I had an experience recently that made me think. I was in Old Navy buying some clothes. They were having a sale, so the line was long, twenty people at least, when I went to check out. Once I made it close to the front, I noticed a woman ahead of me walk toward the counter. She was around thirty years old, attractive…and angry. She began pulling out items of clothing from a large bag, having apparently bought these pieces in the store or maybe online. She proceeded to slam each piece on the counter, one by one. I noticed her breath was short as her shoulders rose quickly up and down. And her face turned red as her voice grew in volume. The cashier put on a smile, I guess in an attempt to shield herself from the barrage of complaints. I couldn’t decipher what the agitated woman was saying, but the cashier just kept repeating, “No, ma’am, I’m sorry.” This response only made the woman more irritated and she began to yell even louder, as her face no longer just red, had morphed into red with white splotches. I thought her head was going to explode at any moment.

By this point, the customers in the long line were no longer glancing at their phones or talking to each other. Everyone’s eyes were now glued to the irate woman at the counter. I noticed them watching her. Some rolled their eyes in disapproval. Others giggled in discomfort. People leaned to their neighbors to share whispers of judgment. Even the little children in line with their parents, who were previously being shushed and scolded, were now at complete attention at the show going on. We all watched in disbelief when finally the woman gave up, threw the clothing back in the sack with great force, and stormed out, still shouting as she left the building. I must hand it to those Old Navy employees. They really kept their cool throughout the abuse.

Since I was next in line, I was called over by the same cashier who had handled the situation with this woman. As I laid my purchase on the counter I said, “Wow, you really held yourself together well with that lady.” The cashier smiled and said, “She’s obviously having a bad day.” I replied, “You know that had nothing to do with you or the clothes, don’t you? I think something must be really wrong in her life right now.” The cashier agreed with a nod, and I gathered my purchased items and left. As I walked to my car, I scanned the parking lot for the woman. What would make someone so upset to scream at an employee and break out in hives in Old Navy? I would never know.

Have you ever had a similar experience? A driver consumed by road rage honks and hollers at you for accidentally moving into his lane. The customer next to you at the dry cleaners becomes hostile when her designer suit cannot be found. An acquaintance gossips incessantly at a gathering, making the group around her feel uncomfortable. Or maybe you are the one who has behaved in this manner? Ever found yourself overreacting, overly emotional or simply out of control in a situation and wondering later how you could have allowed yourself to act that way?

I remember snapping at a mother of one of my daughter’s friends years ago. And it was over Girl Scout Cookies. Yes, you read that correctly. Girl Scout Cookies. I still cringe to think about it now. A simple misunderstanding combined with my horrible attitude led to me making a complete jerk of myself in front of a lovely woman and two little girls. Why did I do this? Well, it had nothing to do with cookies or this other mother, I can promise you. I was struggling in my marriage and with serious financial strain. I had had a really bad day when I saw them and simply took out my pain and insecurity on a few innocent souls. For weeks I felt so ashamed of how I had treated them. Finally getting up the nerve to call the other mother, I pleaded for her forgiveness and tried to explain a little of my situation… as if it made any difference for the way I had treated her. Her grace brought me to tears. And every single time I saw her after that, she went out of her way to be kind and compassionate to me. Would this woman have been as forgiving if she never knew the pain I was experiencing at the time I acted so poorly? Maybe, but I didn’t know.

Would the people in line at Old Navy have held back their glares of criticism and condemnation had the woman turned around and announced that her mother had died the day before, or that she was just diagnosed with breast cancer, or she had recently lost her job? Probably. I think it would have made a difference. What if the man with road rage stopped at the next light, rolled down his window and informed you that his mother had never told him she loved him. Or the lady at the dry cleaners mentioned that she had felt inferior to others her entire life and her expensive clothing made her feel valuable? What if the acquaintance pulled you aside at the party and told you that her gossiping was due to her fear of being overlooked and that she was simply desperate for attention. Would it matter?

What if we could see through the bad behavior in others to the wounded heart inside? Would it change how we treat them? What if we all just wore a sign? A sign that explained what was going on behind the behavior and inside the heart. As we hear the disruptive teens in the movie theater; as we encounter the friend who drinks too much; as we witness the ornery woman who pushes everyone away; as we turn our backs on the guy who brags constantly…What if we somehow knew their pain, disappointment, fear and insecurity because it was written right there in front of us? Would we be less judgmental and more compassionate? Would any of us offer to help them or pray with them, instead of criticizing and pulling away? Would we possibly become more tenderhearted?

Tenderheartedness means “easily moved to love…” Are you easily moved to love others? In a situation with a difficult person, what is typically our reaction? Irritation, annoyance, avoidance, judgment? Is this the response God desires in us? What can we do to change this mindset?

