Seeing Christ in Others
One of the best books I’ve ever read is Victor Frankl’s, Man’s Search For Meaning. As a Jewish survivor of the holocaust, this man would have gotten a pass from the world for spending the rest of his days embittered and angry. But he saw things differently.
In the book, Frankl notes that other people can take just about everything away from us. They can take our freedom, our money, our dignity, even our life. The one thing they cannot take (which is the one thing we’re often must willing to give them) is our ability to choose how we will respond to a situation.
No one can “make” us mad, distraught, happy, excited, bored, afraid, etc. Each of those emotions are generated from within and while our knee jerk reactions may be beyond our conscious control – though they are heavily influenced by the conscious choices we’ve made in previous situations – we are always able to choose to respond in a healthy or unhealthy fashion.
But this is difficult. So very difficult…for all of us I think. It is not easy to be truly self-differentiated (meaning we do not derive our identity from others or our relationship to them). It is hard to not allow our circumstances to dictate our emotions. Those who struggle with road rage know just how hard it can be to retrain your emotional responses to certain stimuli.
Though I often roll my eyes at her for it (dramatically and in front of her…less rude that way) my wife is right to correct me for saying “I HAVE to do” such and such, instead of “I GET to do” those things. Its minor, but it is part of training myself NOT to go negative, when a positive response is right in front of me.
When we worked together in south Louisiana, my friends Tod Vogt, Marcus Mathis and I decided to enact a “cynicism free zone” whenever we met together. It is easy (and often funny, let’s be honest) to provide a running commentary on the folly and flaws of others, to second guess their motives and to generally make ourselves out to be innocent martyrs. But typically, we aren’t any more innocent than they are evil.
Yes. There are people who have given themselves over to evil. There are other people who operate almost exclusively from selfish agendas. Then there are many, many people whose motives are mixed…and most of them live in our mirrors.
I used to really struggle (I still do, but I’m slowly improving) with what one wise friend called “anger fantasies.” I’ve talked to enough people to know I’m not alone in this: you play out a conversation in your head before it happens, anticipating all the hurtful things someone could say – and then you plan your response. By the end of it, you’re furious at this person as though the conversation actually happened!
Similarly, you begin imagining what somebody meant when they made a certain comment and then you extrapolate that into a whole conspiracy theory of malevolent behind-the-scenes stuff.
More often than not, the conversation never goes that way (unless you stick to your anger script and take it there) and the other person meant something totally different in their comment. But still, like the proverbial dog in scripture, we habitually return to this disgusting practice. No other non-Jesus person has the ability to change that on which we choose to focus our mental energy – you’re the only one actually in your head.
One of the strongest convictions I gained from my studies in psychology is that just about everything is nature AND nurture. We may have a genetic predisposition to be glass-half-empty kind of person…but if we don’t feed it, that perspective will wither and die. If we choose to focus on cynicism and negativity, then even if we were born with a cheery disposition, chances are we’ll have more in common with Oscar than Elmo.
Recently, thanks to a free kindle download, I discovered another book: UNconditional? The Call of Jesus to Radical Forgiveness by Brian Zhand. This book also begins with a page from the holocaust. There is a story of Jewish man who was called in to sit at the deathbed of a Nazi soldier in search of forgiveness from a Jewish person…ANY Jewish person. The question that this man later asked was, is it necessary or even possible to offer such forgiveness? Interestingly enough, I was reading this book when the news came out that Osama Bin Laden had been killed by US special forces.
In both of these situations the conclusion that seemed inescapable is that 1) without the example of God’s love and forgiveness modeled in the life of Christ it is difficult to imagine offering forgiveness to those who have truly wronged us (or humanity) and 2) because of the example of God’s love through Jesus, it is essential that we offer such forgiveness.
If this is possible and necessary in scenarios of such vast significance, it stands to reason that it must also permeate our daily relationships as well. In order to life in this way we must not only seek to live as Christ lived, but also to see others as Christ sees them…and even to see Christ in them.
By the power of the Holy Spirit, let us not only seek to be Christ to others, but to see Christ in them. I’m convinced that success in the latter will lead to success in the former. It is increasingly common these days (and I am so glad for this) to hear people talking about seeing Christ in a person asking for money on a street corner. It is perhaps less common to say that we saw Christ in a person we know personally and with whom we disagree, or who we feel has wronged us. Its even less common to hear someone say they saw Christ in someone they deem an “enemy.”
How would our daily life change if we set out to see Christ in every person? That doesn’t mean we condone every action or turn a blind eye to injustice and sin. It does mean that we recognize that our true enemy isn’t flesh and blood but the powers and principalities of darkness. It requires us to focus our mental energies on things which are beneficial and not destructive; we must avoid the temptation to turn every comment into a slight or every action into an attack.
Of all of Paul’s letters, my favorite is definitely Philippians. So I let Paul have the final words of encouragement in this post:
Philippians 4:4-9 “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.”