For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope” (Romans 15:4).
History reminds us of the past, defines us in the present, and prepares us for the future. In Scripture, we have something more, something we might call holy history. The narratives of the Old Testament become the palette the New Testament authors used to paint the answers to the great questions of God, faith, and human meaning.
This is the fourth in a series of five articles on holy history, examining how the Apostle Paul uses Old Testament narratives.
How does God see us?
On the one hand, one of our greatest fears is being misunderstood. We try and try and try to communicate our real intentions to others. At some level, we think we are pretty decent people, and we want people to believe that about us. We don’t want to be judged based on incomplete facts or appearances. We want to be seen as we are.
On the other hand, one of our other greatest fears is for people to actually see us as we are. We know far too much about ourselves. We crave privacy, a place where we can hide the parts of ourselves we’d rather not share. We want people to see a version of us that is better than we know ourselves to be, so we spend tons of time and money focused on our appearance and reputation.
Is there anyone who sees us as we truly are? And if so, is that a good thing?
About one thousand years before Christ, the loosely affiliated Hebrew clans longed to be a nation, a real kingdom with a real king. Many of their other leaders had failed them egregiously (see Samson), and they chafed under the leadership of prophets such as Samuel. God gave them their wish, for better or worse, and had Samuel appoint for them a king.
The description of their first king, Saul, would make for an impressive presidential ad in its time or ours. “There was a man of Benjamin whose name was Kish, the son of Abiel, son of Zeror, son of Becorath, son of Aphiah, a Benjaminite, a man of wealth. And he had a son whose name was Saul, a handsome young man. There was not a man among the people of Israel more handsome than he. From his shoulders upward he was taller than any of the people” (1 Samuel 9:1-2).
Saul was from a noteworthy family. He was wealthy and connected. He was handsome and tall. He was, in sum, the very model of what we think a king should look like.
The lesson here is that we too often look at status, wealth, and appearance, none of which tell us much about the person within. Saul turned out to be a disappointment, as many leaders do. And before you think to yourself that we are far more enlightened than ancient Israel, remember that our elections have a bit of the same quality to them. Since 1900, the taller candidate has won the US presidential election 75% of the time, and no president of less than average height has been elected since McKinley. In the modern world, we are just as shallow as ever.
Saul was ultimately rejected by God, sending him into a sad decline toward madness and finally death. In the meantime, God chose a nontraditional candidate to be Israel's next king. “The Lord has sought out a man after his own heart” (1 Samuel 13:14).
Samuel was sent by God to the home of Jesse in the little town of Bethlehem (1 Samuel 16:1). There is no indication that this rural family had any status to speak of. Samuel looked over Jesse’s sons and judged them superficially, as we all do when we meet someone new. “When they came, he looked on Eliab and thought, ‘Surely the Lord’s anointed is before him.’ But the Lord said to Samuel, ‘Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him. For the Lord sees not as man sees: man looks on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart’” (1 Samuel 16:6-7). Though a prophet, Samuel still had to be reminded that God sees us differently than we see one another.
After taking a look at all of Jesse’s older sons and hearing God dismiss each, Samuel asked if Jesse had other sons, and Jesse explained that there is still the youngest (1 Samuel 16:11). The boy was good looking but young, and on the whole he seemed the least likely to be considered for a special blessing. Still, God said to Samuel, “Arise, anoint him, for this is he” (1 Samuel 16:12-13).
The young man’s name was David. He would not only replace Saul as king, but his dynasty would continue on the throne of Judah for over four centuries. He would contribute psalms that God’s people sing to our present day, and his descendants would include another child of Bethlehem named Jesus. Not bad for the runt of the litter.
We learn from David’s story that God looks at the heart. He does not see us with the shallowness of human judgment. His choice, what theologians prefer to call his election, is not contingent on half-truths or gossip. He knows us as we really are.
But before we rejoice at the goodness of God’s judgment, remember that this “seeing us as we are” also has a less desirable result. Repeat that sentence again in your mind. “God knows us as we really are.” There is no corner of your heart that is hidden from God, and there is no veil of deception you can throw on to hide the truth.
Is it good news that God looks at our hearts?
Despite his perfect outer image, Saul knew that his inner man was less than it appeared. As Samuel reminded him, “Though you are little in your own eyes, are you not the head of the tribes of Israel?” (1 Samuel 15:17)
David also knew what lurked in his own heart, hidden from man but known to God. “For I know my transgressions, and my sin is ever before me. … Behold, I was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:2-4). Before his story was over, David would commit heinous sins against God and his own people.
So what does God see when he looks at me? What hope is there for me if God sees me as I truly am?
I think it is then in the New Testament that we find a more reassuring answer to our question. Yes, God looks beyond the superficial to know us as we are. But—praise God— he does not stop there.
“And he who searches hearts knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God” (Romans 8:27). God sees both what is in us now and what He will do in us in the future. God sees not only our flaws but also the good he alone can bring out of them (Romans 8:28).
When God looks at us, he sees the image he created in us, and he sees how we are “predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son” (Romans 8:29). God sees in us the potential to be transformed by the Spirit into someone more like Jesus.
Remarkably, God has never not seen this in us. “And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified” (Romans 8:30). On our worst day, God sees in us the people he loved before the world began. Before he breathed life into Adam, God saw every failure of our lives and the price it would cost in Jesus’ blood. He saw all that and still chose - elected - to love us. He looks past the facade we put up to hide behind and past the sins we keep secret. He looks until he sees Jesus in us.
God’s election, his eternal choice to love you in your unlovable state, changes everything. Reflecting on this truth, Paul launches into one the highest peaks of all his writings.
“What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? Who shall bring any charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is to condemn? Christ Jesus is the one who died—more than that, who was raised—who is at the right hand of God, who indeed is interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or danger, or sword? As it is written, ‘For your sake we are being killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered.’ No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39).
I readily confess that I do not understand everything there is to know about the doctrine of election. My own views of it are conflicted and inconsistent. My thoughts here stop at the end of Romans 8, knowing that the murky waters of Romans 9-11 are ahead. Still, I am comforted by these words and the shocking nature of God’s loving choice.
God sees in me someone he has elected to love, and no one else gets a vote.
Dr. Benjamin Williams is the Senior Minister at the Central Church of Christ in Ada, Oklahoma and a regular writer at So We Speak. Check out his books The Faith of John’s Gospel and Why We Stayed or follow him on Twitter, @Benpreachin.