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A people watcher defines his sport like this: “The art of people-watching involves studying the subjects, guessing who they are, where they are coming from, and where they are going. Sometimes it even includes trying to imagine what they are thinking.”

What rings true about this description is that it describes people-watching as a series of guesses rather than a science. This is especially true when it comes to issues of spiritual identity. Jesus Himself taught that it may be impossible to distinguish those who know Him from those who don’t (Matthew 13:24-30).

Why is spiritual identification so difficult? Let’s take a closer look at some of the factors that sometimes make children of God as hard to identify as just-hatched baby birds.

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).

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).

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.

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.

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).

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). 

Father in heaven, You know our hearts so much better than we do. Forgive us for judging others while taking our own relationship with You for granted. Please help us to rise above the factors that keep us from distinguishing ourselves as Your children.

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