My neighbour is building a house. Though still a few months away from completion (I am not sure if the plumbing is in yet), it will be one day be a nice little building, well-constructed and comfortable.
Imagine, though, if a passerby stopped to look at the current structure and exclaimed, “What an ugly house! It doesn’t even have doors and the walls aren’t painted. And where on earth are the front steps?”
Would we not look askance at such a reaction? We might even rebuke that foolish person for judging the house before it is completed. And yet, when it comes to other people, we regularly indulge in such pre-judgments.
Why is that? Let me answer the question with another question: have you ever reconnected with a childhood friend after many years? This happened to me a few years ago on Facebook. Reunited with a girl I knew when I lived in Zimbabwe, I was astonished to discover that she had grown up, gotten married, had children, and now works at Barney’s of New York.
Imagine that! People have lives outside of our experience of them! It seems obvious, but for me it was a revelation, because in my mind, my friend had been frozen in time. Until I encountered her again, she was a perpetual twelve-year-old and the object of my boyish taunts and affections. Now she is a woman, with a lifetime of adult experiences and fond memories, only a few of which involve me…
Such is life in a fallen world, where we are each the centre of our own little universe. When someone enters our orbit, we assume that everything we happen to learn of them is all there is to know. After all, what else can there be beyond ourselves? Surely the world ends beyond my horizons!
It takes a great effort on our parts (or at least, on my part) to realize that there are dimensions of other people’s lives that predate me, and that will survive me. There are depths I will never know and most importantly of all, processes of development and growth that are invisible to me.
When we encounter someone, we are meeting them along the way somewhere. If a person rubs us the wrong way, commits some faux pas, or is just a jerk, it is too easy for us to judge that action as if came from a finished person, rather than from someone who is really a work in progress.
As a Christian, I believe that salvation was God’s act completed “once for all” with the Incarnation of Jesus Christ. However, I also believe that we must cooperate with God’s activity if we are going participate in what He has done. Salvation is not something God forces on us; we must also accept it, as Mary did when she said, “Let it be to me according to Your word.”
Our cooperation with God’s will is a daily challenge and involves choices we make to love Him and our neighbour moment by moment. Quite simply, we are not perfect yet, but if we choose to cooperate with God’s action, we are being perfected daily. As the Apostle Paul puts it, “Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day.” (2 Cor. 4:16)
In this process, God uses other people as His primary instruments. An abrasive encounter, an altercation, a struggle, an argument—in all these events He shapes me and others into the people He created us to be.
How do we evaluate the ultimate value of these encounters for us? Quite simply, we don’t. Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle says that is impossible to know both the position and the velocity of a subatomic particle, because the light we use to take the measurement affects the particle’s movement.
The same may well be said about our daily relations with others. There is simply no accurate way to judge the ultimate significance of any personal encounter in my life, no matter how small. I cannot see where someone has been, nor can I determine precisely where they will go as a result of our meeting.
All I can do in the end is go easy on every person I encounter, recognizing that he or she is God’s house, still under construction. Work has been done that I do not know of, and work still needs to be done before a final judgment can be pronounced. To judge them now would look as ridiculous as someone criticizing my neighbour’s half-built house before it was finished.
On the other side of this warning, however, is a hopeful message. If our relationships are broken now, if people are insensitive, unkind, cruel, judgmental or selfish now, they may not be so forever. Though they may not change today, tomorrow, or even in our lifetimes, we can be assured that they are not finished yet. They are still in the hands of their loving Creator, who subjects them to the hammer and nail and saw in this life, in the hope that one day they will stand completed, the perfected masterwork of the Great Craftsman. We can find hope and even joy in that today..