This morning, we continue in our series on Love in Action. Last week, we talked about the importance of loving our neighbors – our actual neighbors, and I hope that you’ve all begun the process of meeting the people who live around you. But, this morning, we’re going to broaden our circle a little bit.
Which can be a bit challenging, because some of us are like Linus in this Peanuts comic strip. Apparently, Linus has been thinking about becoming a doctor because Lucy says to him, “You, a doctor! Ha! That’s a big laugh!”
She says, “You could never be a doctor. You know why?”
“Because you don’t love mankind, that’s why.”
And Linus says, “I love mankind…it’s people I can’t stand.”
And maybe you can relate to that. And it’s not that we can’t stand all people, but there are some people we just find it difficult to be around. I love Colossians 3:13 because every time I read it, it makes me smile. Paul is talking in this passage about the importance of loving each other and he says to be compassionate and kind and patient. But then in verse 13, he says to, “bear with one another”. Some translations (GW, CEV) translate this as “put up with each other”.
And that makes me smile because in the middle of all these grand, noble godly challenges, Paul says, “and also, I want you to put up with each other”. Which sounds like a pretty low standard, one that you might set for your kids when they’re fighting in the back seat. You don’t expect them to be all hugs and kisses, but you do expect them to put up with each other.
But, what may seem to come across as a fairly low standard of conduct is actually a rather challenging thing for us to do. The New Living Translation translates this phrase, “make allowance for each other’s faults”, and that can be a difficult thing for us to do when people around us mess up, and, as you are well aware, people tend to do that a lot.
As we read the parable of the Prodigal Son, and we see this son who showed such disrespect for his father and made such a waste of his life. And, if we’re honest with ourselves, we have to admit that we all have a tendency to be like the older son — to write someone like that off. It’s easy to believe that they’ve made a total mess of their lives and they’ll never amount to anything. Meanwhile, God is standing there with open arms, not only hoping but believing that his son will eventually come to his senses.
Which tells me that God doesn’t see people the same way I do. The people I see as problems, God sees as sons and daughters who are made in his image. The people I see as difficult, God sees as a work in progress. I’m sure you’ve all seen the T-shirt that says, “Be patient. God isn’t finished with yet.” And we all want people to be patient with us because we’re still learning and growing and trying to be what God wants us to be. The challenge for us, though, is to be patient with other people, knowing that they are still learning and growing, too.
One of the things that becomes clear as you read through the Bible is that God doesn’t look so much at who we are, but at what we can become. He doesn’t focus on the shortcomings of people, but looks at their potential.
For example, when Samuel went to the house of Jesse to find and anoint the next king of Israel, he was immediately drawn to the oldest son of Jesse, the tall, muscular son. But God said,
“Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” (I Samuel 16:7).
Looking at David, the youngest of all the sons, there wasn’t much to see, but God saw the kind of leader he would become. God didn’t see Abram as a man who grew up in a family who worshiped false gods. He saw Abraham, the father of a seed that would bless every nation on the face of the earth. God didn’t see Saul, the persecutor of the church. He saw Paul, the proclaimer of his gospel to the Gentile world.
And during his earthly ministry, Jesus showed a tremendous ability to do the same thing. He was able to look into the heart of a sinner and see the valuable soul that could be salvaged.
For example, in Matthew, 9 we find the story of the call of Mat¬thew. Matthew was one of those most hated men in Israel because he was a tax collector, hated by the Jews because he took money from his fellow Jews and gave it to the Romans. And very often, the tax collectors would cheat their brethren as well.
But Jesus didn’t see Matthew the tax collector; he saw Matthew the serv¬ant of God. Jesus was able to see the good in others and draw it out of them.
When Jesus looked at Simon Bar-Jonah, he didn’t just see a bumbling fisherman who was always putting his foot in his mouth. He saw Peter, a rock.
When he looked at James and John, he didn’t just see the sons of thunder, those guys with a terrible temper. He saw John, the apostle of love, and James, the first apostle to be martyred for his faith.
I think about Jesus talking with the Samaritan woman by the well in John 4. She was amazed. “How is it that you, being a Jew, ask a drink from me, a Samari¬tan woman?” (John 4:9). Not only was she a Samaritan, a half-breed, and a woman who was looked down upon by men. To top it all off, she was an adulteress, living with a man who wasn’t her husband. But Jesus saw something in her that we might have trouble seeing. He was able to see not only who she was, but who she could be.
