I worked at a homeless shelter my freshman year in college. Every week, I would make the trek from my dorm room to my car, which was like traveling from Dallas to Russia on foot, drive 20 minutes to downtown Bryan, and spend a few hours with some of the clients of Twin City Mission. I went by myself, which was strange for a female college freshman, and my grandmother was convinced that I was going to contract Hepatitis. On my first day there, two men got into a yelling fight and I was sure that I was going to get shot or kidnapped or something but I didn’t, so I kept going.
Mostly, my job was to doll out food and then help clean up afterwards, but I really enjoyed sitting and talking with the men (and few women). There was a revolving crazy cast of characters who kept me entertained with their songs, stories, and poems. One of my favorite guys was Marvis, who worked in the kitchen. He washed dishes and I would assist however I could. He didn’t talk to me for about two months. We communicated by me asking a question and watching him for a sign that he had heard me. Marvis could stick his hands under boiling water from the tap and it didn’t mess with him one bit. Another favorite was Johnny B, a hilarious black man in a wheel chair who sang and told stories and called me funny names. He eventually got his own apartment and when we went to visit him, he told us that he was contemplating eating the rabbit that lived outside his home. I once walked upon two younger guys arguing about who I belonged to. I thought that was quite…flattering and awkward at the same time.
And then there was Fred. Fred was a well educated guy down on his luck. He liked to talk philosophy and about world issues. Fred was really interesting to talk to and it didn’t hurt that he also worked in the kitchen, so he and I would chat while we spooned canned peaches onto the trays of the food line. Fred had a girlfriend at the shelter, but she never talked to me. I chalked it up to shyness so I never pushed the issue.
One time, I was sitting and talking to some men and Fred’s girlfriend came and sat right next to me. She proceeded to explain that she had really hated me because she thought I was going to “steal her man”. (Newsflash: She didn’t need to worry. Fred was 45…and missing teeth…and homeless.) She said that she carried her anger around and she was ready to let it go. She apologized for being angry and I apologized for any misunderstandings that may have occurred.
God did alot of things at that shelter, but this scene, one of someone asking forgiveness unprompted was one of the breathtaking moments of redemption that I will remember from the whole experience. For a homeless woman and I to sit and talk about her unresolved anger towards me meant that we were interacting as human beings. Not homeless woman to privileged college student, but woman to woman. God gave me a little taste of how it felt to interact with someone, irrespective of whatever “labels” we had been assigned.
Labeling is one way that we make sense of the world. It’s hard not to meet someone and figure out some way of putting them into a box so that you can file them neatly away in your mind for safe keeping. The problem with labeling is that it often leads to judgment, which is neither helpful nor loving. God has been kicking me in the teeth lately about judging people and I’ve come up with some thoughts about what I’m learning about being judgmental.
1) Christians assume that forcing external behavior on people will, in fact, make them love God. It is SO clear from the Bible that this is not the case. Story time: To say that I was a prude in middle school and high school is an understatement. I ran screaming from the room is someone mentioned the word, “sex” (okay, part of that was for the attention). I had a friend who would use, ahem, colorful language and when she would do it in my presence, I would call her “potty mouth” or some equally annoying thing. To be honest, I’m surprised that she remained friends with me, instead of punching me in the face or giving me a swirlie so she could call me “potty mouth”. For some reason, winning that “victory” of her not cussing in front of me anymore made me feel like I had done something for the kingdom, but nothing could be further from the truth. The more I dig into God’s word and what Jesus says about loving others, I realize that God could give a flying flip about our behavior. He wants our hearts. Even if you’re the most perfect choir boy and you never do anything wrong, God doesn’t care about that unless He knows that He holds your heart. Behavior changes stem from loving and being loved by the Father. Behavior changes are secondary.
So much of Christian evangelism is directed towards certain behaviors. “Stop_____ and God will love you.” When people become new believers, we burden them with a giant list of “don’ts” instead of letting Jesus clean house from the inside out. I’m not saying that we should never confront sin, but I am saying that I think we confront it far too often and vocally, without listening to the Spirit. We don’t confront sin out of love, but out of fear and pride. We’re like small children, stomping our feet and pointing our fingers, and saying, “But, God! Why does he get to do that?” We take it upon ourselves to become the morality police and I’m just not sure that’s our place, especially among unbelievers.
