One summer when our children were
young, our family vacationed at Chincoteague Island. As Nate and
I were driving down Main Street, he noticed the Ben Franklin
store in the center of the old business district. The original
sign still spanned the storefront, with the name “Ben Franklin”
in the middle and the slogan “5-10” in a circle on either side.
Nate glanced at the sign and then, puzzled, asked, “Why is that
store only open from 5:00 to 10:00?”
At first I thought my eleven-year-old son was joking. But he
was serious, and I quickly realized why. To a boy raised in the
era of “7-11” and “6-12” marts--stores that announce their hours
of operation on large signs as part of their name--it was only
natural to assume that two hyphenated numbers on a store sign
indicated when it was open. Since five-and-ten-cent stores were
commonplace in my childhood, on the other hand, it never dawned
on me that the sign could be read in any way other than intended
The Problem of Filters
The incident is but one small example of a truth we
experience in much more profound ways every day of our lives.
It’s the fact that we interpret what we see and experience
through filters. By “filters” I mean certain ingrained
perspectives through which we sift our impressions, and that
dramatically affect our conclusions. Nate’s deduction about the
Ben Franklin sign makes perfect sense once his filter is
This doesn’t mean, of course, that our filters always work
against us. When our assumptions are accurate, so are our
conclusions. Clear filters lead to clear perceptions. Yet too
often our filters are clouded by misleading notions, which lead
us to conclusions that hit wide of the mark of reality.
This fact has critical implications for our walk of faith.
Apart from the benefit of biblical revelation, we see God
through an unfortunate filter: We instinctively think of him as
our adversary, not our friend. We assume that he dislikes us and
is displeased with us; only through the most heroic effort to
live an exemplary life can we possibly hope to win his favor.
Even then we fear that he is probably too busy with global
concerns to take an interest in the little details of our life.
The gospel message strongly challenges our natural
assumptions about God. It declares that he loves us infinitely
and takes such providential control of our lives that whatever
happens is to our benefit (Rom 8:28). It provides us with an
exceedingly positive filter for viewing God and his work in our
Yet the “adversary filter” is already powerfully in place.
Add to this the extreme limitations of our understanding: when
it comes to knowing what God is doing behind the scenes in our
lives, we see only the tip of the iceberg. The result is that
we’re prone to think his hand has turned against us whenever we
experience a setback or disappointment.
Most of us find that our view of God vacillates considerably.
When things seem to be going well, we assume he is pleased with
us and affirming us--that he is our good friend and companion.
When circumstances appear unfavorable, we assume our worst fears
are being confirmed: God doesn’t like us after all. He’s finally
getting even with us and working to thwart our plans.
Even when obvious blessings occur, it’s natural to fear that
they are aberrations from how God normally deals with us. I’ll
never forget how a friend of mine once put it. Rob was scheduled
to fly his wife and son from Washington, D.C., to Cumberland,
Maryland in his small plane. But at the last minute a squabble
over who would ride in the tiny back seat provoked Rob to drive
his family to Cumberland rather than fly.
As he was returning to Washington, a fierce storm struck the
region. Many of the small aircraft at the suburban airport where
Rob parked his plane were overturned and damaged. Ironically,
the squall arose at just the time when Rob would have arrived
back there if he had been flying. Since the storm hadn’t been
predicted, he probably would have flown into the middle of it.
When Rob shared this incident with me, he spoke exuberantly
about how God had protected him. “I’m finally beginning to think
that God must like me,” he said. He added, though, that he had a
nagging fear that maybe--just maybe--God had provided this
blessing to catch him off guard. Perhaps he was just setting him
up for a future disaster--fattening him up for the kill, so to
speak. “Frankly, I fear the Big One is coming,” he confessed.
The fear that Rob expressed captures so well an attitude
toward God that is often displayed by individuals in Scripture.
We see examples of people misinterpreting God’s intentions
throughout the Bible. This is particularly true with those
involved in the Christmas story. Most who heard news related to
it reacted with fear or disappointment to the information they
received. Although God intended to bless them immensely, they
initially read things quite differently and feared the worst.
When the angel appeared to Zechariah to announce that his
wife would bear a son, Zechariah “was startled and was gripped
with fear” (Lk 1:12 NIV). And it made little difference that the
angel who visited Mary strongly affirmed her, saying,
“Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary’s response was still one of dread. She “was greatly
troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this
might be” (Lk 1:28-29). Likewise, when the angel confronted the
shepherds, they were filled with terror rather than
elation--even though “the glory of the Lord shone around them” (Lk
Joseph’s reaction to the first news of Mary’s pregnancy, too,
is interesting to consider. When he heard that she was
expecting, he assumed she had been promiscuous, and he decided
to break off their engagement (Mt 1:18-19). His reaction is
understandable, since it was based only on the information he
had. Yet the incident reminds us of how our initial assumptions
are often based on very inadequate information. What at first
appears to be a setback may be the doorway to a great blessing.