But I think the Bible story that best demonstrates how God sees us comes from the book of Judges. Judges chapter 6. It’s the story of Gideon, who was one of the greatest heroes of the Old Testament. At least that’s how we think of him, but that’s certainly not how Gideon saw himself.
In just a moment, we’ll pick up in verse 11. But first, let me give you a little bit of background. In the book of Judges, there is this cycle that happens over and over where the Israelites fall away from God and God then allows their enemies to come in and oppress the Israelites.
In Judges 6, God used a group of desert people known as the Midianites. The Midianites had discovered a new military weapon — the camel! Now, in the 21st century, with our atomic bombs, laser beams and tomahawk missiles, it’s hard for us to appreciate the military significance of camels in those days. But at that time in history, camels gave the Midianites an enormous military advantage. Their main benefit was giving them a mobile, long-range, swift attack capability. A camel can travel three or four days with a heavy load on its back and cover about 300 miles without food or water.
So with their powerful new weapons, the Midianites developed a unique strategy against Israel. Rather than invade and occupy the land like some of the other countries did, they simply waited until the harvest was ready. Then they would move in from the desert, cross the Jordan in huge numbers and overwhelm the land. Israel was defenseless, and the Midianites took every bit of food they could find. They swooped through the land like a plague of locusts, stripping it bare of grain, vege¬tables, fruit and livestock. And once their camels were loaded down with their spoil, they would cross back into the desert and live there until the next harvest time.
They did this for seven years in a row, and this put Israel in a desperate situation. The Israelites tried to hide their food in caves in the mountains. But nothing could stop the Midianites. Which brings us to Judges 6:11, “Now the angel of the Lord came and sat under the terebinth at Ophrah, which belonged to Joash the Abiezrite, while his son Gideon was beating out wheat in the winepress to hide it from the Midianites.”
Let’s stop there for a moment. I want you to notice what Gideon was doing. This was not the normal place for a farmer to thresh his wheat. The normal place for threshing was somewhere on a hill so that when they threw the wheat up in the air, the wind would blow the chaff away.
But Gideon was hiding down low in a winepress, beating out a few sheaves of wheat, desperately trying to save the little bit of food that he had from the Midianites. This is a description of a defeated, discouraged man. Gideon was afraid.
But as Gideon was beating out his few stalks of wheat, a man approached and sat down. Gideon didn’t know that this was an angel right away, so appar¬ently there was nothing supernatural about his appearance. No wings, no halo, no harp. But this was the angel of the Lord
And here’s what the angel said. Verse 12, “The Angel of the Lord appeared to him, and said to him, ‘the Lord is with you.’” And then notice what he called him. He said, “The Lord is with you, mighty man of valor.”
Now if I didn’t know God better, I might think that he was mocking Gideon. Because if there was anything Gideon was not, at that moment, it was a valiant warri¬or, a mighty hero. That was a term used to describe brave soldiers marching into the thick of the battle. But here Gideon was — hiding, beating out his wheat with a stick, scared to death of the Midianites. He was anything but a mighty man of valor.
But God saw something in Gideon that he didn’t see in himself. And so, in verse 14, “The LORD turned to him and said, ‘Go in this might of yours and save Israel from the hand of Midian.” (Judges 6:14)
He’s still seeing Gideon as a powerful warrior. And Gideon is confused. He said, “Please, Lord, how can I save Israel? Behold, my clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my father’s house.” (Judges 6:15)
“God, you’ve got the wrong guy. I’m a nobody. I come from a long line of nobodies. I’m not good enough, not strong enough, not brave enough.” And if you had been there and you had seen how Gideon was acting, you would agreed with him. This was a man who, from all appearances, was inadequate, helpless, inferior.
But in verse 16, the Lord said to Gideon, “I will be with you, and you shall strike the Midianites as one man.” And we know the rest of the story. We know the great warrior that Gideon became. We know him as a great hero of the Israelites, truly a mighty man of valor.
And one of the things that we learn from this story of Gideon is that God’s view of you is very different from your own view of yourself.