2) The bigger problem with Christian judgment is that we tend to see a label instead of a person. Man, God has really been grinding my bones about this lately. He’s been showing me that, by being judgmental, I am reducing people to a shallow version of themselves. For example, one thing I’ve been struggling with lately is judging people who live above their means. God’s really been working in me to show me that I need to shift my definition of “want” and “need” and it’s blowing my mind. So, when I see someone, insisting that they “have no money”, buying new clothes or eating out all the time, I have a hard time not looking at that person and seeing only that problem. In my sinful mind, they are defined by that “sin” of excess.
The problem with this is that it is so demeaning and short-sighted to define a person by one thing about them. God has made all of us incredibly complex individuals and it does His creation no justice for me to narrow my vision of them to one small aspect of their lives. Case in point? The Golden Rule. Do I want to be defined as “The Judgmental One”? Nope. I sure don’t. That’s something that is currently a part of me, but I’m much more than that. The New Testament is littered with exhortations to extend grace and compassion to others, like we would want for ourselves.
We need to realize that people are so much more than ______ (insert your label of choice here).
Here’s the analogy that’s been floating around in my head. I am standing in a room surrounded by all of my judgmental boxes. I am handed a screaming little man and I have no idea what to do with him. Holding him by the armpits, my arms outstretched, I run around frantically trying to find the correctly labeled “box”. In my mind, the little man can only be in one box, but he keeps insisting that he belongs in multiple boxes- the compassionate box, the intellectual box, the gay box (uh-oh. Hello, can of worms), etc. Jesus comes along and karate chops all of my boxes and scolds, “What are you doing, psycho?!?” He takes the little man from me and teaches me to operate outside my “box” system.
Part of our problem is that we, as Christians, often spend most of our time just trying to move people from one box to another- from “drunk” to “sober’; from “gay” to “not gay”; from “______” to “_____”. We’re just exchanging one box for another and we’re not addressing the heart of the issue. What we should be doing instead is handing people over to Jesus, letting Him teach us how to view them as whole people who cannot fit into our narrowly defined boxes.
You see, what Jesus did was that He bucked the box system. He came to Earth and offered a relationship with God to everyone. Anyone can participate in His kingdom. People scoffed. The religious leaders said, “Uh, Jesus, are you sure about him? He’s in ‘The Gentile box’. He’s in ”The Tax Collector box’. She’s in ‘The Prostitute Box’.” Jesus shook His head and admonished them for not seeing that these “sinners” were whole people who were so much more than whatever label they had managed to be assigned. You might argue, “But there’s scriptural backing for saying what these people are doing is sin!” I’m not arguing that point, but the Pharisees also had scriptural backing for their labels (last I checked, adultery isn’t permitted in the Old Testament) and Jesus still told them that they were missing the point. The religious leaders were throwing out the baby with the bathwater and Jesus said that was wrong.
36 Now one of the Pharisees was requesting Him to dine with him, and He entered the Pharisee’s house and reclined at the table. 37 And there was a woman in the city who was a sinner; and when she learned that He was reclining at the table in the Pharisee’s house, she brought an alabaster vial of perfume, 38 and standing behind Him at His feet, weeping, she began to wet His feet with her tears, and kept wiping them with the hair of her head, and kissing His feet and anointing them with the perfume. 39 Now when the Pharisee who had invited Him saw this, he said to himself, “If this man were a prophet He would know who and what sort of person this woman is who is touching Him, that she is a sinner.”
40 And Jesus answered him, “Simon, I have something to say to you.” And he replied, “Say it, Teacher.” 41 “A moneylender had two debtors: one owed five hundred denarii, and the other fifty.42 When they were unable to repay, he graciously forgave them both. So which of them will love him more?” 43 Simon answered and said, “I suppose the one whom he forgave more.” And He said to him,“You have judged correctly.” 44 Turning toward the woman, He said to Simon, “Do you see this woman? I entered your house; you gave Me no water for My feet, but she has wet My feet with her tears and wiped them with her hair. 45 You gave Me no kiss; but she, since the time I came in, has not ceased to kiss My feet. 46 You did not anoint My head with oil, but she anointed My feet with perfume. 47 For this reason I say to you, her sins, which are many, have been forgiven, for she loved much; but he who is forgiven little, loves little.” 48 Then He said to her, “Your sins have been forgiven.” 49 Those who were reclining at the table with Him began to say to themselves, “Who is this man who even forgives sins?” 50 And He said to the woman, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” (Luke 7)
We, all of us, are whole people. We are so much more than our sins or our struggles. Jesus sees it. Why shouldn’t we?