“Simon, do you see this woman?”
That question from Jesus to Simon the Pharisee pierces me every time I read it (Luke 7:44). At one level, it doesn’t make sense. Of course Simon sees the woman! He’s scandalized by what he sees her doing.
But Jesus’s question goes deeper. It’s not about physical sight. It’s not even about insight into the reason for her actions. Jesus invites Simon to see deeper than before, to see beyond the outer expression to the inner person. And the only way to see someone with that level of depth and profundity is to love them first.
Loving the Unlikable
It’s far too easy for us to settle for something less than true Christian love. At times we think our obligation is to love someone despite whatever we find wrong or corrupt in them. The way to love someone, we think, is to look past their flaws. Look for what’s good in your spouse, your child, or your neighbor. If we can look past their problems and see their heart, then we can begin to love them the way Christ commands.
This approach may help us tolerate another person, or even develop an affinity for someone else. But it falls short of Christian love.
Why? Because it’s impossible to see past the flaws to the heart of another individual without love. In other words, love is the prerequisite for sight. It takes the heart to see a heart. We don’t look past one’s flaws in order to find what’s good so we can love; we love first, so we can see what’s good.
Artistry of Love
The Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard employs the analogy of an artist who travels the world, searching in vain to find something worth painting. Imperfection is everywhere. Every face has a flaw. To achieve greatness, the artist thinks, it’s vital to find something great to be painted.
Contrast that artist with another. Imagine a painter who doesn’t need to travel the world, but who discovers close to home, in a tiny village, the beauty and glory of ordinary faces, with all their imperfections and flawed features. This is the great artist, Kierkegaard concludes, because it’s only the second artist who can see and savor and then express the glory before one’s eyes. It’s the second artist who sees and helps others see.
“The task is not to find the lovable object, but to find the object before you lovable—whether given or chosen—and to be able to continue finding this one lovable, no matter how that person changes. To love is to love the person one sees.”
Only this kind of love opens our eyes to see another human being. Only this love expresses the patience and forbearance necessary for sustaining relationships.
Jesus didn’t wait for Peter to become a different person before offering his love. It was the Savior’s love for weak, waffling Peter that transformed him into the bold preacher we see at Pentecost.
Seeing, Really Seeing
Can a Christian walk away from another and choose not to love?
What if a person’s negative traits outweigh the positive?
What if a neighbor acts selfishly? What if a spouse turns a cold shoulder? What if a child rebels?
Some would say, Look past the flaws and see their strengths! Admire their good qualities, so you can maintain your love when it’s hard.
But this is not Christian love, to seek out only what’s good in order to love another person. Here’s Kierkegaard’s startling response:
“If this is how you see the person, then you really do not see him; you merely see unworthiness, imperfection, and admit thereby that when you loved him you did not really see him but saw only his excellence and perfections. True love is a matter of loving the very person you see.
“The emphasis is not on loving the perfections, but on loving the person you see, no matter what perfections or imperfections that person might possess. He who loves the perfections he sees in a person does not see the person, and thus does not truly love, for such a person ceases to love as soon as the perfections cease. But even when the most distressing changes occur, the person does not thereby cease to be.
“Love does not vault into heaven, for it comes from heaven and with heaven. It steps down and thereby accomplishes loving the same person throughout all his changes, good or bad, because it sees the same person in all his changes. Human love is always flying after the beloved’s perfections. Christian love, however, loves despite imperfections and weaknesses. In every change love remains with him, loving the person it sees.”
This is the difference between human and divine love, between worldly love and Christian love. “We humans always look upward for the perfect object,” Kierkegaard writes, “but in Christ love looks down to earth and loves the person it sees.”
To grow in Christian love, to develop a vision of loving even our enemies, we must bask in the love of Christ for us, who loved us just as he found us, with all our imperfections and weaknesses. He loved us “even while we were still sinners.” Like the father of the prodigal son, he continued to love us even as we ran from him.
Only this kind of love enables you to see—to really see—the person before you, just as Jesus saw deeper into the heart of the woman who anointed his feet, while Simon’s sight stayed on the surface.
“Love the person you see and see the person you love.”
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