Seeing with Spiritual Eyes
All of us have, in one way or another, had the experience of having a firmly held perspective on a situation or person or idea shattered by new information – some unconsidered yet substantive input that turns what we had thought to be true on its head. A classic example of this phenomenon is what happened at the time of the airing of Orson Welles’ radio adaptation of the H.G. Wells novel, The War of the Worlds. The 1898 novel tells a fantastic story of hostile space aliens invading Earth. People who tuned in late to the 1938 radio program thought it was actually happening – until they learned that it was just a radio dramatization. Reality had been turned on its head for them, and then back again.
A much richer and more important example comes from the life of the Apostle Paul, who was the great opponent and persecutor of the early Christian Church, at least until he himself was confronted by the risen Jesus on the road to Damascus. When he met Jesus, his upside down view of reality was turned right side up. Paul describes this ever so briefly in 2 Corinthians 5:16, where he writes, “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh. Even though we once regarded Christ according to the flesh, we regard him thus no longer.”
What had Paul’s opinion of Christ been when it was “according to the flesh?” We get a sense of this both from Luke’s history in the book of Acts as well as from Paul’s other writings. Paul had regarded Jesus as a troublemaker, a blasphemer, and a danger to true belief and religion. He saw Jesus as a false messiah, an imposter. Paul saw him as someone whose memory should be crushed and stamped out. And then … and then he came to see, by the power of the risen Christ, that his perspective – no matter how genuinely held – had been entirely upside down. And his perspective on Jesus was completely transformed.
But this is not the only transformation of which Paul speaks in 2 Corinthians 5:16. Coming to see Jesus rightly also had a consequence for the way that he came to see other people: “From now on, therefore, we regard no one according to the flesh.” What does that mean? It’s relatively easy for someone who’s familiar with the New Testament narrative to see how Paul’s perspective on Jesus changed. But what does it mean not to regard other people “according to the flesh?” That clearly requires – and deserves – some thought.
Let me suggest a few examples of someone seeing another person with fleshly eyes, even when both parties are Christians:
- A disobedient child sees a disciplining parent as an obstacle to some object of desire – even when the parent is truly disciplining in love for the good of the child. Spiritual eyes see the loving parent as a God-given shepherd and guide. Eyes of “flesh” see only someone who stands in the way.
- Two people who are vying for the same thing may view each other as competitors. Two pastors who are each seeking to “grow” their churches in the same geographic area can easily fall into this trap, as may two people vying for a common love interest, or two people who want the role of lead vocal in the same group, or the same job, or any sort of recognition. This is seeing with eyes “of flesh.”
- Two people with strongly held views about an issue – political, cultural, doctrinal – may see each other primarily as opponents.
- A selfishly ambitious person may see someone that they perceive as having power as primarily a means to an end they wish to achieve.
The list of examples could go on almost endlessly.
What should we see, if we really are looking at each other with spiritual eyes? Paul answers that question, at least with respect to believers, in the very next verse (2 Cor. 5:17) – “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come.” Fundamentally, we must not see each other as obstacles or as competitors or opponents or merely as means to achieving our own ends. The magnificent truth is that every other believer is a new creation in Christ destined for unspeakable glory. But in the tension of the “already / not yet” we are right now also fellow pilgrims traveling along a hard path full of snares and pitfalls, confusion, pain, disappointment, beset by enemy stratagems – but also learning day-by-day the grace of Christ and the mercies of Christ and the sufficiency of Christ in our weakness, holding to sure hope, believing what we cannot see with natural sight.
What if … what if we could learn to look through eyes that see each other this way, sharing in each other’s joys and trials, bearing each other’s burdens, learning from each other with open minds and hearts? How much more at rest might our souls be? How much more good might we do – and be – for one another? How much more might the name of Christ be glorified in the world?