Within the span of seven short days, I met two people who formed two completely divergent opinions of me. I could do nothing to change their rock-solid first impressions. That week of mistaken judgments happened thirty-five years ago, but it feels like last week.
When I was twenty years old, I wanted to spend a summer abroad, but as a college student I barely had enough money for Raman Noodles. I found work on a communal farm in Israel (sort of like modern day WWOOFING). For a bit of manual labor, they provided me with food, a room, ten dollars a month, and a pack of cigarettes a day. (It was the cigarettes that sold me.)
The weekend before I boarded my plane, I heard my first talk ever on being a man (though I completely missed its message). On the way to Israel, I stopped in London to visit some friends who were doing mission work. With the talk on manliness ringing in my ear, I swaggered, spat, and tried (unsuccessfully) to play the man.
During a two hour dinner party in London, I was introduced to a young woman who promptly deemed me shallow, insincere, and stupid. (I skipped dessert so I could quit while I was ahead.)
A few years later she married a friend of mine, but her opinion of me was chiseled in stone. I once loaned her husband ten thousand dollars; she felt I was being manipulative. But if I forgot to send him a birthday card, she felt my true colors were revealed.
To her, I was a jerk, and everything I did or said, or failed to do or say, reinforced her judgment.
She wasn’t the only one to misjudge me
The morning after that infamous dinner party, I flew to Tel Aviv. On the plane, I read this verse: “Even a fool who keeps silent is considered wise; when he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent” (Pr. 17:28). I felt convicted and decided to speak less and listen more.
The following day I began my first job on the communal farm, but it began at 4:00 a.m. and I didn’t have an alarm clock. My roommate promised to wake me, but he forgot.
I desperately wanted to impress my new boss, Amnon, but the proverb—When he closes his lips, he is deemed intelligent—was still fresh. I decided not to blame my roommate. Instead I simply apologized to Amnon without excuse.
The next day, my roommate forgot again, but the verse still haunted me, so I apologized again.
That evening I had a few hard words with my roommate (I didn’t keep completely silent), and he swore he would remember. And then he forgot. To Amnon, I apologized a third, agonizing time. I desperately wanted him to know my circumstances, but I decided to keep silent.
On the fourth night, I “borrowed” my roommate’s alarm. I was the first to arrive for work.
Later that day, my roommate secretly spoke with Amnon. He confessed that it was his own negligence that caused me to be late three days in a row.
A new opinion
That evening, Amnon searched me out in the cafeteria, he told me of my roommate’s confession, and he said, “Sam, the volunteers I work with are shallow, defensive, and overflowing with creative justifications. You are my first volunteer ever to apologize without excuse. I will call you ‘Emet’ [which means True, Genuine, Pure, or Unmixed].”
From that day forward, he called me nothing else. When he introduced me to others, he’d say, “I’d like you to meet my friend, ‘Emet.’” When he read out the work-duty roll call, he shouted, “Emet.” When we spoke in private, he’d say, “Emet, I’d like to tell you a secret.”
And I could do no wrong. If I was late, he assumed I had good reason; if I offered an idea, he thought me a genius; if I suggested a stupid plan, he applauded my initiative.
The tiniest of influences
Let’s be honest. I was neither quite as pure as Amnon imagined nor quite as shallow as my friend’s wife judged. If I hadn’t miss-applied that manliness teaching—or if I recently hadn’t been convicted by that one proverb—I would have swaggered less before the woman, and I probably would have blamed my roommate for letting me sleep in.
Every person we meet is on a path from point A to point Z. We see them in isolated moments (sometimes between C and D, and sometime between Q and R), and we form an opinion. We haven’t seen their entire journey. They seem more conceited than we are, but their humility may have grown leaps and bounds while our humility has stagnated or declined.
Every human life is on a trajectory. Occasionally those trajectories intersect—sometimes over dinner, perhaps for a summer job, and maybe in a marriage—but we can never know all their life influences. We only see the snapshot called today, it’s a single frame in the movie of their life. We don’t see the events that shaped this moment.
But I wonder
I have been disturbed for years by the woman who made a snap judgment of me. It felt unfair. Why couldn’t she see me as Amnon did? Today I realized that it is I who had misjudged her.
I don’t know what shaped her life. Maybe she was bullied by a schoolyard tyrant or an abusive father. Maybe I was a faint echo of those past torments. I don’t know. And that’s the point. I just don’t know. She may be handling her past with far greater grace that I handle mine.
This morning I read Oswald Chambers, “God never gives us discernment so that we may criticize, but only that we may intercede [for them].”I realized that my denigration of her criticism reveals my own inner fraud. Maybe her judgment is fairer than Amnon’s.
This morning I prayed—for the first time in my life—for that woman whose life I never knew.
Great post! Man oh man do I struggle with loving those who misjudge (or maybe correctly judge) me. Thanks.
Tell me about it … I’ve been holding on to that criticism (of the woman who criticized me) for thirty-five years.
It’s strange, really. There have been many times that I felt more anger at her harsh judgment than I felt great joy in Amnon’s gracious judgment.
Another quote from Oswald Chambers (the same day as I quoted above) was: Another thing that distracts us is our passion for vindication. St. Augustine prayed, “O Lord, deliver me from this lust of always vindicating myself.” Such a need for constant vindication destroys our soul’s faith in God.
I really think my “self-vindication” was destroying my soul’s faith in God.
Great quote. Thanks!