Of course, the most tragic example of someone concluding God
was against him was Herod. He feared that Jesus would usurp his
authority. Herod wasn’t the only one disturbed about the
political implications of Christ’s birth, to be sure, but “all
Jerusalem with him” was troubled (Mt 2:3). It seems that most
people of the time viewed the news of Jesus’ arrival as anything
but auspicious. Yet Herod is the one who, in his sweeping murder
of the male babies in Bethlehem, most epitomizes the dreadful
consequences that can result from perceiving God’s work through
the adversary filter.
The biblical account of Christ’s birth reveals the human
reactions of the participants--but even more importantly, it
shows the gracious response of God to these people. God did not
abandon Zechariah, Mary, Joseph or the shepherds to their
dubious reactions but continued to instruct them, giving them
the insight they needed to understand his true intentions. What
an encouraging reminder this is that God doesn’t leave us to our
negative moods and skeptical assumptions, but continues to give
us wisdom to see things from his viewpoint--the renewal of our
minds which Paul speaks of in Romans 12:2.
Indeed, the fact that God became human in Christ is the
supreme reminder of how fully committed he is to relating to us
in our human condition, to meeting our needs and to working out
a plan for each of us that reflects his best for our life. These
thoughts are implied by the prophetic name given Jesus at his
birth--Immanuel, meaning “God with us” (Mt 1:23).
Beyond First Impressions
All of this presents us with a considerable challenge as
Christians. Since our tendency to view God in adversary terms is
so deep-rooted, we need to make a continual effort to
concentrate on the grace-centered perspective of Scripture. We
need to remind ourselves constantly that God does have our best
interests in mind in every situation we encounter.
And we need to remember the lessons we’ve learned from
experience of God’s grace and protection. It’s especially
helpful to recall those times when our negative impressions of
what God was doing proved mistaken, or when an apparent calamity
proved to carry hidden blessings.
In the summer of 1991 my friends Russ and Marguerite
Hermanson had a dreadful experience. During a fierce
thunderstorm, lightning struck the chimney of their home. The
bolt not only demolished the standing portion of the chimney but
send a blast of current throughout the house, destroying about
thirty appliances and scorching walls and furniture. A hair
dryer that wasn’t even plugged in blew out, since its plug was
touching a baseboard heater that became charged by the
Tall trees surround the Hermansons’ home. Since lightning
usually hits the highest target, the fact that it struck their
chimney rather than one of the oaks was puzzling. Russ and
Marguerite could naturally have interpreted the event as a sign
of God’s judgment, especially since lightning is a classic
metaphor for God’s wrath.
Yet the Hermansons have learned from long experience to
recognize the subtle indications of God’s protection in their
lives. Almost immediately they saw serendipities in the
calamity: though four children were asleep in their home that
morning, none was injured, even though one lay perilously close
to a scorched wall. In addition, no house fire resulted--odd,
considering the severity of the strike.
Yes, the long period of cleaning and reconstruction that
followed greatly inconvenienced Russ and Marguerite. Yet the
process brought a far-reaching benefit that they could never
have anticipated. While rebuilding the chimney, workers
discovered that creosote had long been escaping through cracks
to the outside portion of the flue liner, a problem resulting
from faulty construction. Since the Hermansons heated their home
with wood, the buildup of creosote between the chimney and the
inside wall was considerable. Yet it had never been detected
during the biannual chimney sweep.
Because creosote ignites under intense heat, the Hermansons
were sitting ducks for a major house fire. Russ and Marguerite
now view the lightning strike as a gracious act of God
protecting their home and family, for apart from it the chimney
defect wouldn’t have been discovered. A small disaster saved
them from a much greater one. It’s enough to cause us all to
revise the lightning metaphor a bit!
May God grant us the grace to see our lives from the
standpoint of grace. May the biblical message of Christ’s
protection, provision, forgiveness, and perfect love for us be
the filter through which we interpret everything that happens to
us. And may we have the divine capacity to think twice whenever
we suspect that God is acting against us or loves us with less
than the infinite love that Scripture promises. May we have the
ability to change filters quickly whenever our view of God gets
clouded by legalistic or punitive notions.
Let us strive for a view of God that never vacillates but
sees him consistently as our closest friend. Far from an
aberration, Christ’s goodness to us is an ongoing reality each
split second of our lives. Take time during this Christmas
season to be refreshed by this unspeakable truth.