February 1, 1999
 Read the Label
How Others Can
Misjudge You
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During my third year of college, I applied for a student-teacher position with a business statistics class. I had done well in the course and was eager to get the job.

The professor responded that he was certain I wouldn't be effective in this role because of a character flaw shown by . . . my handwriting. He prided himself in being an amateur handwriting analyst, he explained. He had found that my sloppy scrawl on tests revealed an impulsive quirk in my personality which would keep me from being a good teacher.

It was probably my greatest disappointment as a business major. The statistics professor was one of the most respected teachers in the school, and for him to tell me I was incapable of teaching was tantamount to receiving a divine oracle.

Today, over thirty years later, I still have plenty of impulsive quirks, and my handwriting is worse than ever. Yet my career centers around teaching. I take no pride in saying this, for I don't regard teaching as a higher calling than any other, and I wouldn't pretend to judge my effectiveness as a teacher. But I do enjoy teaching immensely, and God has enabled me to make a profession out of work that I love.

Whether or not I was capable of handling that teaching position as a college junior, I don't know. But I do believe my teacher jumped to a conclusion about me, for without knowing me well, he based a broad assumption about my ability upon one characteristic. Yet human potential is much more complex than this, and no one should be judged so quickly and easily. Unfortunately it happens far too often. And the consequences for us who are labeled can be most unfortunate.

I shudder to think what would have happened if I had taken my professor's assessment permanently to heart and never considered teaching again. I consider it one of God's greatest acts of kindness to me that he later brought others into my life who encouraged me to give teaching a try.

Instant Opinions

We face a delicate challenge when it comes to discovering our potential and the directions God wants us to take with our life. On the one hand, we need the counsel and encouragement of other people, and we need it desperately. We have blind spots as we look at our life, and others sometimes see our potential better than we do. Their help is critical in resolving our major life choices; Scripture couldn't be clearer about this.

Yet others, like ourselves, are fallible. While they can provide invaluable insight into ourselves and God's will, they can also misjudge us, sometimes quite seriously.

At one extreme, people label us unfairly for purely selfish reasons. When this happens, their motives often give them away, and we have no trouble recognizing that we've been stigmatized. Such labeling is always unsettling when we experience it; yet if we're fortunate, we learn to take it in stride and consider the source. We know that some people are simply biased, and their opinion of us isn't worth taking to heart.

Yet well-intentioned people who desire the best for us can also label us unfairly. We're less likely to recognize it happening in this case, and the label is more likely to stick. One reason such innocent labeling occurs is because of the difficulty some have in letting go of first impressions. This includes people whom we would assume are too intelligent and enlightened to rush to judgment. Studies in the social sciences, however, have shown that the tendency to make snap judgments and hold on to them can actually increase with a person's intelligence.

Researcher Richard Ruth explains:

"When you come upon a situation or idea, you usually make an instant judgment as to whether you like or dislike it. Your judgment may be based upon your values, your emotional state at the moment, or your past experience with a similar situation. You then use your mind to defend that snap judgment. The more intelligent you are, the more strongly you are able to convince yourself that your instant judgment is correct--and the more difficult it becomes . . . to reverse your snap decisions."*

Ruth's insight helps explain why even someone who is trained in understanding human nature, such as a professional counselor, may be prone to making quick judgments of people and not letting go of them easily. Their education and experience increases their confidence that their initial assumptions are correct. Most counselors learn to overcome the tendency to label, to be sure, and reserve judgment until they know someone well. But, occasionally, some are too heavily swayed by first impressions.

From time to time it happens to each of us: Someone whom we would least expect--a counselor, a favorite teacher, a pastor, a respected coworker or employer--forms a negative impression of us and holds on to it in spite of convincing evidence that it's wrong. Because of our esteem for this person, we may feel irreverent even questioning their opinion of us and trusting our own judgment above theirs. Yet if their view of us differs strongly from how we believe God sees our life, we shouldn't feel compelled to accept it. In spite of their wisdom and best intentions, they may have labeled us. We shouldn't hesitate to get further opinions, and we may be relieved to find that others who are equally competent see us quite differently.

Still-Life Pictures

There is another reason well-meaning people can label us unfairly, and it's the problem of familiarity. Those who have known us the longest and best may find it hardest to believe that significant change has taken place in our life. They are holding on to an outdated image of us, that once fit us but no longer does. Parents, siblings and old friends may still picture us as we were growing up, and fail to appreciate the qualities that make us different now.

This is precisely the problem Jesus faced when he returned to his home town of Nazareth. Those who had known him the best as a youth had the greatest difficulty appreciating his divine mission as a grown man. "'Isn't this the carpenter? Isn't this Mary's son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren't his sisters here with us?' And they took offense at him" (Mark 6:3 NIV).

This isn't to say that family members and old friends can never see us dynamically. In many cases, they do; and when they do, their counsel and encouragement in our important decisions can be invaluable. But familiarity can be a problem in long-term relationships which keeps others from appreciating how we've grown and our potential for taking new directions with our life.

Peeling Off Labels

It's unfortunate enough when others make snap judgments of us, and even more so when they hold on to them. The real tragedy, though, is when we end up believing the labels that others put on us. We shouldn't underestimate how easy it is to do this. Goliath convinced an entire army of Israelite soldiers that they were incapable of combatting him. Surely there were many among them who had the same skill with a sling that David had. But Goliath implied through his mocking that they were cowardly and incompetent fighters, and the label stuck (1 Sam 17).

The fact that labeling occurs shouldn't discourage us from seeking counsel in our major life choices. Yet it should caution us to listen constructively to the counsel we receive. Just as we need people to point out our own blind spots and, as I like to say, to be "editors" in our life, we need to be good editors of the advice others give us. Here are some steps that can help us do this:

Get second opinions. Remember that counselors, professors--even we pastors--can be wrong. Scripture declares there is strength in a multitude of counselors (Prov 11:4, 15:22, 24:6). If someone's advice strongly challenges what you believe to be God's leading, don't feel bound to accept it. Find out what others think. God may be trying to strengthen your resolve to move ahead in the face of discouragement. In any big decision, God is likely to give you those who tell you to go for it and those who tell you to hold back. Make your choice only after getting counsel from a number of responsible people.

Be assertive. If you believe someone is judging you unfairly, tell that person so, courteously of course. God may bring you both to a deeper point of understanding. When Saul told David that he was too inexperienced to fight Goliath, David politely responded that because he had successfully fought fierce animals as a shepherd and had faith in God, he was confident he could defeat the giant. Saul wasn't offended by David's assertiveness but persuaded by it, and gave him permission to go ahead (1 Sam. 17:32-37).

Strengthen your faith in Christ. When we look at the people in Scripture who were able to see beyond the labels others put on them, to the point of taking courageous steps of faith, they were always those who walked closely with God. Labeling is so common in so many of our work situations, for instance, that apart from Christ's help, we're likely to be adversely affected by it. Take time daily to be renewed in him.

Be involved with other Christians who are positive about you. It was through the encouragement of Christian friends who believed in me and wanted God's best for my life that I found the courage to do what I thought I couldn't--teach! Yes, Christians can label us as readily as anyone. Yet when Christian friends love us and see our life dynamically, they can be a powerful channel of God's wisdom and encouragement to us. Some of the most important help God gives us in understanding his will for our life comes through such people.

Take advantage of the best opportunities available to you for Christian friendship and fellowship. Believe that through your involvement with other Christians God will give you special help to peel away labels and discover how to best invest your life for Christ.

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