He wisely replied to my observation, “Anne, people see what they want to see.”
I had just shared how puzzling it was that people could reach very dissimilar conclusions about the exact same occurrence. Even when the proof or physical evidence was right was in front of them.
His comment, that people see what they want to see, echoes in a narrative that I recently read in the Book of Numbers.
In Numbers 13, just as the Israelites were preparing to enter the Promised Land, Moses sent out twelve men, on a reconnaissance mission, to scout the land. The spies were sent to explore the area and gather information to,
“See what the land is like and whether the people who live there are strong or weak, few or many. What kind of land do they live in? Is it good or bad? What kind of towns do they live in? Are they unwalled or fortified? How is the soil? Is it fertile or poor? Are there trees in it or not? Do your best to bring back some of the fruit of the land.”(Numbers 13:18-20)
After forty days, the 12 spies returned to the Israelites’ camp. Ten of the spies gave similar accounts about what they had observed.
“They gave Moses this account: ‘We went into the land which you sent us, and it does flow with milk and honey! Here is its fruit. But the people who live there are powerful, and the cities are fortified and very large…. We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are. And they spread among the Israelites a bad report about the and they had explored. …All the people we saw there are of a great size… We seemed like grasshoppers in our own eyes, and we looked the same to them.” (Numbers 27-33)
Yet, the remaining two spies, who had scouted the very same land, gave an encouraging report, with very different interpretations.
“Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “we should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it…. The land we passed through and explored is exceedingly good. If the Lord is pleased with us, he will lead us into that land, a land flowing with milk and honey, and will give it to us. Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them.” Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.” (Numbers 13:30 – 14:9)
So even though all twelve spies had scouted the same land, they had diverse perceptions and reached different conclusions.
The first ten spies’ perceptions were influenced by their thoughts and low self-esteem and lack of faith in the Lord and his promises. “These ten men were reporting from the vantage point of whether or not they felt confident. When they lacked confidence, they lacked courage, and even more tragically, they lacked faith that God would be with them. When they perceived the people who were occupying the land they were supposed to be take were dangerous giants, they didn’t feel they had the ability to do the job.” (NIV Bible for Women, page 104)
Whereas the other two spies, “didn’t report back based on their confidence but on their conviction. Though they had seen the exact giants the other ten had seen, their report was very different. They did not go along with the crowd.” (NIV Bible for Women, page 104)
The difference in their reports can largely be contributed to the fact they saw what they expected to see. Their reports were influenced by the state of their beliefs and thoughts, and the degree to which they trusted God. And as a result, their reports differed significantly, all influencing how others perceived the challenges ahead.
This narrative points out how careful we have to be in making assumptions. And particularly assumptions we make based on others comments and observations. Because our conclusions about any event or circumstance will be influenced by what we hear and think, by the degree of our faith, and by what we are anticipating and expecting to see.
And even when we are very certain of something, we are to be reminded that someone else may be equally confident about their conclusions.
The key is a willingness to evaluate our assumptions. To double-check what we think we have seen and heard. Being open to listening and to gaining greater clarity and understanding. Willing to shift, to acquire new insights, modifying our perceptions when warranted.
Ideally, the more open we are to God’s Word and to double checking our own conclusions, the more likely it is that we will discover the truth of a story.
And when we are receptive to adjusting our perceptions, fine-tuning them, we will see what is true, rather than just seeing what we want to see.
Photo credits: Yair Aronshi and Rob Bye, from Unsplash