Human Eyes: The Hard Work of Familiarity

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“Familiarity may breed contempt on occasion, but it can easily breed sympathy.”

– David Powlison, The Biblical Counseling Movement (15)

I once debated an undergraduate professor, in the middle of class, on the issue of God’s sovereignty. It was one of the most uncomfortable moments in my life. I held the position that, in fact, God controlled and ordained all things, and my professor insisted that God could not and did not plan the evil we do as humans. God could certainly use it, but planning it was out of the question. Tensions flared, and as students looked on awkwardly, I brandished my Reformation sword on a crusade to rid my university of the leaven of liberalism. Before long, the professor raised his voice, and tears welled up in his eyes. And then he revealed something.

Between his tears, he revealed a terrible, tragic event in his family’s past, one that shaped and colored his view of God, one that caused deep and intense pain, questioning, and heartache. I looked silly, and I was ashamed, standing ready to battle someone who was already wounded and crying out. There was no demon before me; there was only a suffering man. And I was about to subdue him. It was disarming. I picked up my books, and left the classroom.

Powlison’s quote above is in reference to a certain view of counseling that differs from his own. And, while it is easy to see people as ideas and belief structures, Powlison wants us to go deeper. He wants us to see that people are not simply the problems, sins, heresies, or misconceptions they present; they are people.

Here is what I’m not saying. I’m not saying that we don’t need to defend the faith. I’m not saying that certain ideologies and theologies aren’t incredibly damaging to the wellbeing and nourishment of the Church. I’m not saying that we should white-out the word “heretic” from our dictionaries. I’m also not saying that there is no absolute truth. There certainly is, and we will all be held accountable for what we do with it. We need to be vigorous in our stance. But we need to be vigorous in knowing that people do not arbitrarily hold to opinions. Their belief structures are tainted by sin and suffering–things they can and cannot control.

This means that if we are serious about bringing people into the Kingdom, we must allow ourselves to collide with the suffering, sin, and humanity that lie behind the ideas put forth by any individual.

And I think it’s important to remember this, considering our mission is to disciple people, not simply to nuke ideologies and false belief structures. I’m all for destroying false notions of God. But I also want to be passionate about knowing, understanding, and discipling people. If we are to do the hard work of loving people well, of showing them the grace and truth of Christ, then we must do the hard work of familiarizing ourselves not simply with ideologies but with the people that embody them as well. Let’s not be so quick to pull the pin on the propositional grenade. I understand that this task is hard and often times impossible. But it certainly is worth striving for. It is on the solid ground of sin, suffering, and nitty-gritty humanity that the Gospel of Christ gains traction.

Demonizing is easy to do. Familiarizing and aquainting ourselves, moving towards people in love and understanding, while simultaneously standing firm on the Truth, is extremely difficult. We would rather send those cruise missiles from a distance. It takes less work, but it looks less like our Saviour than we probably imagine.

Our Saviour came down to taste our suffering and then to suffer and die in our place. He did not simply tear apart our false notions of God from a far. He came to us and incarnated Himself. He came to be with us, to see with human eyes.

And I guess that’s what I’m yearning for­–to see with human eyes the humans that stand before me.

That day in my college class affirmed some things for me. First, truth is always offensive. God’s sovereignty is a non-negotiable tenet, and tenets are so easily abandoned in light of our human experience. They will offend us when they demand that we give up our stubbornness and rebellion. But Truth is Truth. Secondly, and at that time more importantly to my development as a believer, I was given a glimpse into the real, messy humanity that makes us up. People are people. They are a mixture of the joys and beauties, the sins and sorrows that break like waves upon us all in this life.

Lord, give us eyes for people.

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One thought on “Human Eyes: The Hard Work of Familiarity

  1. You wrote: “we must allow ourselves to collide with the suffering, sin, and humanity that lie behind the ideas put forth by any individual.”

    So absolutely true – this is one of the most important things Powlison taught me, that we must look past the outward behavior to the *motivations* behind it and ask what is going on with this person that is making them act this way? What has happened to them and how has it affected them?

    And you are right in saying, it is difficult to balance truth and grace. Many of us can lean more heavily to one side of the scale or the other. It is easy to view people in such a theoretical and abstract way that when it comes to speaking truth in love, we definitely struggle.

    I pray for both you and I to be instruments of His grace and truth where needed, in kindness, with His eyes and heart for the people who He sends us.

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