On the outside, looking in
Sometimes the cost of an entire book can be justified by one perceptive and illuminating sentence.
A case in point is “Hippie” by Barry Miles (2004, Sterling Publishing) — a chronicle of the hippie movement of the 1960s in America and Britain.
In his introduction, Miles poses the question, “Why are hippies important?” His answer is as simple as it is profound: Because it is only by stepping outside of society that people are able to look at it objectively — to see what is wrong with it and how they’d like to change it.
I could recast that by saying that it is only by stepping outside of the church that people are able to look at it objectively — to see what is wrong with it and how it could be changed. But when you’re closely involved with something and heavily invested in its ‘success’, it’s very hard to look at it dispassionately.
As Os Guiness once said, “No one stands outside the issues and speaks with complete detachment, objectivity, and neutrality … none of us speaks from nowhere … all of us speak from somewhere.”
Let me give you an example: A recent survey commissioned by the Episcopal Church in the United States and conducted by polling firm Ipsos asked Christians to describe other Christians and the general response was “compassionate,” “loving,” and “respectful.” In stark contrast, when asked their opinion of Christians, non-Christians overwhelmingly described them as “hypocritical,” “judgmental,” and “self-righteous.”
Commenting on the findings, the Episcopal Church’s presiding Bishop, Michael Curry, said, “There is a disconnect between the reality of Jesus and the perceived reality of Christians. This was an attempt on our church’s part to actually listen to what others were saying about Jesus, about us. We dared to ask, ‘How are we perceived?’”
The inference is clear: the way we see ourselves individually, and as a church, is very different to the way other people see us. That’s why it is so important to heed the apostle Paul’s admonition and regularly come to the Lord’s Table and examine our hearts before Him (1 Cor 11.28); to pray like David, “Search me, O God, probe my heart and know my thoughts, see if there is any wicked way in me” (Psalm 139.23-24).
Seeing ourselves as God sees us
It takes a special grace to stand outside of ourselves, as it were, to be the observer rather than the observed, and see ourselves as God sees us. The Old Testament prophets functioned in the capacity of ‘seers’ (1 Sam 9.9). Their role, essentially, was to help the people of Israel ‘see’ themselves through God’s eyes (2 Kings 17.13).
For example, in 536 B.C. after more than sixty years in Babylonian captivity, a group of faithful Jews returned to Jerusalem to rebuild the temple and the city. The project started well with the construction of an altar and the offering of sacrifices, and the laying of the foundation of the temple. However, after two years the work ceased due to the opposition of the local inhabitants.
The Jews instead turned their attention to building beautiful houses for themselves and developing their economy. They rationalised this change of tack by saying things like, “Maybe it’s not the right time to build the temple,” and “Even if we do manage to build a house of worship, it won’t be anything like Solomon’s temple.”
In response, the Lord sent the prophet Haggai to Jerusalem in 520 B.C. to deliver His perspective on the situation: “Firstly, you’ve got your priorities wrong. You’re focusing on your own interests and neglecting the purpose for which I have called you. Secondly, you’re living under a curse. No matter how hard you work, it doesn’t culminate in any significant achievement.”
The Lord then said, “Consider your ways!”, or in other words, “Open your eyes and take a good look at yourself. Remove the blinkers and see things as they really are. See yourself as I see you!”
The effect was electric: people’s hearts were aroused by the message; it was as if they had awakened from slumber. Suddenly they could see where they had erred and what they had to do to remedy the situation. The people repented of their sins — they changed their minds, embraced God’s vision, and realigned themselves with His purpose.
In a remarkable turn-around, work recommenced on the temple within twenty-three days of Haggai’s proclamation and was completed approximately four years later, in 516 B.C.
Jesus’ message to his church
During his exile on the Isle of Patmos, the prophet John had a vision of the resurrected Christ. John said, “His head and his hair were white like wool, as white as snow, and His eyes were like a flame of fire” (Rev 1.14). Most commentators agree that the phrase “eyes like a flame of fire” denotes Christ’s clear and penetrating insight. George Eldon Ladd says that it symbolizes Christ’s “all-searching omniscience.” Matthew Henry says that it denotes Christ’s gaze, “piercing and penetrating into the very hearts and reins [deep-seated feelings and passions] of men.”
In the vision, Jesus gives John a specific message for each of the seven churches in the Roman province of Asia. Although the content differs greatly depending on the character and circumstances of the recipients, a common thread weaves its way throughout the letters — the word ‘know.’ Jesus says to each church, “I know … I know … I know.” The Greek word ‘eido’ literally means to see, and hence, to perceive or understand. In other words, it signifies knowledge that comes through observation.
In effect, Jesus is saying to the churches, “I am watching you intently and I know everything about you. And I am sending you this message because I want you to start seeing yourselves as I see you.”
For example, the church in Laodicea which, by Western standards, was the richest and most ‘successful’ church in the New Testament, considered themselves to be “rich, wealthy, and in need of nothing” — whereas in God’s sight, they were “wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked!” (Rev 3.17).
In a metaphor rich in irony, Jesus is depicted standing outside the church that bears his name, looking in — knocking on the door, seeking admission as though he was a stranger. “Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and dine with him, and he with me” (Rev 3.20).
Although this text is sometimes quoted as an evangelistic invitation, it is actually a call to the church in Laodicea to open their hearts and embrace God’s assessment of their spiritual condition. The challenge, both then and now, is to ‘overcome’.
To overcome what, exactly? In the case of Laodicea, it was to overcome the pride and self-assurance that comes from wealth and success; the arrogance that is associated with power. In this sense, overcoming means humbling ourselves and repenting — changing our minds about ourselves when God shows us what we are really like in His sight.
The promise to the overcomer is that he or she will sit with Christ on his throne. For as the apostle James reminds us, humbling ourselves in the Lord’s sight leads to true exaltation, both in this life and in the world to come!