The Prayer of Saint Francis says, “Master, let me not seek … to be understood, [but] to understand.” It’s not always easy to understand others. Each person comes with a different background, experiences, hopes, and dreams, and what makes perfect sense to me might not to someone else.
Because we’re all wired so differently, it can be pretty challenging to understand why people think and act the way they do. I think the natural tendency is to assume others are like us—or to expect them to be like us. This can cause us to jump to conclusions. The problem with jumping to conclusions is that we very often miss landing on the right conclusion. I could assume that something someone did or said was stupid, arrogant, or unkind because I don’t understand their motives or their circumstances.
It is so easy to assume. It is much tougher to take the time to consider the reasons behind a person’s actions or attitudes. It means that we have to step out of our own shoes—our own understanding, experiences, likes and dislikes—and into someone else’s. We have to intentionally seek to understand and move beyond our own assumptions.
The Bible tells us to “judge not.”1 But when it seems like someone is wrong or even just different or deals with circumstances outside our personal experience, it can be hard to see much else. Before we even try to understand them, too often the tendency can be to put them in a box and slap a label on it. While we know (technically) that we’re not perfect ourselves, that’s often quickly forgotten when we’re confronted with the seeming imperfections of others.
When I see a flaw in someone else, I seldom think, Well, I’m not perfect either. But what if I were perfect. Would I then be in a place to judge? Not according to the Bible: “God alone, who gave the law, is the Judge. He alone has the power to save or to destroy. So what right do you have to judge your neighbor?”2
There has only ever been one perfect Person, Jesus. If anyone is in a position to judge, He is. So how did He deal with other people and their screw-ups? What kind of example did He set for us for interacting with all those less-than-perfect people?
When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at the well,3 He had a prime opportunity to set her straight on a few things. However, that wasn’t His objective. Jesus didn’t judge her; He didn’t write her off at face value—based on her appearance or her history. He took the time to really look at her.
Jesus sat with that woman and listened to her questions, her doubts, her misgivings. He took the time to answer her. He saw all she was and all she could be. Obviously, Jesus understood her well enough to be able to reach her on her own level, because she ran back to tell the whole town about Him. She had known Jesus not even a day, but she trusted Him enough to point to Him as the Savior. Because Jesus truly understood her, He was able to reach not only her, but many others in that Samaritan town.
How often do we judge people based on their appearance or their actions, without first trying to understand what makes them tick? How often do we label others—and then treat them according to those labels—without ever stopping to hear their full story?
Who knows what friendships we could forge or what opportunities we could discover to share the gospel if we would choose to love and understand over labeling and making assumptions? Perhaps that person we have labeled and avoided is at a point in life where they could desperately use a word of encouragement or a friendly gesture. We have to let go of the labels and assumptions before we can truly understand and value the person for who they are—a fellow human being created in God’s image, someone for whom Jesus died on the cross, someone in need of His love and our understanding.