“We’re all horrible and wonderful and figuring it out.”
So said Harris Wittels (1984-2015), one of the team behind legendary US sitcom, Parks & Recreation. Indeed, humanity has spent much of its history trying to figure itself out. How is it that we can be capable of acts of stirring selflessness, and acts of unspeakable terror. What’s with that?!
Of course, the real mystery is that such extremes can be found within the very same person. As the writer Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn so brilliantly observed:
“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?”
So how do we understand each other? How do we understand ourselves?
We try and do this in all sorts of ways: be it culture, nationality or class; be it Myers-Briggs, Enneagram, Love Languages – and yet we’re all inescapably complicated beings.
How might the Bible help us?
I first came across the “three S’s” in the writings of Christian Counseling & Educational Foundation (CCEF) faculty member, Michael Emlet. He calls us to remember that every Christian is simultaneously a saint, a sufferer, and a sinner. Personally, I’ve found this a really helpful set of ‘lenses’ for pastoral ministry. Emlet’s intention is to shape care-full pastoral care:
“People are complex. You and I are complex… How do we move toward one another in God-honoring ways? How do we love wisely in the context of everyday relationships and in more formal counseling settings?
However, I’ve found it helpful to add to Emlet’s three S’s with a couple of my own. These five lenses bring biblical perspective whoever we’re engaging with:
Every human is made in the ‘image of God’. Psalm 8 describes how God has set humanity apart from the rest of creation, crowning us with a unique splendour and honour (8:5). We have a God-given dignity as those created to bear his image. We’re not just mammals or ‘bones and blood’.
This is immensely important to our Christian worldview – and a really significant lens to see people through. Someone’s value lies not in something we – nor any other human individual or institution – assign, nor is it something people are left to create for themselves. It derives from being a person made by God, formed at conception and continuing eternally, whatever someon’s mental or physical state
And that means we’re to treat each other with dignity and honour. Whatever someone has done, however insignificant they may be in the world’s eyes, they have a splendour.
One action point here is to aim to ‘celebrate’ each person. The evangelist Rico Tice says we should learn to share the gospel in this context:
“I also remember that they have been made in God’s image, and I want to celebrate them and enjoy how God has made them … [My wife & I] have a calendar for the year where we plan in opportunities to get to know [our neighbours] and celebrate [them]. For example, we’ll organise golf evenings and a trip to the summer fair, or a day out at a rugby match, where we are able to build commonality and find out all about them.”
We live in a fallen world, fractured and torn apart through sin – and groaning for the curse to be lifted. And that means that each of us will be suffering the effects of life in this broken world. As REM put it so perfectly, “Everybody hurts.”
Whether it’s through illness, natural tragedy, bereavement, or whether it’s as a victim more specifically of someone else’s selfishness and cruelty, we’re all sufferers. Every face you look out over at church; every person you walk past on the street; every person who serves you in the cafe or store. As a nineteenth-century pastor Ian Maclaren once said, “Be kind. For everyone you meet is fighting a battle you know nothing about.”
Of course, some of us are quick to reveal our suffering – speaking freely, perhaps bemoaning honestly. Some of us will show our suffering unintentionally, in fragility, resentment or distrust. Others of us will do as much as we can to keep things hidden (whether successful or not). Yet there’ll be relationship tensions, mental battles, hidden histories lying beneath the surface. There’s always so much that we don’t see.
Seeing each other through this lens helps foster a compassionate desire to understand, to serve and to empathise with people, which should cash out in our interactions, our preaching, and our care.
If someone is a believer in Jesus Christ, then they’re a ‘saint’. We tend to associate that word with Roman Catholicism and dead people, but it’s actually the English word used to translate the apostle Paul’s description of all Christian believers. You could equally translate it as ‘holy ones’ or ‘set apart ones’.
It’s pretty tragic, then, that the word is frequently ascribed to a special class of Christian ‘heroes’, as if being a ‘saint’ was something individualistic or referring to elevated status.
And so, just as Paul is eager to remind his Christian readers that their identity is found in Christ, so we should be quick to see fellow Christians through that lens. This person is someone loved by God from before the foundations of the world; who has been given a hope that goes beyond the darkest valley of this life; and who is in-dwelt with the regenerating Holy Spirit.
Once we see that it completely changes how we relate to that person. It also means we have a much better understanding of how we can encourage them.
The Bible is clear that evil does not just happen in the world around us. It flows out of the heart within us. We all turn away from God and live with ourselves as our own gods. We fail to love God and love our neighbour. This means our greatest problem will always be that we need to be reconciled to our Creator. And therefore the greatest way of loving someone will be to point them to Jesus Christ.
I remember a mentor in Christian ministry once plainly telling me, ‘Never be surprised at the sin someone is capable of’. Of course, when we really look into our own hearts, we begin to understand this. We can deceive each other – and we deceive ourselves.
From time to time there are debates about whether or not it is biblical for Christians to still think of themselves as sinners. Of course, it is right that we think of ourselves in our ‘new nature’ (as above), but we are – as Martin Luther famously put it – ‘simul justus et peculator’, i.e. at the same time righteous (through faith in Christ) and a sinner.
Viewing through this lens means we’re not naive about each other, nor about ourselves. It fosters personal humility and a deep love that is willing to challenge. We’ll lovingly speak God’s truth to each other – the truth of the gospel – and put ourselves in relationships where others can do the same for us.
This is the last ‘lens’, and perhaps it’s the one that pastorally I can most overlook. We’re all different, and so that means we’re all strange to each other. Sure, we’ll identify with some people more than others, but we’ve all still got a whole inner world known only to us (and – if we’re honest – not even fully known to ourselves). Even the closest friendship or most intimate marriage will always have degrees of ‘strangeness’.
Why’s this important? Because so often we can perceive difference as black and white, right and wrong. I remember spending half a year living in a foreign country with a fellow Brit; we ended up coming up with a catch-phrase for when we came up against cultural differences: “It’s not wrong, it’s just different”.
I first heard this ‘strangeness’ alluded to by John Piper in a passing sentence in his book, This Momentary Marriage. When talking about the need to demonstrate forgiveness and forbearance to each other, he explains:
“…there is going to be conflict based on sin and strangeness (and you won’t be able even to agree with each other about what is simply strange about each other and what is sin)…” [my underlining]
Not everything that winds you up or irks you about someone is sin. We’re all strange – and if you don’t think you’re odd, then just ask someone to live with you for a week. Seeing through this lens will mean we’re more ready to be patient, more willing to understand, and more prepared to hold our own opinions lightly.
So, how do you understand yourself? How do you understand your neighbour, your spouse, or the person you’ve just met.
Every relationship is a journey of discovery – but as we learn to see another person, I hope these five lenses together give us a biblical perspective that is compassionate, faithful, and nuanced.