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People Watching

An article in the New York Times says that “People-watching is to New York City what vista-gazing is to the Grand Canyon.” It suggests riding a subway from one end to the other to… “Watch the ethnicities change, and the reading material – from Bibles to library studies textbooks to ethnic newspapers. Are the smilers really happy or did they just hear a great joke? Are the sad and drained-looking faces permanently sad and drained, or just having a bad day?”

My guess is that some of us are fascinated with watching people. And some of us would rather go bird watching.

But what if, just once, we went out and tried to imagine whether the people we see in passing are followers of Christ. What are the odds of telling by observing their expressions, the way they are dressed, or even by having a brief conversation with them?

Or, more importantly, let your mind go back to the night that a man named Peter was asked directly whether he was a follower of Christ. What would you think if you overheard the conversation that is being portrayed by this scene portrayed in the Jerusalem courtyard of St. Peter’s Church in Gallicantu. It marks a traditional place where Jesus is thought to have been examined by the high priest Caiaphas, prior to being sent to Pilate. It recalls the moment when a young girl accused Peter of looking like a one of the men who had been with Jesus, as Peter, curses and repeatedly denies it.

Peter’s actions that night are an example of why Jesus Himself taught that, even if we have a chance to ask people direct questions about their faith, it may be impossible to distinguish those who know Him from those who don’t (Matthew 13:24-30). Given the ever changing circumstances, seasons, and attitudes of our heart, the Scriptures themselves show how inclined we all are to blend in with the crowd.

So seems to me that it’s important to periodically review some of the factors that can make those who belong to Jesus as hard to identify as just-hatched baby birds. Along the way, I’ll throw in a few pictures to see if I can challenge your people watching skills. But see if you agree that the following factors are real complications in identifying followers of Christ.

Disappointment with God-After the God of the Bible rescued His chosen people from the slave yards of Egypt, the Jewish nation danced to the music of celebration. But when the same children of Israel found themselves in a barren wilderness marked by too little water and too many scorpions, their songs turned into growls of complaint and unrest.

Some of us have found ourselves in similar circumstances. When our disillusionment cools into bitterness and hopelessness, any family resemblance to Jesus is difficult to see (Hebrews 12:15).

Distraction-When the chosen people finally made it to the Promised Land, they encountered another problem. Before long, they found that distraction in good times is as dangerous as disillusionment in times of pain. In a land flowing with milk and honey, the children of Israel did not have to decide consciously to turn away from their God. All they needed to do was to be absorbed and preoccupied with all they had been given. Before long, they were like wandering sheep who didn’t know how dependent they were on their shepherd (Isaiah 53:6). (The picture was taken on Ben Yehuda St. in Jerusalem on Purim– a festive holiday of dress-up and games– that remembers the story of Esther in the Bible).

Dangerous Relationships-Herd instinct can be dangerous, especially when the lead animal is lost. Sheep have been known to follow one another off a cliff. So have people. Many years after Israel’s wilderness wanderings, the apostle Paul would write, “Do not be misled: ‘Bad company corrupts good character.’ Come back to your senses as you ought, and stop sinning” (1 Corinthians 15:33-34 niv).

Unchanged Tendencies-If the Bible urges us to do something, it is because we are inclined to do just the opposite. Our capacity to be self-centered remains unchanged (Romans 7:14-25). The downward pull of desire remains as predictable as the law of gravity. Whenever we stop living under the influence of the Spirit and the Word of God (Galatians 5:16-26), it becomes as natural for us to revert to self-interest as for a kite to drift slowly to earth when the wind stops blowing. (Picture is another Purim shot).

Self-Reliance-On the night of Jesus’ arrest, one of His closest followers, a tough-minded fisherman named Peter, announced that he was ready to follow his teacher to prison or to death (Luke 22:33). Within a few hours, Peter denied repeatedly that he even knew the man from Galilee. His failure reminds us that even the original disciples of Christ learned about the danger of self-reliance the hard way.

Prayerlessness-One reason Peter was blindsided by self-reliance was that, at a critical moment, he did not enter into a prayerful dependence on God. Together with his friends, Peter did not respond when Jesus urged, “Watch and pray, lest you enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak” (Matthew 26:41). Instead, the disciples slept. Years later, a New Testament writer penned a letter that linked prayerlessness to some of the most destructive kinds of spiritual failure (James 4:1-6). (This pic is of our Israeli guide catnapping :-).

Carelessness-King David was a man after God’s own heart (Acts 13:22). His record of spiritual accomplishments, however, did not keep him from becoming an adulterer and murderer. One night, as others fought his battles, and as he stood in apparent security on his own palace rooftop, David used the power of his office to pursue another man’s wife. In an unguarded moment, David discovered the meaning of the statement, “Let him who thinks he stands take heed lest he fall” (1 Corinthians 10:12).

An Unexamined Heart-In the moment of temptation, the human heart can be a master of excuses. In the rush of desire, our minds are adept at coming up with ways of making wrong look right. That’s probably why the prophet Jeremiah wrote, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked; who can know it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

Unseen Enemies-If we belong to Christ, we have a spiritual enemy who knows how to stir up and exploit our desires. Over the centuries, he has claimed many victims. While he can’t make us sin, Satan and his demons are constantly looking for weaknesses that give them an inroad into our lives (Ephesians 4:27; 6:10-20). Like predatory animals, they look for vulnerable prey (1 Peter 5:8). They would like us to forget that we are at war and that we have every reason to be watching for their next attempt to neutralize us.

