Binary Thinking

On our vacation last month, my daughter-in-law asked me what good books I was reading. I sheepishly said I haven’t been reading much lately (as I wrote about this last week—Too Busy to Think). 

I realized, again, my deep thinking is born out of my reading which challenges me to think differently.  The reading surely shapes me, but often not in the direction intended by the author. Rather, as I read the content, I think about it and process it in light of what I have already read, what I believe, and what I see around me.  Then, I write about it as part of that processing.  So, in essence, if I am not reading something that challenges me, I only see what confirms what I already believe.  A good question I continue to ask myself is: How is my thinking different from 10 years ago?  If there is no change in my thinking or living, then maybe I wasted a lot of time by not growing. 

When I read things that differ from the way I think, it seems there are two extremes. The first is, I must be careful not to frame it in terms of I am right, and they are wrong. The second is to buy into everything I read without a core foundation for truth in my life. If I am going to learn, I must learn to think deeply about that with which I agree or disagree. The key is to not think in terms of either/or but rather think in terms of both/and.  In other words, it is important for me not to fall into binary thinking.  This is where everything is either one way or another, but we must look for a way to learn by being open without compromising our foundation for truth. If we only look for things that confirm our beliefs, then we will never learn or grow. 

I often ask couples in premarital counseling what it is about their fiancé that they don’t like.  If they cannot tell me something concrete, I know they are still infatuated and not in love.  Let me suggest that love, as an unconditional commitment to an imperfect person, is the only kind of love that will last a lifetime. As they are preparing for marriage, if they can only see the positives without the negatives, then they are naive to what it will take for them to last a lifetime.  You must be able to identify foibles in your fiancé for you to be committed to them despite these imperfections.  In other words, no one is all good or all bad. But many individuals approach marriage and divorce from this perspective, and it leads to trouble. Binary thinking.  

Another example would be this election cycle.  Neither candidate is all good or all bad.  Can I appreciate the strengths of each?  If not, I have fallen into binary thinking that my candidate is good and the other is bad. Seldom are people all one or the other, in spite of what you think about the candidates right now. If you can’t think of sincerely good things about either of these two candidates, you are in binary thinking and thereby limiting your growth and godly decisions.

Jesus repeatedly interacted in a disarming manner with those who initially opposed him or his teachings. People like Pharisees (Nicodemus), Tax Collectors (Matthew and Zacchaeus), Prostitutes (Mary), Murderers (Saul of Tarsus), and Criminals (Thief on the Cross) didn’t appreciate Jesus for who he was until he engaged them.  Jesus loved the Rich (Mark 10.21) and the Outcasts (Luke 17.11). He loved everyone and was not quick to condemn or judge.  In fact the people Jesus challenged, were the individuals who considered themselves better, smarter, or righter than others in Luke 18.9.

A example from Martin Luther King illustrates this truth. The story tells of a meeting he led with a group of African American leaders to discuss what to do about Robert F. Kennedy’s appointment to Attorney General with which they were not pleased.  After a lot of criticism of RFK, MLK interrupted and asked the group of ten or so African American leaders to tell him something good about RFK. No one could say anything good about RFK.  So MLK immediately adjourned the meeting and said they would not reconvene until each of the individuals could come back and have something positive to say about RFK. No one is all good or all bad.

Too often, we only look for what we agree with rather than what we can learn from.   Learning causes us to grow.  We grow from doing things that stretch us, not by always thinking what we have always thought.  If we fall into binary thinking (all right or all wrong), we simply won’t grow because we won’t look for the good in what we don’t already know. 

There is something hard to understand going on here. 

It seems that growth is related to seeing things from outside of our current picture of reality. In other words, we only grow as we see or experience things that don’t agree with our current worldview. If we only see or experience life as we anticipate it, we are never stretched and, therefore, never grow. 

So, if I only do what I want to do or what I am good at doing, I will never grow.  Is that right? I think so.  If I only agree with things that I agree with, I am caught in an endless loop of insulation.  And then my circle becomes smaller and smaller around me.  The longer I am in that loop, the more isolated I become from what is outside of that little circle of friends, thoughts, or perspectives. 

Growth only comes as I can honestly look at all that is around me: the good, the bad, and the ugly.  I do so with eyes opened by the Spirit and I evaluate all of God’s Word, not an isolated verse which supports what I already believe.  And as God’s Word teaches me, the heart is both evil and good (Luke 6.45).  We must be careful not to think our hearts are good and those opposed to us are evil.  This is usually not true.  As God repeatedly shows me, the capacity for both good and evil resides in my heart.  Galatians 5.16 asks me; do I walk in the power of the Spirit or in my Flesh? I can do either.

We must be careful not to judge others who think or live differently.  We must resist binary thinking of them as good or evil. Jesus shows us there is a better way to engage those who don’t agree with us: He tells us to love them (Matthew 5.43-48).  Even if others vehemently disagree with me on some issues, they are not all bad or all good, and my response is to love them and redemptively engage with them.






4 responses to “Binary Thinking”

  1. David Brett Avatar
    David Brett

    Well said. Thought provoking.

  2. Scott Evans Avatar
    Scott Evans

    All I can say is WOW ! You took us there !

  3. Rob Maupin Avatar
    Rob Maupin

    Again, I appreciate the humility you bring to these thoughts. It takes a certain level of awareness of our limited insight to get to this point. Binary thinking is a terrible club in some hands. Grateful for you!

  4. O’Brien John Avatar
    O’Brien John


    I really appreciate your teachings and this stream of wisdom actually made me realize that I need to thoughtfully consider my interpretation of everything I see and hear. Thanks for that insight and the effort you put into all of your weekly posts.

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