions – are good-better decisions. There might be two options, both of which have appeal. There might be a large distinction between choices, or the merest hint of a difference – and yet a decision has to be made.

Good-better thinking admits that life can be messy. The non-preferred option might simply be a lower priority, or less clear, or slightly more difficult. A single man might have a couple of ‘just friends’ he could ask to the end of year formal – and feels bad because he does not want to offend one. Because of the expense, a church has to decide between new PA system or new heating. A family has to consider moving away from family for a job, or staying close with uncertain work prospects.

There are plenty of times in life when decisions are both messy and unavoidable.

At such times, it hurts people if we slip back into good-bad. All that does is stick the knife into someone who is already sore! ‘If you move away you’re abandoning family.’ ‘If you put the PA system in you’re ignoring the old folk who feel the cold.’ ‘You asked Grace to the formal because who haven’t forgiven Pearl making that joke about you.’

So what?

My advice – my advice to myself – is to listen better. Do a James 1:19. Be quick to listen, be intent on truly hearing what is actually said. Do not rush into implications, therefores and hasty conclusions. Keep a lid on the righteous (!) anger but hasten to understand. That surely is the better thing to do.