Building a Wall to Keep People Out
JUNE 9, 2021
People really are a lot worse than I thought they were, but they’re also a lot better and more valuable than I thought too.
In the first chapter of the Bible, we find the story of the creation of Adam and Eve. That chapter has astounding implications for how we should view others: “God said, ‘Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’ So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them” (Genesis 1:26-27).
A well-known song says that “people who need people are the luckiest people in the world.” That may be true, but let me tell you something else that’s true: people who need people and build walls to keep people out are the loneliest people in the world. For years I constructed those walls, but as of late I climbed up on a ladder and looked over the walls, sometimes even climbing down on the other side. And my life has changed as a result of that discovery.
People are just like me.
When I said that people are a lot better than I thought they were, I probably should have added that they are sometimes better than I thought they were. Sometimes they’re worse. I’m that way too.
I see a common humanity in my neighbors—the ones who would describe themselves as Christians and, more importantly, the ones who wouldn’t. When we go through a hurricane (and we have gone through several together), I don’t ask the guy who comes with the chainsaw whether he’s a Christian. He’s just a neighbor who wants to help. As we all work together, I don’t gravitate toward those who are my brothers and sisters in Christ. I gravitate toward those who, like me, have a mess on their hands.
It’s easy to demonize other people as long as we can keep them at arm’s length. For years I’d done that with Christians whose theology was different from mine and with unbelievers whose worldview was in opposition to mine.
So at last I looked over the walls I’d built…and found lonely people like me who needed a friend. I’ve found people who are sad, people who are funny, people who are afraid, people who are worried about paying their mortgage and about cancer. They laugh the way I laugh, at the same things I find humorous. They feel guilty the way I feel guilty and are just as insecure as I am. They bleed the way I bleed, they worry about their families the way I worry about my family, and they have moments of great courage, profound love, and graciousness—and other moments of incredible selfishness, arrogance, and self-righteousness. In short, they are like me.
People are better than me.
I used to think there were two kinds of people in the world: good people and bad people. The good people were Christians, and they were in the church. The bad people were not Christians. They were not in the church. In fact, they mowed their lawns, watched television, drank beer, and went to football games on Sundays—all while the good people worshiped.
I was right about the number. There are two kinds of people. I was just wrong about who they are. There are people who are needy, sinful, and worried—and know it. And there are people who are needy, sinful, and worried—but don’t know it. As I understand the Bible, the church should be made up of the people who know it.
Let me make a surprising and truthful statement with which I believe you’ll agree, at least if you stop and think about it. Some of the meanest, most condemning, angriest, and hardest people I know are people who call themselves Christians. Not only that. Some of the kindest, most compassionate, and most loving people I know don’t claim to have made any kind of faith commitment. In fact, you’ll find both kinds of people inside and outside of faith communities.
So what’s the difference? The difference is that the Christians have run to Jesus, and he’s accepted and loved them. That’s it. Are they getting better? Well, at least in that they know what “getting better” is. Sometimes they are better. Sometimes they’re not better. And sometimes we don’t know that they’re better, simply because they were so bad in the first place that they had a long way to go before anybody could tell the difference. Some who ran to Jesus are better than unbelievers, and some are worse. Some are so beaten up that all they can do is be still and allow God to love them. And then there are others who’ve been loved long enough that they can now love others.
The difference is Jesus.
People need other people.
I smoke a pipe. (It’s one of the few vices I have left. Don’t write me letters or try to persuade me to stop. People more spiritual than you have already tried…and failed.)
Smoking a pipe has made me part of a small and ever-decreasing fellowship of smokers. Everywhere I turn smokers are quitting or…OK…dying. So, as our numbers decrease, we naturally are drawn to one another outside buildings, behind barns, and in small rooms designated for those who are ugly and their mother dresses them funny (i.e., smoking areas).
