When God taught Samuel how to recognize the next king, it didn’t involve worldly labels or attributes. We would be wise to adopt this divine perspective from the Old Testament: “Man looketh on the outward appearance, but the Lord looketh on the heart.” 1 Samuel 16:7 Unfortunately, we and the world tend to identify others not by their hearts, but by labels. When we understand that each person is a child of God–our brother or sister–any other label we apply to define them is a type of libel–a defaming and untrue statement of a person’s innate identity and worth.
Progress has been made in my lifetime in accepting people of different races, religions, and nationalities. There were no people of color and only a handful of those of other faiths in the community where I grew up; interracial marriages were strongly discouraged. I’m proud that my mother was blind to the outward differences and made friends with a Hispanic family that moved in near us, respected those who espoused various religions, and invited people from all walks of life with myriad addictions and persuasions to sit at our table and sleep under our roof.
Despite progress made and the example of my mother, I find I must be careful to refrain from judging or labeling people I encounter by their current life circumstances or difficulties. It’s easy to look at the outward appearance and conclude that people have chosen their lot in life or deserve it because of lack of ambition or motivation. Those conclusions are always wrong and are offensive to God and generous-hearted people of good will.
I may have white skin, short stature, and ancestors who came from Germany. However, it would be libel to use these labels to define me. That’s not who I am. One way to be more careful and accurate in defining others is to describe some of their attributes rather than using them as a label. I appreciate examples such as saying a friend has diabetes, rather than that she is a diabetic.
Sometimes the most libelous labels are those we give ourselves. Rather than calling ourselves bad or stupid, we can reject such labels by telling ourselves, “I’m a good person with worthy intentions who made a mistake.”
One woman I greatly admire asked us to consider how we might serve displaced newcomers who have taken refuge in our communities by asking ourselves, “What if their story were my story?”*
A wise man looked at the plight of these strangers and our response to their needs and formed a sobering conclusion: “Being a refugee may be a defining moment in the lives of those who are refugees, but being a refugee does not define them. Like countless thousands before them, this will be a period—we hope a short period—in their lives. Some of them will go on to be Nobel laureates, public servants, physicians, scientists, musicians, artists, religious leaders, and contributors in other fields. … This moment does not define them, but our response will help define us.”**
May our response to every person we encounter be compassionate and accurate. Let us begin by applying this one universal label to all: “We are each unique and innately worthy of respect.” Then may we define ourselves by the way we patiently come to know and love others by looking on their hearts.
*Linda K. Burton, “I was a Stranger,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2016, 13. https://www.churchofjesuschrist.org/study/general-conference/2016/04/i-was-a-stranger?lang=eng#p34
**Patrick Kearon, “Refuge from the Storm,” Ensign or Liahona, May 2016, 111.
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