One picture is worth a thousand misunderstandings


Imagine a defendant going to trial. He’s told his story to his lawyer and worked with him to lay out all the proofs of his innocence. As the trial begins, the prosecutor introduces just one piece of evidence: a seemingly incriminating photograph. The judge calls for the verdict without giving the defense a chance to say anything. The jury convicts the defendant and the judges sentences him.

Imagine the same scenario, but the evidence is one statement the defendant is known to have made without any context as to its meaning.

“Ridiculous!” you might say. “How can anyone judge a case without hearing both sides?” And you’d be right.

Yet people do this every day. As you are probably aware, a young man was vilified recently on social media for a photograph that seemed to indicate he was disrespecting, if not downright mocking, an older Native American man. But in the following days, more information came out about the scenario, proving there was much more to the story. (I don’t know all the details: I just bring this up as an example of how quickly people rush to judgment before they know the facts.)

Once one of my son’s friends who had never met me thought that I must be pretty grouchy. The reason? Another son had posted pictures of a family outing, and one photo caught me looking quite irritable after waiting outside in the heat for seats in a restaurant for what seemed like an interminable amount of time. Someone else assumed in another group photo that there must have been some underlying hostilities because a few people were sitting with arms folded. Yet the conversation had been as amiable as could be.  But these are minor misunderstandings compared to the way people tear each other apart on Twitter with as little substantial cause.

“A picture is worth a thousand words,” the saying goes. Yet a picture captures just one moment in time, not the whole story. It doesn’t give context, the events leading up to or coming after, the circumstances behind the scene.

That’s true whether the picture seems bad or good. There are multitudes of articles about people feeling depressed after viewing other peoples’ seemingly perfect lives on social media. We see the perfectly decorated cake, but we don’t see that it has been turned so the best side faces the camera. We see the beautifully redone room, but we missed the part where the clutter was cleared off to the side before the picture was taken. We see the adorable family Christmas photo, but we don’t see the several pictures taken and rejected to get just the right poses and expressions. When we think other people on social media have such perfect lives, we don’t realize that those captures of perfect moments don’t tell the whole story. Nobody has a picture-perfect life all day, every day.

The same is true with isolated statements. Take, for example, the sentence, “I’m going to kill you!” Now imagine it in different scenarios:

  • Two friends setting up a chessboard
  • One brother pulling a prank on the other
  • A young wife being mercilessly tickled by her husband
  • A jealous man stalking a girl who doesn’t want his attention
  • A woman trying to escape an abusive relationship

Depending on the context, saying “I’m going to kill you!” might be perfectly innocent, though maybe not very wise to say.  Other contexts make the statement more realistic or sinister.

In addition to the folly of rendering judgment based on pictures or individual statements out of context, we can also misjudge scenarios. Imagine a parent hearing a loud crash, running into the living room, and seeing her son with a baseball bat standing by a broken window. Before launching into a tirade based on what seems to have happened, the wise parent calms herself down to ask questions and assess the situation further.

Proverbs 18:13 says in the ESV, “If one gives an answer before he hears, it is his folly and shame.” I am not familiar with the Holman Christian Standard Bible, but I like their translation of this verse: “The one who gives an answer before he listens– this is foolishness and disgrace for him.” We agree it is foolish, unjust, and harmful for a jury to convict a man over just one photo or statement. It’s just as foolish, unjust, and harmful to play armchair prosecutor, jury, and judge over situations we know little about; it’s even more foolish to do so publicly.

James tells us, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God” (1:19-20, ESV). Jesus said, as well, “And as ye would that men should do to you, do ye also to them likewise” (Luke 6:31, KJV).

This is true whether our judgment is good or bad, condemning or helpful. When we rush to “help” someone by pouring forth the benefit of our wisdom and experience without first hearing them out, we do more harm than good. Why? Because the person is wounded and alienated due to feeling misjudged and unheard, and our advice is off base because we’ve misdiagnosed the case.

We’re quick to pull out the “Judge not” card (often out of context) when anyone misjudges us, but we too often rush to judgment of others. Instead, we need to consider first of all whether it’s even our business to judge a particular situation. Then, in Matthew 7:1-5, Jesus admonishes us to take care of any “planks” in our own eyes before we try to take a speck out of someone else’s and to remember “with the judgment you pronounce you will be judged, and with the measure you use it will be measured to you.” Then we need to hear all the facts and consider carefully and fairly. Withholding judgment due to not knowing all the facts would wipe out the great majority of public judgments on social media and in our persona lives.

“Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24, ESV).

(Sharing with Inspire Me Monday, Literary Musing Monday, Tell His Story, Let’s Have Coffee, Porch Stories, Wise Woman, Woman to Woman Word-filled Wednesday, Faith on Fire, Grace and Truth. Linking does not indicate full endorsement)


10 thoughts on “One picture is worth a thousand misunderstandings

  1. A very well written piece, Barbara! You’ve given such good examples to illustrate the fact that we are often too quick to judge others without first hearing both sides. Thank you for reminding me of Proverbs 18:13 because it really does show us who/what we are when we try to answer something without first hearing all the facts. And I love the verse from James and ever since I memorized it as part of a Scripture Memory Challenge I’ve tried to keep it in mind. The wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God…and isn’t it the truth! Thank you so much for reminding us that a single picture does not show us both sides of the story behind the picture.

  2. My oldest son has a favorite saying “Jesus didn’t speak in verses; He spoke in parables.” What he means by this is that you must read the context in which the verse is written. I agree with your point.

  3. As usual, such good thoughts! Your posts make me think, and I like that. Just today a relative posted on FB “have you ever just wanted to have a real, genuine talk with someone about why they did what they did to you?” I immediately kind of rolled my eyes because I thought — wow, I can’t think of anyone who I feel like “did me wrong.” Then I thought a little more and I remembered feeling offended at a couple of people online who’d reviewed one of my books in a way I felt was unkind/unfair. Bingo — I was guilty. I need to stop letting incidents like that take up too much of my thoughts. Our pastor has been saying lately — glance at your annoyances, but gaze at Jesus. I liked that!

  4. Great thoughts. I think this is such a common problem. Context and information go a long way, and so does benefit of the doubt! 🙂

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