|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.
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 on being an amateur handwriting analyst, he
explained. He had found that my sloppy scrawl on tests revealed
an impulsive quirk in my personality that would keep me from
being a good teacher.
It was probably my greatest disappointment
as a business major. The professor was one of the most respected
in the school, and to hear him tell me I was incapable of
teaching was tantamount to receiving a divine oracle.
Today, some forty years later, I still have plenty of impulsive
quirks, and my handwriting is worse than ever. Yet my career
centers on teaching, and has for several decades. While I wouldn’t pretend to judge my
effectiveness, 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. I
humbly recognize that God may later have given me ability to
teach that I lacked as a third-year college student. Yet 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.
We face a delicate challenge when it comes
to discovering our gifts, and
the directions God wants us to take with our life. On the one
hand, we need others’ help in gaining a clear understanding, and
we need it desperately. We have blind spots as we look at our
life, and others often see our possibilities better than we do.
Their counsel and encouragement is critical--in resolving our
major life choices and in finding the courage to take steps of
faith; Scripture couldn’t be clearer about this.
Yet others, like ourselves, are fallible.
While they can provide invaluable insight into our potential and
God’s will, they can also misjudge us, sometimes seriously.
At one extreme, people may label us
unfairly for purely selfish reasons. When this happens, their
motives often give them away, and we easily recognize 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 to “consider the source.” We know that some people
are simply biased, and their opinion of us isn’t worth taking to
Yet well-intentioned people who desire the
best for us can also label us unfairly. We’re less likely to
recognize it occurring in this case, and the label is
more likely to stick. One reason such innocent labeling occurs
is because of the difficulty some people have in letting go of
first impressions of us. These people can include those 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 actually can
increase with a person’s intelligence.
Researcher Richard Ruth
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.*
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 others,
and not relinquishing them easily. His education and experience
increase his confidence that his initial assumptions are
correct. Most people who
counsel professionally learn to overcome the tendency to label,
and the best counselors are the very best at reserving 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
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
opinion of us and trusting our own
judgment above hers. Yet if
her view of us differs strongly from how we believe God sees our
life, we shouldn’t feel compelled to accept it. In spite of her
wisdom and best intentions, she 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
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, which 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.
precisely the problem Jesus faced when he returned to his
hometown of Nazareth. Those who had known him 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” (Mk 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 is often invaluable. But familiarity
in long-term relationships can be a problem that keeps others
from appreciating how we’ve grown,
and our potential for moving in new directions with our life.
enough when others make snap judgments of us, and even more so
when they hold on to these first impressions thoughtlessly. The
real tragedy, though, is when we end up believing the labels
that others place on us. We shouldn’t underestimate how easy it
is for us to do this. Goliath convinced an entire army of
Israelite soldiers that they were incapable of combating him.
Surely there were many among them who had the same skill with a
sling as David. 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 others’
counsel when making our major choices--far from it! Yet it
should caution us to listen critically
to the advice we receive. Just as we
need people to point out our own blind spots and to be “editors”
of our thinking, we need to be good editors of the advice others
give us. Here are some steps that can help us do that:
Get second opinions.
Remember that anyone who advises you--regardless of his or her
expertise--may be wrong. Scripture declares that 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 encourage 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.
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 face 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 Goliath.
Saul wasn’t offended by David’s assertiveness but persuaded by
it, and gave him permission to go ahead and fight the giant (1
Strengthen your faith in
When we look at individuals 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 example, that
we’re likely to be adversely affected by it apart from Christ’s
help. Take time daily to be renewed in him.
Be involved with other
Christians who see you positively.
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 view our life dynamically, they can be a
powerful channel of God’s wisdom and encouragement to us. Some
of the most important help God provides us in understanding his
will for our life comes through such people.
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