Some years ago, pastors Stuart and Jill Briscoe were visiting our World Relief staff in Cambodia. Their trip included visits with vulnerable Cambodian women for whom World Relief’s ministry was an oasis of hope.
At one point, Jill rather abruptly turned her attention from the women to the scores of children scurrying about waiting for the cue that it was time to go home. Jill asked a simple but pointed question: “And what about the children?”
At the time our work in Cambodia was quite new and there were many details yet to be ironed out. The staff, recognizing that they had lost track of the children amid the intensive care of the mothers, were spurred to action.
In time, the ministry to children became a core component of our World Relief program, drawing more mothers and impacting entire families. Over the years, cell churches were birthed from this work and there are now over 500 such churches in Cambodia, all because Jill Briscoe has the gift of seeing.
To see the potential and dignity in every person is a gift we must receive and then cultivate.
It is not easy, however, to see through the debris of the tornado of our everyday lives. Advertising researcher Jay Walker-Smith says that the number of advertisements we are exposed to each day has increased from about 500 per day in the 1970s to now over 5,000 per day.
Layered over this is a self-induced barrage from television, internet, and social media. We are exposed to nearly every human experience and emotion in rapid-fire, with little to no time to process or engage at a human level.
For most of us this impacts our daily interactions as well. People can become commodities. The person alongside us in the elevator, on the commuter train, in the hallways at work or in the cars next to us in traffic become indistinct, blurred and unnoticed in the backdrop of our overloaded lives. The velocity of our lives creates a psychic numbing that can cause us to lose sight of even our families and friends.
Like blind Bartimaeus, we need a miracle.
We may think we already see those around us. But we must ask if we are truly seeing them. In our honest moments we may have to say, as Bartimaeus did, "I see people. They look like walking trees” (Mark 8:24). We need the ongoing miracle of Jesus to see not just the blurred images of people, but the intricate detail—the glory and the ashes of the lives we intersect. We can be encouraged by what follows: "Once more Jesus put his hands on the man's eyes. Then his eyes were opened, his sight was restored, and he saw everything clearly” (Mark 8:25).
The gift of seeing clearly is simply to see people as God sees them. I want this kind of clarity of vision— I really do. But I find my vision clouded by a variety of spiritual cataracts.
Blindness to the Imago Dei
Theologically, we know that each person we encounter is made in the image of God and is therefore imbued with dignity and worth.
Sadly, our theology can be quickly suffocated by the bias, prejudice and even self-righteousness that mars our souls.
This is not unique to us. Jesus infuriated the religious leaders of his day because in their incomplete notion of the character of God; they could not fathom that Jesus would befriend and pursue the very people they saw as fit only for judgment. It was their sense of “goodness” that made them blind to each person as an image-bearer, causing them to stand in opposition to the very mission of Jesus.
Friedrich Nietzsche commented on this phenomenon: “the good and the just” could not understand Jesus because their spirit was imprisoned by their good conscience; they crucified him because they construed as evil his rejection of their notions of good. And as Miroslav Volf tells us, “Exclusion can be as much a sin of ‘good conscience’ as it is of an evil heart.”
The gift of seeing allows us to see the image of God in each person, regardless of their present views and behaviors. We see what may be hidden to others. No longer “like walking trees,” each person becomes to us a person of inestimable worth and potential. Seeing with God’s eyes elevates each person we meet, even as it rightly humbles us. Only with this posture can we bring worthy witness to Christ.
Blindness to Divine Judgment
The reciprocal to excluding some from grace is excluding some from judgment. It is possible to become blind to the need for the gospel to be proclaimed to some because in our heart we have become the judge—not to bring judgment but to deem it unnecessary.
We look on our neighbors, friends, or colleagues who are so reasonable and kind and who live in our neighborhoods and share our social circles, political views, and who laugh at our jokes. We need the gift of seeing so as not to be blind to the fact that all their human goodness does not justify them before God.
We must expunge the notion that our friends simply need reform when they in fact need repentance. May God remove the spiritual cataracts that dim our view of the reality that “there is none righteous, no not one” and “that there is no other name under heaven by which we can be saved.”
Blindness to Divine Potential
Beyond the redemption of individual lives, we know the gospel impacts families, communities, and even nations. It is the good news that Jesus brings healing and flourishing to every aspect of our lives. The gift of seeing opens our eyes to also see the gospel as how the right order is established in every relationship, including the creation of just systems, reconciliation between races, genders and political or economic adversaries.
We can be spiritually blind to the purposes of God to bring flourishing to entire populations, writing off nations and peoples as beyond hope. When we miss the Imago Dei in individuals we lose the vision of a redemptive wave of God’s grace more broadly.
Once, while traveling in the Democratic Republic of Congo, I was struck by the magnificent mahogany trees, one of the great natural treasures of this troubled land.
At a sawmill, I could see the great trees being cut to make lumber and furniture. Alongside the great trees were smaller pieces of wood, cast off as unusable as they were small, covered with moss and lichen and misshaped.
It struck me that within each of these pieces the image of the mahogany, the grain and color still existed. Were someone to take time to carefully cut, patiently sand, and lovingly apply fine oil, he or she could release the image of the mahogany hidden within. The discarded and covered could become a work of art worthy of display in a fine art gallery.
To see the divine potential in individuals and through individuals is to get a glimpse of God’s great redemptive purposes.
Open my eyes, Lord!
Scott Arbeiter is the President of World Relief.