I think the answer is so simple that we miss its potential power. How about we just change the way we view people?! What if we decide to view not just with our eyes, but with our hearts? To assume there is more to a situation than we may see. To choose to look deeper than what we witness on the surface. I think this effort could be called a “heart shift.” Stephen Covey refers to something similar, a paradigm shift, in his book, Seven Habits of Highly Effective People:

“I remember a mini-Paradigm Shift I experienced one Sunday morning on a subway in New York. People were sitting quietly — some reading newspapers, some lost in thought, some resting with their eyes closed. It was a calm, peaceful scene.

Then suddenly, a man and his children entered the subway car. The children were so loud and rambunctious that instantly the whole climate changed.

The man sat down next to me and closed his eyes, apparently oblivious to the situation. The children were yelling back and forth, throwing things, even grabbing people’s papers. It was very disturbing.  And yet, the man sitting next to me did nothing.

It was difficult not to feel irritated. I could not believe that he could be so insensitive to let his children run wild like that and do nothing about it, taking no responsibility at all. It was easy to see that everyone else on the subway felt irritated, too. So finally, with what I felt was unusual patience and restraint, I turned to him and said, ‘Sir, your children are really disturbing a lot of people. I wonder if you couldn’t control them a little more?’

The man lifted his gaze as if to come to a consciousness of the situation for the first time and said softly, ‘Oh, you’re right. I guess I should do something about it. We just came from the hospital where their mother died about an hour ago. I don’t know what to think, and I guess they don’t know how to handle it either.’

Can you imagine what I felt at that moment? My paradigm shifted. Suddenly I saw things differently, I felt differently, I behaved differently. My irritation vanished. I didn’t have to worry about controlling my attitude or my behavior; my heart was filled with the man’s pain. Feelings of sympathy and compassion flowed freely. ‘Your wife just died? Oh, I’m so sorry. Can you tell me about it? What can I do to help?’ Everything changed in an instant.”

Did you see how Covey writes that “everything changed in an instant” when he learned the truth about the father and his children on the subway? His paradigm evolved in such a way as to allow him to “read their sign.” As a result, his heart shifted and he was able to feel compassion instead of the anger and irritation. Can you see yourself doing the same? But, we can’t always see the sign or know the truth behind the behavior. This is why we must choose to follow Jesus’ example to be tenderhearted and seek for that be our first response. To seek to understand, even when we can’t read the sign. The Bible says,

“… all of you, have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart…” (1 Peter 3:8)

As followers of Christ, we are presented with the opportunity to live in abundance with His overwhelming love. This love is the gateway to bringing us into a life of freedom. Freedom from shame. Freedom from fear. Freedom from sin. Jesus died and rose again to provide that gift of freedom. But He does not just want us to take this gift and be on our way. He wants us to share it with others through generosity, tenderheartedness, and service. We are to be His hands and feet and to feed His lambs. Since He is the vine, we are to be the branches. In other words, we are to share His love with the world.

You may be saying, “That’s all well and good, but this is easier said than done.” I understand this, and so does Jesus, by the way. No one is suggesting we tolerate repeated abuse or become a doormat to selfish individuals. But maybe if we view each other through the same eyes as Jesus, it would make a difference. Jesus sees us as family. In His view, we are all children of His Heavenly Father, and we are His brothers and sisters. What if we view each other as family? And the people, especially the difficult ones, are our brothers and sisters, our sons and daughters, our mothers and fathers? Imagine that the woman in Old Navy is your child. Picture that the man with road rage is your husband. Does it seem easier now to be compassionate when it is a family matter?

Jesus says, “My command is this: love each other as I have loved you” (John 15:12). The guy behind the counter at the drug store. The police officer directing traffic. The janitor in your office building. Your child’s teacher. A co-worker. Your mother-in-law…. Everyone wears a sign. Whether it is a past hurt, a present worry, a deep frustration… we all have something. The rest of us just cannot always see it. But, with God’s help, and our own efforts to shift our hearts, we can make a difference in people’s lives. We can be tenderhearted like Jesus. All of this is possible if we simply choose to follow Christ.

“This is how we know we are in Him: whoever claims to live in Him must live as Jesus did.” (1 John 2:5-6)

Can you imagine what this world would be like if we all looked at each other with Jesus’ compassionate eyes, touched each other with His healing hands, and spoke to each other with His kind words? This world would look dramatically different. I believe we might just have a little heaven on earth.

So tomorrow, when you are in line at the grocery store, stuck in traffic, dealing with a troublesome client or a wayward child, remember that while they may not be wearing their sign outwardly, it is still there to be read. Will you allow your paradigm to change toward them? Will you choose to embrace a heart shift? And maybe tomorrow, this tenderhearted love could be extended to you, as well.

Because don’t forget, my dear friend, you’re wearing a sign, too.