Sam, I just read the same quote from Chambers two days ago. How true. Talk to God about the issue before talking to the person, and maybe I’ll end up not saying anything to the person. There are several in my life to whom I’d like to say something, but since I can’t see it doing any good coming from me, I pray for them instead. As we get closer to a person, there is sometimes a place for exercising discernment, advising, suggesting, even confronting, but even then you have to be careful because you still may not know all the facts.
I also appreciated your blog last week, Imagination and Hearing God. I tend to compartmentalize prayer to a certain time, place, situation, even though I know I shouldn’t. I think a lot about things all day long, which in and of itself is not prayer, but I could make a lot of it into prayer and bring those things to God. I just need to remember to.
I love Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. I’ve been reading the updated version (which just puts his words into contemporary language–it’s made it fresher for me).
And yes, you can turn your thinking into prayer just by inviting God into the process. It’s great, and great fun.
Sam, just great stuff. You are one excellent writer. But. . .it is not just the style (easy to read, flowing), it is the content (mature, grace filled). Thanks for the reminder to remember that we only see the snapshots of others’ lives – and not to make snap judgments.
Those comments mean a great deal coming from you.
But … don’t be too hasty in making such a gracious judgment 🙂
Another wonderful piece, Sam. Thank you. I’ve shared it on my wall. You are a good friend and a light in the darkness of my journey.
I always love to hear from you and see you. Thanks for the thanks.
Great article! Thank you.
GULP! Very honest post. I had to eat humble pie a few times when I judged another persons actions. What has helped me over and over is to remember how God told Job to pray for his friends and then he blessed Job.
Hey, pray for me too!
I’ll have to think about that…haha
We’ll pray together that God convicts us and then helps us change. He always hears us. One-Way Grace.
Susan Donnelly Holloway
I look at it this way put yourself in the other persons shoes and how you would feel wether being judged or not ,you can feel what they are feeling, it may not be what you want to see ,but you will understand why and maybe down the road a door will open and you both will understand ,God opens doors were once there were none ,you pray,d for her gb
Good advice. Thanks.
Thanks for that great post. I’ve been harshly misjudged by some folks and know that there is nothing anyone can do or say to change their minds. It’s horrible. It’s unfair. I want to fix it. But I can’t. On the other hand, there are some people–church folks, grandchildren, some students of mine–for reasons valid for them it seems, think I’m great. –I know the truth tho, but it’s nice to be warmly received.
I know the feeling. Oh do I know it.
Taking our thoughts captive, not judging those who judge us – have you got my number or what, man? Really, beautiful piece here, and very convicting. I love contrast essays, so the way you compare these two very different people in two very different cultural settings brings across your point beautifully. Isn’t it true that being with someone who thought highly of you made you want even more to do well and not disappoint him? I’ve just been reflecting alot lately on the way that love transforms, while judgement just sentences. Maybe that’s what John 3:17 is getting at. Thanks again, brother.
For me, the amazing thing is that these events happened as I describe, and in just under seven days. I didn’t realize it then, but God must have been up to something to let such a stark contrast occur almost simultaneously.
I hadn’t thought of our point about trying to please the one who liked me, but you are absolutely correct. Great observation. I’ll have to think on that one more.
And of course it is so much like our heavenly father.
Wow! Yes! Love transforms. Judgement just sentences. Ugh! What a responsibility for me as a piano teacher especially when students haven’t practiced. As a mom. As a spouse. God gives me space to fail along the way as I keep growing in humility, patience and gentleness. Failure is part of the process. I need to also allow failure along the way in others and never give up, just as God never gives up on me.
Right! Just as God doesn’t give up on us, we need to watch ourselves as we give up on others. Alas. We blow it all the time, don’t we?
But we still have hope. Even when we blow it.
Spot on, Sam. You know, I used “My Utmost…” as a daily meditation book many years ago, and that very line is the one that I still remember, pretty much word for word.
It made a big impression at the time. And following its direction has had a big impact.
So … do you think it’s okay for us to make the snap judgment that Oswald Chambers was simply a terrific spiritual writer? I’m game if you are.
And I don’t think you’re going to be able to change my mind. It’s pretty much chiseled in stone.
I hold on to criticism, too. And I can never forget it- mostly I also feel, that I have been misjudged, but as I start to think on how I have lived my life- then I think these people have even been too positive…
At first I thought that guilt for the past and criticism helps me be humble, but then I read a book by Toomas Paul (minister of lutherian church in Estonia, where I live), and he writes, that its not the right kind of humble. It is not right feeling like a failure- it is right, feeling like a winner, but only with God. Acknowledgeing that you cant do it without Him. This is what came to mind reading your post this time:)
I like what Toomas Paul says. Humility is not stooping lower than we are. It is standing as tall as we are next to the infinite greatness of God and seeing how small our greatness is. And then–as you say–it is acknowledging our great need of a great God.
Sarah Taylor Ko
I also think of how we make judgements of God (He is absent, He isn’t answering our prayers, He lets us suffer and is unfair), and how that must grieve Him since it is grossly untrue, much more so than the negative judgements people make of us, but He refuses to ever vindicate himself.
Plus I have to say, you make me laugh so much Sam, even in your comments of making a snap judgement of Oswald Chambers, lol. I bought My Utmost for His Highest because you quote it so much, and wow is it amazing.
GREAT POINT about judging God. That’s worth a blog article all by itself. You’ve got me thinking….
And I’m glad I make you laugh. We all need a bit more humor at times.
Who knows? Maybe my jokes will even be funny. Someday.