Christians are to live lives marked by love – to, as 1 Corinthians 13 puts it, believe all things, hope all things endure all things. This means we are to be defined by characteristics of grace. We are to assume the best of people and offer them the same hope and patience and mercy we know we so desperately need. We are to offer them second and third and fifty-fourth chances. In short we are to exude the love Jesus poured out on us.
But it doesn’t mean we should pull the wool over our eyes. Believing and hoping all things does not mean being gullible. It does not mean ignoring sin or injustice or wrong doing of any kind. It’s not blind optimism about people. Christians must have a realistic sense of the world and its inhabitants. Yes, they are made in the image of God but Genesis 3 did happen. People are sinners and for all its wonders and beauty this world can be a pretty awful place. More often than not it will disappoint us and leave us hurt.
One of my pet peeves is the use of superlatives and over statement on the internet in an attempt to drive traffic and increase clicks. You know “check out this video of the most adorable kitten ever” and “whoa, this college basketball player just went into orbit on this dunk” and the like. Well one such phrase is particularly insidious, that about “restoring faith in humanity” as in “The way this man responds when he sees a three legged naked mole rat will restore your faith in humanity.” What they really mean is this will give you warm fuzzies. To be clear, warm fuzzies do not equate to faith in humanity, and if you are dumb enough to have faith in humanity you will deserve everything that comes your way. Look around. What’s to have faith in? Humanity is collectively pretty awful.
We are to have faith in God and love humanity, not have faith in humanity. Humanity will be a perpetual disappointment if we do that. It will lie, cheat, steal, and desert. It is capable of remarkable good, but aside from Christ is rooted in sin and will gravitate back to it – to selfish motives at others’ expense, including you.
Yet we are to hope all things and believe all things and love our neighbors as ourselves and treat others as we want to be treated. These realities seem incongruous. How can we believe and hope all things about someone or something that we cannot and should not trust? How can we assume the best about someone while also assuming they will disappoint?
Somehow, some way we are to maintain optimism about people while being firmly realistic, even skeptical, of them. We are to assume the best and the worst simultaneously. Two things enable us to do this: grace and wonder.
Grace is the context in which we can love or trust or respect anyone. God’s life-shaping grace through Jesus in the person of the Holy Spirit is our daily means of living a God-honoring and others-loving life. Every good thing that we do is by grace. Every good thing that we have is by grace. Any ability we have to love others undeservingly is by grace.
While grace is the context and the means of loving and hoping, it is wonder that balances these two incongruous demands because wonder, curiosity, is what drives our own awareness of grace. The more we dig into grace and understand it and see it and discover its secrets the more we will be able to love the unlovable while still seeing them for exactly who and what they are. In large part this is because we will recognize how unlovable we are, how unpleasant, how unkind, how decidedly fallen. We will see the marks of grace on our lives, the way it shapes us and carries us.
We can only come to grips with our badness and God’s goodness through wonder and curiosity, by being noticers of our propensity for ill and God’s propensity to bless. We explore and ask and seek the depths of the riches of God’s grace, and the more we discover the more it will shape our interactions and reactions to others.
Knowing our own sinfulness puts us in a position to properly understand others too. Because of God’s grace we can honestly confront the evil within us and seeing what lies within gives a sense of what lies in others too. As I look into my heart and see the pride, lust, deceit, anger, and jealousy roiling I know two things: God’s grace is big enough to solve that mess and that same mess lies within every other person too.
We can now look at others with a clear sense of what evils they are capable of and a deep sense of hope in God’s grace for them. We do not trust them, but we do trust what God is doing in them. We trust that those who are in Christ are truly new creations. We are aware that every relationship is a risk because of every person’s endless capacity for selfishness and sin, but we know that God’s grace makes it a risk worth taking because grace in my life added to grace in someone else’s life is an exponential increase to both our benefits. We also know how little we can be trusted aside from God’s work and we know we need grace from others. It is a symbiotic relationship.
On this basis of grace we can safely turn our curiosity outward. We don’t blindly walk into relationships. Curiosity and grace have opened our eyes to the risks and rewards. We can ask questions without agendas and answer them without guardedness. We do not need to be surprised by what we find in others. (In fact, surprise and shock at someone else’s sin very well might indicate you haven’t acknowledged your own.)
As we turn our curiosity toward the lives of others we will begin to see more reason for skepticism but also more evidences of God’s work. This tension will pull us forward. Sometimes it will be uncomfortable – we will want to give on people and write them off, to withdraw and live behind a relational wall. When we do this, though, we fail to recall that God did not withdraw from us when we wronged Him. On the contrary, he reached down and drew us to Himself.
Grace and wonder are a risk. They open us up to hurt. But they are the only way to balance the twin realities that humanity is awful and we are to love it regardless. We are not fools, assuming the best and frolicking mindlessly out into the world expecting it to be all puppies and flowers and warm hugs – a curious mind recognizes this isn’t the case. Neither are we purely skeptics assuming the worst about others – grace reminds us of our need and theirs and how God changes lives. Grace and wonder keep us firmly rooted in our need for grace, the immensity of grace, humanity’s need for grace, and our ability to offer humanity grace because of what was given to us.
This is an excerpt from my forthcoming book, The Curious Christian: How Discovering Wonder Enriches All of Life that is due to be released in early 2017.