We’ve all been labeled, even if we’re unaware of it. Sometimes it happens from the moment we’re born. “She’s the quiet one.” “He’s the hyperactive one.” “She’s the pretty one.” “He’s the smart one.” This could be family members speaking, or nursery school teachers. Later, in elementary school and beyond, we are labeled again for our strengths and deficiencies. “The rebel,” “The overachiever,” The goody two shoes.” It continues into the workplace and throughout our lives. “The divorced guy,” “That family from California,” “That woman who went bankrupt,” “The re-hab guy,” “The one who’s the niece of an apostle.”
This can extend into church life—not just our church, but all of them—as members size up those who aren’t exactly like them. Someone is a “know-it-all,” or a “less-active,” or the member of a different political party. They have “too many kids” or “no kids,” they’re wealthy or poor, young or old. And all this comparing can lead to exclusion. Throughout society, it’s human nature to draw closer to people who seem like us. It isn’t just for safety, it’s because we expect to have much in common. But those who don’t fit our profile get left out. And leaving people out is hurtful. It isn’t Christlike.
There are many of our faith who are struggling with their testimonies, or whose beliefs look different from ours. They may (or may not) have questions, doubts, and concerns. And labeling them “fallen away,” “lost,” or “wayward” only confirms their feeling that they don’t fit in.
Imagine Christ coming to visit your ward. He looks around, puzzled. Where is everyone else? (I’m thinking of the people we’ve labeled as sinners, addicts, the downtrodden, the outcasts.) Do our wards and branches resemble the group of people He would gather? I imagine He would seek out and invite people of all stripes, colors, and persuasions. His love sees beyond any mortal label.
What would He do with those who are questioning? He’d love them and answer their questions. He would never glance at them suspiciously, or avoid them. He’d never chastise them for sincere concerns or for their attire. He would put them at ease and minister to their needs. We, as friends and family members, need to treat others exactly that same way. In fact, we should relish and celebrate diversity as it gathers of all sheep. The whole is enriched and we, ourselves, grow and castoff judgmental attitudes.
Sometimes we justify this judging as shrewd analysis of those we should trust into our circle. And, while we should judge righteously in situations where you have to invest in someone, or hire them, for example, we both know that’s not what I’m talking about.
Too often we feel justified participating in gossip because something is true, or we think it’s important. The Prophet Joseph Smith said, “The devil flatters us that we are very righteous when we are feeding on the faults of others.” And psychologists tell us this is one reason why we engage in gossip and judging—it makes us feel better about ourselves. Ironically, we should feel worse, because we have stooped so low as to rob a fellow brother or sister of their reputation.
Elder N. Elder Tanner said, “Gossip is the worst form of judging. The tongue is the most dangerous, destructive, and deadly weapon available to man.” On another occasion he asked, “How can we, with all our weaknesses and frailties, dare to arrogate to ourselves the position of a judge? At best, man can judge only what he sees; he cannot judge the heart or the intention, or begin to judge the potential of his neighbor.”
Truly, there is only One who can judge us, who knows our hearts. We should never assume the role that He, alone, earned by atoning for our sins.
Remember when Elder Dieter F. Uchtdorf said, “This topic of judging others could actually be taught in a two-word sermon. When it comes to hating, gossiping, ignoring, ridiculing, holding grudges, or wanting to cause harm, please apply the following: Stop it!” He has also taught, “The pure love of Christ can remove the scales of resentment and wrath from our eyes, allowing us to see others the way our Heavenly Father sees us: As flawed, imperfect mortals who have potential and worth far beyond our capacity to imagine.”
This applies to those moments when we are too harsh a critic of ourselves, as well. We so often forget our ultimate potential, and the strength of a loving Father in Heaven who wants to help us get there, even though we may feel low on the ladder right now. Bonnie Oscarson said, “We simply cannot call ourselves Christian and continue to judge others—and ourselves—so harshly.”
Sometimes we size someone up and don’t allow room in our minds for the possibility that they might change and improve. We see someone after a few years and still imagine they’re the loose cannon they were in high school, or the wild person in college. Yet, often people do repent, get counseling, mature, and become much more than they used to be. We, ourselves, can do this as well. Imagine how frustrating it would be to meet up with an old acquaintance and be teased about a painful part of your past that you have completely left behind.
Elder Joseph B. Wirthlin once said, “We see ourselves in terms of yesterday and today. Our Heavenly Father sees us in terms of forever. Although we might settle for less, Heavenly Father won’t, for He sees us as the glorious beings we are capable of becoming.”
Christ taught us that one way we can show we love God is by how we treat His other children. And President Thomas S. Monson taught, “We cannot truly love God if we do not love our fellow travelers on this mortal journey.”
A huge part of this is respecting others and remembering that we all have agency to choose how we want to be, or think. This is “meeting people where they are,” and not trying to fit them into a cookie cutter that looks the way we do. When we extend unconditional love and resist judging, we come closest to how the Savior would treat them.
Next time you—or I—jump to a hasty judgment about someone, let’s remember the message from a wonderful MormonAd from 1993, which said, “Labels Hide People. Behind each tag is a real person with feelings, hopes, and dreams. So use the designer’s label—“Child of God.”