Issues and Labels or Faces and Stories?

I’m more than you know

I’m more than you see here

I’m more than you let me be

I’m more than you know

A body and a soul

You don’t see me but you will

I am not invisible.

There is no them

There is no them

There’s only us.

-U2, “Invisible”

I drove quite a distance yesterday, six hours total, to be precise. And I had plenty of time to think, and also to listen to music and podcasts. One podcast in particular, a Jonathan Martin sermon, really grabbed me because it was exactly what I’d been thinking about off and on, for a month or so. He helped tie up some of the loose ends for me.

I don’t remember precisely how he said it, but he talked about how God was teaching him to pull his head out of the sand, so he could see people with God’s eyes, enter into their pain, listen to the stories of their lives.

And here’s where the problem is for a lot of us. It’s extremely hard to do that, and still use the labels we’re so fond of. It’s almost impossible to do both. We love to talk about things in terms of “issues facing the church, or America today.” And I don’t think there’s much wrong with discussing “issues.”

But these issues affect people, real people, real image bearers, real lives.

It’s funny how soundbites and labels go hand in hand. The insane amounts of media we’re bombarded with, willingly or otherwise, day and night, has really changed how we think and talk about things. Even though these concise statements using lots of labels and statistics to talk about various issues comprise nice, neatly packaged bits of information to digest, unfortunately it doesn’t give us a very Godly view of the world.

What do I mean by Godly?

I think a Godly view of the world must include a lot of seeing the image of God in other people.

It really does. We humans have the ability to do hellish things when we manage to cloud our vision enough to forget about the image of God in others. I know the wickedness I imagine, sometimes. And let me tell you, when I’m thinking those things, the farthest thought from my mind is that this person is a precious creation of God’s, made to bear His image.

Statistics, news, soundbites, may have truth in them, but truth can’t be reduced to any of those things.

Truth goes much, much deeper.

I think we need to make a huge effort to stop letting the news companies and the politicians control how we talk about stuff. It seems like we’ve just gotten so used to it, we barely think about how it’s affecting us. See, if we don’t actually make any effort to know any of the faces and stories behind these labels, if we only choose to look at them as a group of facts and statistics, we feel we can say pretty much anything we want about them, so long as it doesn’t sound too bad. We feel we can reduce them to a political statement. A theological statement. Some to like to call it “standing for truth.”

But what really is truth, if it’s not based in the Word made flesh? He’s the one who showed us what truth looks like, in person, walking around in skin and bones. He showed us what it was like to really see people.

The law came through Moses, but grace and truth came through Jesus.

We’re not Christ, but we are called to be Christ’s bodily representation right now.

And really, we can’t see people with God’s eyes, when we’re conveniently reducing the gays, the illegal immigrants, the Arabs, the African Americans, the liberals, the conservatives, the fundamentalists, the liberal theologians, the Catholics, the evangelicals, the rich, the poor, the policemen, the felons, whoever we don’t like, into little chunks of news and statistic for us to slice up, discuss, and pretend they were never really people in the first place.

We might as well be honest; we all have our people we we’d rather not see as people.

Labels do make it easier to talk about people, but I have to wonder: what do these discussions really accomplish if it never goes beyond abstract, if we never see what they mean in the context of our local communities, or in our relationships with individuals? What I mean by that is, if our theories on these issues have no flesh on them or no faces to them, do we really think we can discuss them in an educated manner?

We feel safe keeping it in the theoretical, because it frees us to reach whatever conclusion feels safest and most comfortable to us, and our voices sound really wise bouncing back to us in the comfortable little vacuum we’ve made for ourselves to inhabit.

I’m not proposing existence without convictions. That would be absurd. But what does your conviction look like when it comes into contact with a living and breathing person, a priceless being whom Jesus died to save? Is it as black and white as you thought? Chances are, it’s not.

And this slaps me squarely in the face, because I love the sound of my own voice and the sound of my ideas. I like talking about things more than I like seeing what happens when I embody them outside of the comfortable home I’ve built for them. But ideas affect real people, and I can’t be naive enough to assume otherwise.

Like Becca says, when we enter into someone else’s story, we have to face our own brokenness. And we all hate that. It’s no fun to approach a person you see as being beneath you, and realizing they don’t fit inside the box you built–that ugliness in your own heart is no better than the ugliness in theirs.

It hurts. It’s humbling to realize we’re on par with those we despise. But only when we’re knocked to our knees by His grace and our unworthiness, only then and there, are we in the proper position to serve.

I think it’s pretty typical “fallen human” to not want to know the stories of the people we’d rather write off. Those people about whom we’d never say this, but in more subtle and “Christian” (Pharisaical) ways, act like grace isn’t for them.

We all like to feel superior to someone.

The reality is, if we try, it’s pretty hard to not see at least a little bit of God in those people, to see a little bit of ourselves in those people, to begin to see little sprouts of hope coming out of the ground in their lives, when we make friends with them.

One thing though: if you start making friends with the people you’re prone to dislike, it’s much harder to fit them into the neatly tied packages you’ve fashioned for them.

The generalizations stop working.

The labels and statistics start being replaced by faces and stories that don’t let you talk about issues the same way, because you think of the real people associated with them.

It’s certainly not the easiest way to approach life, but it is the Jesus way.

And here’s where it gets awkward, because those who know me well, know I really struggle hard to embody this. I think I’m getting better at it but the progress is so slow, that it’s really discouraging sometimes. I find it really hard to brush up against the types of people who don’t “fit” with me very naturally. More often than I care to admit, my actions push the people I’ve categorized as “them” away instead of inviting them to be a friend.

