A while ago, during the course of the week, I was called both a Zionist and a Yankee. I wasn’t sure what a Zionist is, so I came home to look it up. I joked with my husband that there are a lot worse things to be called, but still I felt misunderstood. Someone was putting me in a category simply because God has given me a love for the Jewish people, and I encourage others to pray for Israel. Another person thought my rapid speaking was an indicator I came from somewhere “up North.”

I decided to blog about this topic to challenge myself and others to be cautious in when using labels. Labels have power. For their own convenience, someone placed me in a category without really knowing or understanding me. It is all too common to label someone based on a cursory conversation or specific criteria. Our education system is filled with labels. Even in our churches, we tend to label and categorize. Whether charismatic or Calvinist, senior or millennial, these labels imply something the user may think useful, but likely the one labeled will feel unvalued or “put in a box.”

Jesus was familiar with labels. In John 10:20 Jesus was accused of being “demon-possessed and raving mad.” In Mark 3:21, Jesus was labeled, “out of his mind.” In Matthew 11:19, Some said, “Here is a glutton and drunkard.” Obviously, all those labels are clearly incorrect!

Labels limit. Someone mentioned to me that she could not find a small group to attend because none of the labels fit – She felt excluded rather than connected.

Jesus came to tear down the dividing wall between Jew and Gentile, slave and free, man and woman. He made us one in Christ. He removes our labels but gives us a new name. What ultimately matters is not how we are labeled by men but that our identity is in Christ as forgiven, redeemed children of God. Even so, take care not to employ careless labels which could lead to hurt or misunderstandings we never intend.

Job’s Friends

As I was reading through the book of Job, I noticed a prayer I had written in the margin, “Please, Lord, keep me from being like one of Job’s friends.”  As Chapter 2 explains, his friends started out well. When they saw Job’s great suffering, they sat silently with him for 7 days.

Unfortunately, they decided remaining silent with Job was not enough. They began offering advice and spiritual “wisdom.” They blamed Job for his condition and made suggestions what he should do to get right with God. Even when they spoke truth, their timing and motives were skewed.

I have several wonderful friends. One quality they all share is their compassionate ability to listen.  Yes, they challenge me and remind me of truth, but they are more interested in being there for me than providing me with good advice.

Over the years and moves, I have known people who mean well, yet with them, I felt guarded with or even misunderstood. When Mike was gone for a year in Korea, I can’t tell you the number of people who said, “The time is going so quickly!” For me the year did not pass quickly! Every day seemed long, so I felt even more alone when people said that.

Another time I don’t feel heard is when someone offers a spiritual platitude or verse in response to deep grief or disappointment. For example, when someone says, “God’s timing is always right” or “God works everything together for good.” Without a doubt these are true, yet I think when someone has been waiting a long time for God to answer a prayer, and sees God more quickly answering the prayers of those around them, these truths may not bring comfort, but doubt or confusion. A friend will remind them how precious they are to God even if He seems silent. Until the suffering one can see God’s light shine forth, a friend “bears all things” remaining with them as a reminder God will never leave them or forsake them. 

People who have not experienced depression, grief or chronic illness may not realize the tentacles that strangle out joy and energy from everything. To recommend a simple answer like a book or sermon, exercise or change in diet trivializes the suffering someone faces. To suggest that the person move on or not dwell their condition is as impossible advice as suggesting they grow 6 inches taller.

Sadly, texts and e-mails may enable us to be more like Job’s friends. It is too easy to write off a quick response and without really hearing what our friend is saying.

It is easy to let too many weeks or months or years go by without reminding someone we care.

It is too easy to assume the God would instruct our friend in the same way and on the same path He has led us.

Friendship is very rewarding, but maintaining true friendships take time and effort. Sitting with someone in their pain and waiting for answers from God is not comfortable. When I think about it, being a true friend is impossible. However, thankfully nothing is impossible with God. He can transform me from being a friend like Job’s to a friend like Jesus.

Discerning or Criticizing – What’s the Difference?

If I have a negative thought about something, I wonder “Is this discernment? Or is it criticism?” How can I tell the difference? 

Even people who are unfamiliar with the Bible can quote Matthew 7:1, “Do not judge so you will not be judged.” However, Jesus continues the teaching by adding, “For in the way you judge, you will be judged and by your standard of measure it will be measured to you.” Jesus does not tell us never to judge, but to recognize that we will be judged with the same harshness or mercy with which we have judged others. He also tells us that we should persistently judge all teaching against the truth of His word.

Jesus then provided two examples of judging – those who can easily spot the faults and shortcomings of others but rarely see the same flaws in themselves or the others who perceive and address their own shortcomings before pointing out the failings of others.

Is my discernment clothed in humility and compassion? Am I seeking to patch up what has been torn or poke holes in a usable garment? Dietrich Bonhoeffer once observed, “Judging others makes us blind, whereas love is illuminating. By judging others, we blind ourselves to our own evil and to the grace which others are just as entitled to as ourselves.”

As I consider my thoughts or comments, whose criteria am I using to point out error? Are these standards from God’s word, my own preferences or the world’s values? Jesus always judges righteously because He has perfect knowledge and perfect motives. When I judge, my knowledge is always incomplete and my motives impure.

Later in the chapter, Jesus states that His true believers will be known by their fruit. So I consider, “What will be the fruit of this comment?” Wise discerning words bring healing and restoration while words uttered in criticism may result in harm and disunity.

If my thoughts are from discernment, has the Lord given me this understanding to pray and then speak or to only pray? When I read James 1:26, I think twice or three times about voicing discerning thoughts. “If anyone considers himself religious but does not keep a tight reign over this tongue, he deceives himself and his religion is worthless.”

While I have decided I can’t figure out the exact parameters of discerning, judging and criticizing, I can invite the Holy Spirit to filter every word, and ask Him to allow me to only speak as Jesus would. And I can ask Him to reveal my own sin and purify my motives.

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