A Lack of Interdependence-The apostle Paul likened followers of Christ to a human body where all members are dependent on one another (1 Corinthians 12). While we may have reasons for not wanting to be dependent on others, such an attitude does not reflect the spirit of Christ. He made it clear that He calls us not only to Himself, but to one another as well (Hebrews 10:24-25). On our own, we lack the variety of strengths and abilities that are necessary to keep us from being reabsorbed into a materialistic, self-centered existence.

These ten factors give us some reasons why people-watching is not an exact science. They may also help us understand why the apostle Paul wrote, ” ‘The Lord knows those who are His,’ and, ‘Let everyone who names the name of Christ depart from [unrighteousness]’ ” (2 Timothy 2:19).

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10 Responses to “People Watching”

  1. hal.fshr says:


    This is a lengthy article but well worth reading. I agree with the various reasons given why people may not look like believers when they truly are. I especially resonate with your statement: “Whenever we stop living under the influence of the Spirit and the Word of God (Galatians 5:16-26), it becomes as natural for us to revert to self-interest as for a kite to drift slowly to earth when the wind stops blowing.” We need to daily refocus on depending upon the Spirit and being interdependent on other believers. Thanks again.

  2. BruceC says:

    Time to stand in front of the mirror and look into myself again. Great topic Mart. Wow!

  3. pegramsdell says:

    It is so easy to get distracted. Look at Peter…..but Jesus reached out and rescued him and brought him back up from sinking, and then he denied Him later, then became a rock for the church. We all have ups and downs. The Lord does know who is His though, and will remind us of who we are in Him. Thanks for your thoughts.

  4. poohpity says:

    Just this morning my younger son was reading 1 John and said, “Why does my brother hate me when it says that real Christians are known by the love they show especially to their brothers, does that mean he is not truly a Christian”. This is a nineteen year old speaking of a twenty year old. I had to take a minute to think how to answer him. My reply was that when we read scriptures it is very easy to look at the behavior of others when I believe the best thing to do is look at our own behavior and see if we are reflecting that love.

    I also get confused because Proverbs tells us we are to be iron sharpening iron. I guess it all rolls around to what the meaning of love is and in 1 John he gives the meaning as one who lays down His life for another for there is no greater love than this.

    I am thankful that God knows our hearts and when we mess up we can ask for forgiveness.

    BruceC I try and carry a mirror around with me and it is not to fix my lip stick lol. It is a huge job trying to take the plank out of my own eye and I am thankful that I can trust the Lord to handle that as well. Amen?

  5. Becky M says:

    As all your writings this is another that brings thoughts to the forefront of my mind worth examining. This blog could also be called “Think about this.” (-; I have watched people wondering if they were Christian or not however, I catch myself and feel guilty of judging. I then remind myself that is God’s job and who do I think that I am trying to do His job for Him. Then I remind myself that God’s leading me to whom he wants me to interact for His will. The ten factors are reminders to look into ourselves when we read the scriptures. Let God pick who we sharpen or who sharpens us. Mart, you sure have done a lot of sharpening and it’s very much appreciated. But,for the most part we may never know who we’ve sharpened as we may never know who is Christian just by looking at them.

  6. Jeph says:

    I think Peter said it best.
    But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should show forth the paises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light. 1Peter 2:9 KJV
    It would appear that as Christians we probably should stand out in the crowd. Perhaps in different ways or capcities as our individual gifts vary, but in someway
    stand out in this world. The real question may be, What
    do people see in us?

  7. daisymarygoldr says:

    Finally, I’m back from my trip which involved a lot of watching- people, birds, trees, flowers, falls, mountains, seas, rivers, streams…the lush greenery of the Northeast was indeed a feast for the eyes…savored every moment of the cooler temps before getting back to the sizzling 118s of the Southwest:( Although it was cool fun, I wouldn’t trade for the ‘monotonous greenery’ with the ‘majestic vista’ of the Grand Canyon in my own backyard!

    Loved the interesting pictures which perfectly highlighted the 10 factors that complicate “Christian identity”…and got a smile from most of it- especially your tour guide “caught catnapping”:)

    Certainly, one cannot distinguish a follower of Christ merely by “people watching” unless they had T-shirts that said stuff like “He’s got the whole world in His hands” or “2 Cor 5:10” but then there may be some wolves lurking in sheep’s clothing! “…Man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart.”

    Therefore, in order to preserve and maintain our self-identity in Christ we always pray along these lines of the psalmist- “Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. Point out anything in me that offends you, and lead me along the path of everlasting life.” (Psalm 139: 23-24)!

  8. Mart De Haan says:

    Welcome back! Sounds like you had a wonderful trip and return.

  9. LisaG says:

    Boy…this is a real thinker! I am guilty of it all!
    Mercy Lord Jesus! :)

    Love, Agape Style

  10. cmdrake says:

    One lady once told me, “I don’t wear my Christianity on my shirt-sleeve!” I’ve often thought of this and it came to mind as I read your comments, Marty. Are we afraid of what people will think if we boldly proclaim with our lives what we believe concerning Christ, as the Lord and Savior of our lives? Or are they only deceiving themselves in thinking that their self-righteousness will get them into heaven?
    Sometimes we measure one’s relationship with Christ by their seemingly shallow understanding of doctrinal issues found in the Scripture. If they don’t understand as “I” do, they can’t really be a believer. I’m sure we will be surprised when one day in Heaven, we run into people we never thought would be there. Isn’t it wonderful to leave all the guesswork that we undertake, with the Lord of all creation? Praise His name! Jesus said, “I know those whom You have given Me!”

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