But that’s very much what Jesus was talking about when He said, that even “heathen” people usually treat those well who are easy to treat well. Is anything exceptional, or “earth as it is in heaven” going on, when I’m nice to people who are easy for me to get along with?

Hardly.

I guess I’m simply asking that all of us who name Jesus as King be extremely careful what we’re willing to say about issues concerning people we’ve never bothered to meet, let alone even tried to love.

Brian Zahnd aptly explains some of John’s best known words in the Bible like this:

“If we say, “I love God.” But we hate our brother, that is, the other, we are lying to [ourselves]…

…John says there’s a problem. You can’t see God. You only see God in the imago Dei; you only see God in the image bearer. You only see God in the other.

Because God whom you cannot see can become abstract, and what you end up doing is actually loving yourself, because you imagine God to be like youBut when you find out that the other, your neighbor, whether you call them friend or enemy, bears the image of God, and you can’t love them, now the cat’s out of the bag and the truth is on the table that you never did love God, you only did love yourself…

…the Biblical test case for love of God, in other words, is love of neighbor. And you think, ‘Okay. Alright.’

But the Biblical test case for love of neighbor is love of enemy.

We love God to the extent that we love [our enemy.]”

A few closing thoughts:

I don’t know exactly how to conclude this because some of this stuff isn’t particularly fun for me to think about– mostly because I know how much transformation needs to happen in me. I know the ugly thoughts and actions of which I’m capable.

Sometimes they stay inside and sometimes they come out–you know, those moments that make you wonder what God ever saw in you, that caused Him to pursue you, or any of us. He loves us. So mysteriously, lavishly, relentlessly.

I guess I have to conclude that it’s his nature. The fact that He is love.

I’m thankful for a patient and gracious King who doesn’t stoop to my ways of dealing with people–the One who continues to show me what love actually looks like in the flesh, the One who embodied perfect love and, asks us to the same, that we may be children, who are like our Father in Heaven.


Will you teach us how to love?
To see the things you see
Walk the road you walked
Feel the pain that you feel…

-Jars of Clay

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7 comments on “Issues and Labels or Faces and Stories?

  1. Rocco Brown says:

    Thank you for sharing!

  2. Linda Miller says:

    Truth. When I feel like I have to prove something to somebody my focus goes to labels and making sure everyone knows and understands how knowledgeable I am on the issues. On the other hand, when I believe in my heart who the Father says I am, then I am free to see people with flaws and ugliness, but my heart can be open to caring for them them instead of reacting to them. The sad thing is that our reactions reinforce to struggling people that they are not valuable and so their behaviour reflects those beliefs. We will never “do it” perfectly, but I believe the more whole and at rest we are in our own hearts (it is painful to address the the issues that have kept us from having free hearts, but it is sooo worth it) the clearer our vision is to see the people and to hear the stories. Linda

  3. Sherilyn M. says:

    Wow, what can I say? This is hands down one of the best posts I have ever read on this whole issue– you have a brave, honest, and yet humble and vulnerable voice–we so need it!! It is also so much of what Brian and I heard the Sunday you had devotions, we both talked about it that you have a gift of sharing truth in a way that is unthreatening and invitational. That is an incredible gift and voice straight from God’s heart!

    I loved that Jonathan Martin sermon too, I think for me I felt affirmed in an odd way– NOT because I know how to love well yet, but yet I have felt so weird in feeling so much pain from entering other’s lives, and yearning so much to let them know that their stories are valid, and matter, and there is a Jesus who really cares… Ack I am so not making sense! Like maybe that is a sign that I am in Jesus’ Kingdom??

    I loved too that you included the fundamentalists and conservatives in your list– I think there too sometimes we just simply can not know what all is going on behind the scenes– I know for me personally holding to certain “beliefs” whether my heart agreed or not–it literally, in some ways, was like my physical protection depended on me holding to them. If it hadn’t been for people who loved me like Jesus (I see now all throughout my life, even as a child) I would never, ever be who I am today. (with Jesus of course!:))

    I LOVE that grace and truth came through Jesus, and I love our King who continues to love us right into loving others!! Thank you so much!!

    • rjshetler says:

      Hey, thanks so much. That means a huge lot. I need that because sometimes I’m not sure if I’m being gracious enough or if I’m being too easy and not saying what I actually mean. So it’s good to know that I hit what I’m aiming for at least sometimes.

      I know what you mean. I don’t either feel like I’m so great at loving my set of “difficult people.” But I think it really does start with “seeing” those people as people. I think I’m starting to notice small improvements in how I relate to them and even just in feeling their pain as my “vision” improves. But it’s slow. It’s like someone said: transformation is a lot more like plant growth, than fireworks. I guess it’s in the slow growth that we learn to abide, and learn to know God. At the risk of quoting Zahnd too often, “Be present; and be patient.”

  4. Sherilyn M. says:

    Ack, word should have been “non threatening” not un. Sorry, words bother me… 🙂

  5. Donna says:

    This blog post spoke to me! Most times when someone labels me, i feel the NEED to clarify, even if i don’t actually do this, to educate them on the whole picture. The’ more-to the -story’ that they aren’t choosing to see.
    It takes giant humility to be the one willing to hear the whole story. Willing to get close enough to feel the emotions, intentions, disappointments of the person who we would rather just label. I myself was more willing to label until i realized the pain of being labeled. We really truly will find what Becca said to be true. May be the very reason we label–its less painful than seeing our weakness and need.Thanks for being willing to write this. God will use you greatly.

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