I can assure you that God sees more in you than you see in yourself. In verse 12, when the angel came to Gideon and found him hiding, everything about his physical actions said, “I’m afraid.” But God called him a mighty warrior.
God sees more in you than you see in yourself. And God sees more in you than others around you see in you. But, that’s not only true of you, it’s true of other people, too. When you look at people around you who have messed up, God sees more in them than you see.
And I love all these stories in scripture. When everybody else looked at Rahab, they saw a prostitute; they saw a harlot. But God saw someone whose heart would be turned toward him, who would one day marry a godly man, who then would give birth to a child so that through her genealogy would come Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world. While everyone else saw a prostitute, God saw the potential.
When other people looked at David as a child, they saw a little shepherd boy. God saw something in him that they didn’t see. God saw a warrior, able to stand up to a giant. And whenever David sinned and fell, others saw him merely as an adulterer. But God saw him as a man who sought after the heart of God more than anything else.
When Peter messed up time and again, and again, and again, and just couldn’t seem to get it right, what did Jesus see? Jesus saw a rock. Jesus saw someone who would one day use the keys of the kingdom to make that kingdom available to all men.
I want you to know that God sees more in you than others see. Because that’s what love does. And so, the challenge for us as we try to imitate God is to be able to love other people around us in the same way that God does.
In I Corinthians 13:7, in his beautiful description of love, Paul said that, “Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.”
Notice that phrase — love believes all things. Now, that doesn’t mean that love is gullible. It doesn’t mean that love will believe whatever you tell it. I think that the ISV best captures Paul’s meaning as it translates this phrase, “[Love] believes the best in all.”
Love believes the best in other people; it looks for potential. Love doesn’t just see who someone is; it sees who they can become. Instead of being suspicious and eager to find fault, love always wants to believe the best. If there is any doubt about a person’s motive, love will always choose the most favorable possibility. If someone you love is accused of doing something wrong, love will consider him innocent until proven guilty. Love believes the best about others.
Imagine that you’re driving down the road, along Bragg Blvd. where some “women of the night” are known to stand around on the corners. And imagine that, as you drive by, you see someone you know stop their car and open the door and let one of these women in.
How you react to a situation like that, and what assumptions you make, will depend very much on how you feel about that person. If it’s your best friend, then you would tend to assume the best. You don’t understand what’s going on, and you plan to ask them later, but you don’t jump to conclusions. You assume the best.
But, if it’s someone you don’t like that you see doing that, then you’re very quick to assume the worst. You grab your phone and call up a few friends, “You won’t believe what I just saw.” As difficult as it may be at times, love doesn’t automatically jump to conclusions. Love always believes the best, it always gives someone the benefit of the doubt.
Job’s friends are a good example of how love doesn’t act. In fact, I’m not sure why they’re even called his friends. Job was suffering, suffering terribly. And all they had ever heard before and all they had ever taught before was that if you suffered, it was because of your sins. Job also didn’t understand why he was suffering so terribly, but he knew it wasn’t because of his sins because he was a good upright man. And he tried to tell that to his friends, but they didn’t believe him. No, they were ready to assume the worst about Job, thoroughly convinced that his problems could only have been caused by his sins.
In fact, in Job 22, Eliphaz starts listing all the sins that he thought Job was guilty of — stealing, taking advantage of people, not providing for the needy. He says to Job, “Is not your wickedness great, and your iniquity without end?” (Job 22:5). It’s very evident that all three of these men were quick to believe the worst about Job because they really didn’t love him. They weren’t even willing to listen to his explanation.
In sharp contrast to those men, though, take a look at Barnabas. He has to be the one Bible character who best exemplifies this characteristic of love. When Saul of Tarsus was converted to Christianity, nobody trusted him. They probably thought he was infiltrating their ranks. Everyone except Barnabas. Barnabas took a chance on him and believed the best. “And when Saul had come to Jerusalem, he tried to join the disciples; but they were all afraid of him, and did not believe that he was a disciple. But Barnabas took him and brought him to the apostles.” (Acts 9:26-27)
Then, after Paul and Barnabas traveled on their first missionary journey, John Mark left them. When they got ready for a second trip, Barnabas was ready to take Mark again. Love doesn’t just see who someone is; it sees who they can become.
