Lying Labels

Thomas the Apostle got a bad rap. Branded forever as “doubting Thomas”, the label unfairly reduced him to a one-dimensional character and forever tainted the name Thomas. I have always been personally offended by this.

Labels are conflicted things. Summing up a person or a product in a simple, easy to grasp, and memorable label can be helpful, but it is difficult and fraught with pitfalls. Take food labels. Food labels frequently use carefully crafted language that attracts and misleads consumers as a sales tactic. Words like “sugar-free,” “fruit-flavored,” “gluten-free,” “light,” “low-calorie” all increase the chance a consumer will buy a product. Just getting someone to pick something up increases the likelihood of a purchase.

Words matter. Words create feelings in people when they hear them. That is why manufacturers use the term “sugar-free” on foods that can contain up to 0.5 grams of sugar in a single serving size. In a more health-conscious society, people want to believe they are eating healthier foods. We have also been told that sugar is bad for us, so “sugar-free” makes us feel good about our choice.

How does the word “doubting” make you feel? When it’s attached to my name, it doesn’t make me feel too good. Doubting feels like a negative label. Doubting is expressing or feeling uncertainty or lack of conviction. Is that a bad thing? Is being a little skeptical a negative? Maybe not.

Thomas was not with the other disciples when Jesus appeared to them for the first time after his resurrection. They were all locked in a room, hiding from the authorities, when suddenly Jesus was there with them. He showed them the wounds in his hands and his side, and they were all very happy to see him and know he had risen.

When they saw Thomas, they told him they had seen Jesus. Thomas replied that he would not believe until he saw Jesus himself. In fact, Thomas said he wouldn’t believe without the proof of touching Jesus himself. He was skeptical. Maybe you would be too. It had been a long week. They were all under a lot of stress. And the story was difficult to believe. He was unconvinced.

What does a great leader do when someone is having difficulty believing in their mission or their vision? What if people need to see something to be able to believe in it? In this moment of doubt, would a great leader ridicule someone for being skeptical? Would they tell them to “trust” them and just believe? What did Jesus do?

Eight days later, Jesus appeared to the disciples again, only this time Thomas was with them. He invited Thomas to touch his hands where he was nailed to the cross. He told Thomas to put his hand in the wound in his side where the soldiers had pierced Jesus to prove he was dead. He basically said, “Here is the proof Thomas, don’t doubt, believe.”

That is what leadership does. Jesus had spent three years telling his disciples who he was and what was going to happen. He had given them lots of proof. Yet in the final hour, they were full of doubts. No one would have faulted Jesus if he had just said, “Wow guys, I’m going to have to find another group.” Quite the opposite, Jesus met them in their need and gave them each the assurance needed to build their conviction. They each went on to fulfill the mission they were given in amazing ways.

Labeling people is rarely helpful. Certainly, labeling people out loud is poor behavior for a leader, but often we label people in our own heads. Difficult, troublemaker, doubter, stupid, lazy. These labels cause us to feel certain ways about people and then act according to those feelings. We need to drop the labels and meet our people where their needs are. Jesus met me where my need was. If you are interested in that, I would love to talk to you.

Great leadership avoids the simple labels that the rest of the world tries to put on people. Those labels are often a result of legitimate needs that have yet to be met. If we believe that everyone is intrinsically and equally valuable, we will put the effort into finding what that need is and doing our best to meet it. Then, our people will have the opportunity to fulfill their life mission and work together to achieve the community vision. After all, no labels and plenty of proof that we care is The Kimray Way.