Living Christianity Blog

At First Glance

An experience at the bank revealed to me the complexities of making sound judgments. With all the things we don’t know, how do we determine what is going on in a given situation?

I pulled up to my local bank, like I had countless times before, and got out of my car. Ahead of me was an older woman who stopped to hold the door open for me. Completely aware of my lack of chivalry as this older woman held the door open for me, I said, “Thank you; you didn’t have to do that.”  

She replied, with an unmistakable southern accent, “You’re welcome,” and then said something about how she was taught to be nice to others. 

Naturally, I tried to reciprocate the kind gesture and stepped behind her so she could go before me in line for the bank tellers. There were two tellers, and we were the only people in line. The first available teller asked if he could help her, and I went over to the second one who became available a few seconds later.

To my surprise, the older woman stated she would wait to be helped by the teller I went to, instead of the one who offered her help. Not wanting to hold things up, I quickly switched over to the teller the woman had refused so that we both could be helped without waiting.

In that moment, it hit me. Boom. As the tellers were helping both of us, I couldn’t help thinking why the situation happened. Why would someone not want to be helped by this teller? I made a judgment about what might be going on. The first bank teller was a young, African-American male, and the other was a young, white female. Both were dressed professionally, and both were eager and willing to help us. Thoughts ran through my mind.

Older woman, white, southern, does not want to be helped by young black male but, for no apparent reason, would rather be helped by white female, even if it means a wait.

Racism, I thought. Which, of course, is nothing more than pride and arrogance associated with ethnicity and nationality, something that God hates (Proverbs 8:13).

At least, that’s what I thought at first; and to be honest, I still keep this in my mind as the strongest possibility based on what I saw and heard during the situation. 

Unfortunately, that ends the story. I had no opportunity to talk further with the woman, so I have no inside look into exactly why she did what she did. The whole situation lasted no more than five minutes. My thoughts, however, have been running nonstop until now writing this blog.

Judging and discerning

How often does this happen to us? We don’t have all the information, but there is something that just seems to be the clearest explanation. Although racism still seems the most likely explanation for what happened, I forced myself to think of other possibilities in the spirit of the “benefit of the doubt.” This was very hard for me since internally I was screaming, “How can this woman treat this man like that? She held the door open for me and talked to me sweetly, but she can’t even be helped by this guy because he’s a different skin color!”

As a Christian, I know that I am to avoid condemning others and making self-righteous judgments (Matthew 7:1-5). However, at the same time I know that I am to discern between right and wrong and judge with righteous judgment, as Christ did (John 7:24; Hebrews 5:14). If love believes all things and hopes all things (1 Corinthians 13:7), then at least trying to think of some other explanations would be appropriate. So I did.

Perhaps the real problem was …

  • Fear. Though it would still be racism, showing unnatural fear toward someone dressed professionally because he is not white was a little better in my mind than pure hatred of a different race.
  • Men. Perhaps this woman had some very terrible life experiences with men (regardless of skin color) treating her poorly which developed into an overall mistrust of males.
  • Assumptions. The older woman may have thought that the younger man would be bothered and rude due to her questions or concerns and a younger woman would be more polite.
  • Familiarity. Maybe the young female bank teller reminded her of a grandchild or daughter.
  • Relationships. Perhaps the older woman knew and had been helped by the younger woman before, and tried to work with her every time.

This calmed me, and I hope it is something that will help others who run into these types of situations. The conclusion we reach at first glance very well may be the ugly truth. However, it may not be. In situations where we do not know all the facts, and may never know them, there are some things we can do to make sure our judgments are sound and fair.

Two tips for making sound judgments

1. Apply godly wisdom and discernment and be willing to incorporate new information appropriately.

Sometimes we have to go with what we know, but information may arise later that challenges the idea we formed. Something may at first seem right, until it is examined (Proverbs 18:17). Still, to not make any kind of determination at all about a situation is a choice in itself. Does God want us to always assume no wrong has ever taken place in any situation? We are, after all, to be “discerning” (Hebrews 5:14).

2. Understand that there are things about the situation we do not know and may never know.

Because of this, we should always try to err on the side of mercy. Everyone makes mistakes and has weaknesses. That woman may have been demonstrating racial bias, which is sin. We all demonstrate behaviors that are sinful and wrong and should be repented of. God values mercy over judgment (James 2:13), as should we.

A five-minute encounter at my local bank is just one example of millions of situations we face on a daily basis, situations in which something happens that seems off and forces us to use discernment. It’s good to remember that sometimes something can look bad at first glance, but may not be the whole story. Other times what we experience at first glance is exactly how it looks. Either way, our challenge is to balance mercy and sound judgment.

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