We’ve all heard the phrase “perception is reality.” Its a phrase I often use when talking with our volunteer greeters and ushers at church. We want to make sure they are as friendly and welcoming to our guests as possible because “perception is reality:” if your guests perceive that they are welcome,d then they really will feel welcome. Yet, I’ve noticed a growing trend of reversing this phrase. Many people talk about how their perception is reality. I perceive that Bob is a total jerk, so therefore Bob is a total jerk. Somehow we’ve reasoned that if we perceive it then that’s how it is, which can be a dangerous practice. I’ve seen many relationships wrecked, and many ministry opportunities missed, because of this thought process.

When I was in a seminary I had an internship at a church. My first week I was reamed up and down by a church member. This experience devastated me. In my mind I was faced with two possibilities: either this person was a total jerk, or I was already failing at my job. I explained the situation to the Senior Pastor, who alerted me to the reality. This gentleman was a fantastic guy, but he was experiencing a rough patch in life. He worked on Wall Street, and had recently engaged in a common contract negation tactic in which he threatened to quit unless he received a certain raise. His company responded by summarily walking him out the door. He had a family, a mortgage on an expensive home, a car payment, etc., and felt like his world was crumbling. The Pastor explained that his outburst likely had little to do with me, and that I should be patient with the man and add him to my prayers. Sure enough, the man ended up being one of my most adamant supporters, and I came to have a great relationship with him. If I would have simply perceived that this man was a jerk I would have missed out on a great relationship.

Many of the astutely religious folks of Jesus’ day fell into this perception-reality trap. They perceived that since Jesus spent time with notorious sinners that he too must be a notorious sinner. The Pharisees and their scribes grumbled at his disciples, saying, “Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?” And Jesus answered them, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Luke 5:30-32. They completely missed the reality of who Jesus was. He was spending his time with notorious sinners not because he was one, but because he desired to save them.

What are we missing in our lives by thinking that our perception is reality? Are we hurting our relationships? Are we missing opportunities to serve others? Are we failing to see people the way God created them? Instead of always going with our perception lets approach others with the type of love, patience, and acceptance that Jesus has always shown.