You’ll probably never know this if I don’t tell you, but when smokers get together, they laugh a lot. They like one another and relax in each other’s company. Some of my Christian friends smoke and are members of the church where I often preach. Those guys have formed a Bible study they call “Holy Smokes.” They are among the most honest, authentic, and fun people I’ve ever met.
The fellowship of smokers is one of people who are drawn together by their sin and not by their goodness. They don’t pretend to be better than they are by using mints to hide the smoky smell on their breath. They don’t blush when they’re together and someone sees them smoke. They hardly ever appear to be holier than thou. They’re just people who need people and who gravitate to one another because of their sin.
As I peer over my walls of isolation, I find that people who are needy are drawn to one another. They take off their masks and reach out to others. The need for each other is the reason television shows about friends, companionship, and community are popular. Those programs speak to the yearning we all have to be in relationships that are more than just superficial.
So I looked over my walls to see people who are like me, people who are better than me, and people who need me as much as I need them.
Why do I stay behind the wall?
So why do I stay behind the wall? Or, to meddle a bit, why do you stay behind a wall?
I stay behind the wall because I’m afraid people will learn who I am but won’t accept me.
I don’t want to be known.
We all wear masks. The masks we wear are many, and we wear them for a variety of reasons. Bottom line, though, is that we’re afraid that if people find out what we’re really like, they will reject us, criticize us, or make fun of us.
The truth, though, is that they might love us.
Do you know what’s great about being a Christian? It gives me the freedom to stop pretending. I’m climbing up the ladder and looking over the walls and even associating with those on the other side of the walls because I don’t have anything to protect anymore. According to the Bible, the church is the only organization in the world where the only qualification for membership is to be unqualified. By my very membership in the church, I have proclaimed to the world that I’m a sinner, I’m needy, and I can’t fix me.
If I already know that and people find out that it’s true, it doesn’t matter. It is a great freedom.
I also stay behind the wall because sometimes I think God wants me to stay behind the wall.
I don’t want to displease God.
A misguided kind of Christianity suggests that believers must not look at or touch anything that isn’t intentionally Christian. Just as the religious people in Jesus’s day were shocked that he was a friend of prostitutes, winebibbers, and sinners, so perhaps religious people today ought to be shocked that I’m friends with the same kinds of people.
I’ve learned over the years to be very, very careful about listening to people who tell me where I shouldn’t go, what I shouldn’t do, what books I shouldn’t read, and to what music I shouldn’t listen. Instead of paying too much attention to those voices, I’ve decided to check out what the Bible really says. As a result, I’m a lot freer than I thought I was—and a whole lot freer than they said I was.
I am glad for this discovery, because otherwise I might never have even dared look over the wall.
Still, sometimes I stay behind the wall because I’m not completely secure in the truth I believe.
Have you ever noticed that the people who shout the loudest are often those who are least sure about what they’re saying?
The genuine can be tested. Truth is truth, and a good place to see if the truth will stand up under questioning is among people who don’t believe it. You may be surprised at how well the truth holds up…and it’s easier to climb over the wall.
Finally, I stay behind the wall because I’m afraid of love.
Love brings with it obligation, and frankly, I’m already more obligated than I can handle.
In honest and authentic relationships, you climb over the wall. You start talking. You discover that these aren’t half-bad people. The truth is, you kind of enjoy being with them. You begin to realize that they like you and you like them.
That’s when you notice their tears—and you find that you care.
It can be uncomfortable to love. It’s messy, and it puts you in a position of obligation. But not to love is dangerous. Oh, you may not get hurt or disappointed. And it feels safe on this side of the wall, even if it is boring. The problem, however, is that once you start building walls, it’s hard to stop. One day you’ll wake up to discover you’re closed in by those walls you built. You’ll have just four walls and only a little room. You’ll find that without intending to, you’ve become hard, angry, and very lonely.
Jesus saw the tears of those on the other side of the wall. He knew what his love for them would cost—and he chose to love anyway.
Then he told us to do what he had done, and he promised that if we did, he would always go with us.
Adapted from Steve’s book, What Was I Thinking?