And this is an important characteristic of love because often what you believe about a person affects who they become. For example, if you tell a child long enough that he’s a clutz or nickname him “Dopey,” chances are that child will grow up to be a clutz or a dummy. The reverse is true as well — if you see the best in someone, you bring out the best in that person.
And we’ve all seen that happen in our lives. It means so much to have someone who has faith in us, someone who believes the best in us and won’t give up on us no matter how many times we fall. You husbands and wives know the value of having a mate like that. There have been times that the only thing that kept me going was the knowledge that Sueanne had faith in me. She believes in me and I need that. Children need parents with a love that believes in them, that helps them realize their potential for good despite their failures and shortcomings.
And as members of God’s family, we all need to have that kind of relation¬ship with one another. And we even need to have that kind of attitude toward those who have not yet found Christ. Hatred will always believe the worst; love will always believe the best.
In everyone he met, Jesus saw the potential, not the problems. Potential sometimes lies dormant. The history books are full of stories of gifted persons whose talents were overlooked by a bunch of people until someone believed in them. To name just a few …
Albert Einstein was four years old before he could speak and seven years old before he could read. He was thought to be mentally handicapped, and yet he became one of the greatest physicists who ever lived.
Thomas Edison was told by his teachers that “he was too stupid to learn anything.” He went on to invent over a thousand items, including the phonograph and the light bulb.
Dr. Seuss had his first book rejected by 27 different publishing companies.
A newspaper fired Walt Disney because he had “no good ideas” When he started out in Kansas City, he couldn’t sell his cartoons. Some people suggested that he had no talent. But Disney had a dream, and so he set out to prove his critics wrong. He found a minister who paid him a small amount of money to draw advertising pictures for his church. Disney didn’t have anywhere to stay, so that the church let him sleep in the mouse-infested garage. Disney nicknamed one of those mice Mickey, and you know the rest of the story.
One of the great truths of scripture is that when God looks at us, he doesn’t see us for what we are or what we think we are, but for what we can become, as he works in our lives. And God is in the business of taking weak, insignificant people, and transforming them by his presence. He knows our weaknesses, our discouragements, our doubts and our inadequacies, but because he loves us, he knows what we have the power to become.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could learn to see the people around us as God sees them? To see not only who they are, with their weaknesses and inadequacies, but to see their potential. To see who they can become. We need to see people as God sees them.
I think one of the most amazing verses in all the Bible is found in I Corinthians 1:2 – “To the church of God that is in Corinth, to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, both their Lord and ours.”
You may wonder why I find this verse so amazing. It’s because Paul refers to the Christians in Corinth as “those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints.” As you read through the rest of this letter, you find out what kind of people were in this church – they argued about who was the best and they picked sides, they were more interested in grabbing all the food they could get than in sharing the Lord’s Supper together. They were immature and immoral and unloving and argumentative and full of pride. But Paul’s letter starts off by calling them “saints”, because that’s how God saw them.
Despite their imperfections, Paul had a deep affection for the Christians in Corinth. There are going to be some folks that you and I come in contact with that we just can’t stand. So-and-so is too loud, another is too critical; someone else is too snobby; and let’s face it, some people are just plain obnoxious.
How could Paul express so much love for the Corinthians? Because he saw people the way God saw them. Paul knew that in spite of their flaws and they shortcomings, God still loved them and God called them to be saints.
Paul was able to love people because he knew that God loves people. I’m sure you’ve heard the expression, “Any friend of yours is a friend of mine.” I think that’s the way it should be when it comes how we regard other people.
Let me tell you what I mean. Suppose your father calls you and he says, “I’ve got a good friend of mine named John Jones who is coming to Fayetteville next week and I’d like you to meet him at the airport and show him around town.” Even though you’re busy and you’ve never met John Jones, and you’re not in the tourism business, you are probably going to do your very best to take care of him when he arrives. Because any friend of your father’s is a friend of yours.
The same should go for the way we regard other. If someone is a friend of my heavenly Father, then he’s a friend of mine. And it doesn’t matter who it is and how much they’ve messed up, he or she is dearly loved by our Father, because he made them in his own image and he regards them as one of his children.
If we love people, we see them as God sees them.