Written By Annie Caldwell, USA
With a passing glance, I thought he was a homeless man who had wandered into church. But then he started handing out weekly programs, and as people greeted him by name, I realized I was more of a stranger than he was.
One of the first thoughts that came to mind was, “Oh wow. What a good thing this church is doing . . . to be so welcoming to someone like him.”
With those three words, I had let his appearance lead me to a quick assumption that he was an outsider—not someone in the safe, comfortable “inner” circle that I was hoping to join at this new church.
When it comes to building relationships, I think it’s natural for us to look to get something out of them—often times, to feel connected, understood, or loved. In some cases, we want to build better relationships with others when we anticipate getting a good return on investment—like with an important boss at work, or a mutually beneficial friendship.
And I’m not convinced that it’s bad to expect to get something from relationships. But God has challenged me to reconsider what it is, exactly, that I expect to find.
An Unexpected Glimpse of God
The church where I first saw that man has become my home church. I stuck around, and so has he. In fact, we’re in the same small group.
A few months in, it was his turn to share his story at our small group. I learned he has had a very difficult life.
After a rough childhood, he lost his young wife unexpectedly to an illness that started out innocuous and turned fatal within a few short days. That hardship was followed up with something unimaginable—years of wrongful imprisonment for a crime he didn’t commit, and the baggage that came along with not being able to afford to ever clear his name.
Even as he shared these earth-shattering hardships, what amazed me is that he spoke of them with a gentle and peaceful spirit.
Instead of anger about losing his beloved wife, he recounted their time together with gratefulness. Instead of bitterness and fury for the lost years of his wrongful imprisonment, he chose to focus on the opportunity prison has given him to share his faith and trust in God.
Throughout his story were moments of unencumbered generosity and self-sacrificial service to his family and friends. I learned of his commitment to prayer, and how much he depended on and asked God to direct his steps even in simple daily tasks. I saw evidence of God’s enduring faithfulness, and such a refreshingly simple and complete trust that God will work things out. I was so encouraged.
For the first time, I saw value in this man’s life and story, and had to face the fact I had discounted him before. Although my prideful judgment had tried to get in the way, I finally saw him as someone who could teach and encourage me—not just the other way around.
The Sneaky Sin That Keeps Us from Loving Others
As I’ve continued to pray about that situation, I’ve grown convinced that at the root of my judgement of others, is favoritism.
As I let discrimination drive me to a place of judgment, it leads me to show favor only to people I see as valuable. That’s not so different from the situation James describes in his letter, where the man in fine clothes is shown special attention (James 2:2-3).
Favoritism may not seem as bad as lying, lustfulness or cheating, but it’s just as dangerous.
It feeds into the idea that certain people, based on standards we make-up, are more worthy of our time, attention, and service than others. As a result, we lose sight of loving all of our neighbors (James 2:8).This makes me wonder where else this sneaky sin is making an appearance in my life.
Is favoritism hiding at the root of my hesitancy to help friends dig themselves out of debt they should not have taken on in the first place?
Is it feeding my unwillingness to accommodate social arrangements for friends who I feel are being unreasonable about their response to COVID?
Does it explain why I’m tempted to disregard anyone that refuses to fully acknowledge the unjust racial disparity in my country?
I think favoritism is influencing how I respond to all of these situations and relationships. And, sadly, it keeps me from seeing the beauty of God’s image and work in the lives of others.
But instead of only extending my love, service, help, and listening ear to those I deem worthy, I want to remember that all people are image-bearers—“neighbors” who are made in God’s image, and who I’m called to love (Mark 12:31).
How to Approach Relationships Differently
It’s only through the Holy Spirit’s help and grace that my deep-rooted and not-so-obvious favoritism will be identified and uprooted.
There are two helpful changes I’ve felt led to make when it comes to meeting new people and building relationships:
- First, when I’m connecting with someone who is different from me, I try to think of something beautiful I see in them. Am I able to identify a tiny bit of what God sees as He looks lovingly on one of His image-bearers?
- Second, asking, “What do I have to learn?” I’ve been humbled as I’m reminded time and time again that I have something to learn from everyone—especially other Christians.
These small steps are helping me learn to resist my prideful tendency to judge and discount others, and are helping me find value and encouragement in their stories.
I believe that all of us, no matter how broken, still bear God’s image, and are deeply loved by Him. As the Holy Spirit re-shapes my approach to relationships to better reflect humility, I think it’ll help me be more open to learning what love lived out looks like.
“My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism… If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right” (James 2:1, 8).