Judgment, Worth, & the Humans of New York

Today we are happy to feature a guest post from Chris Locke. Chris blogs regularly at http://joyinexpressible.com/

Many of you know of the Humans of New York (HONY) Facebook page. Photographer Brandon Stanton posts portraits of people he meets on the streets of New York, along with a short excerpt from his interview with them. Stanton photographs all different kinds of people — different ages, nationalities, socioeconomic levels, beliefs, and more. The stories he shares span the width and breadth of human experience, from joy to sorrow and everything in between.

It’s clear Stanton’s photographs have struck a chord with many: the page boasts over 18 millions followers, with each post receiving hundreds of thousands of likes and shares. What makes HONY so compelling and popular?

I think HONY is a breath of fresh air in a world that feels increasingly fractured. It unearths and shares stories we can all relate to. We pause at stories of loss, and smile at stories of hope. Even though these strangers are often very different from us, we empathize with their experiences. HONY reminds us that, despite everything that divides us, we share so much in common. It reminds us that every person has a story and deserves to be treated with dignity and worth, not used, ignored, or discarded.

I enjoy reading HONY, but I often feel conflicted when I do so. I want to root for so many of these individuals. I want their stories to have happy endings. And yet, I know many of these people aren’t Christians. Without Christ, the Bible teaches that they and everything they’re pursuing will ultimately be swept away in judgment. While reading, I’ve found myself thinking: “Lord, I know these people cannot stand before your holiness, but can’t you rescue them because of their worth?”

What does God think of human worth? What does he feel when he looks at the humans of New York who don’t know Christ? Does he only see criminals who have broken the law and deserve death and destruction? Or does he also see the complexity of human life–the suffering and difficulty–and the preciousness of each individual, even in judgment?

The turmoil and upheaval of this past year has reminded me of how often we are guilty, individually and as a society, of treating others as worthless. We are guilty of judging according to stereotypes and of ignoring injustice when it does not affect us personally. We are guilty of failing to listen to other people’s stories and take their pain seriously.

At times, I struggle with God’s judgment because I fear it shows the same disregard for human worth which is so prevalent in our human failures. I fear that God is like a teacher who punishes a student for failing to meet a high and inflexible standard, without understanding the student’s background or valuing the student himself.  I fear that it is the humanist, with his emphasis on human goodness, who is able to bring compassion to the downtrodden and struggling, while the Christian, with his emphasis on sin and judgment, is ultimately insensitive and unkind. How can I answer these questions and fears when they come into my mind? Here are a few thoughts:

First, I should remember that God’s justice has nothing to do with a disregard for human worth. Unlike sinful man, God does not punish because of prejudice or cruelty. Nor is he ignorant to what each person has gone through. God is an impartial judge who renders to man according to his deeds. He is also the all-knowing God who understands every person’s circumstances.

God’s judgment is compelled by his justice and holiness. A judge must administer punishment to criminals even if the criminal has a sympathetic story. A Holy God must separate himself from sin even if he does so with sorrow and reluctance. Moreover, God’s judgment shows his concern for human worth. Through judgment, God shows compassion to the oppressed and hurting by righting earthly injustices and punishing evildoers.

Second, I should look to the larger Biblical story to inform my understanding of God’s judgment and worth. The Bible has plenty to say about human worth. It grounds human worth in a way that humanism cannot: in the truth that every person is created in the image of God. At the same time, the Bible constantly emphasizes the unworthiness of man because of his sin. Paul famously writes: “all have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one” (Rom 3:12).

This does not mean that sinners no longer deserve to be treated as image bearers. Rather it means that we all stand guilty before God deserving judgment. The Bible holds human worth and human unworthiness in tension. We are the crown jewel of God’s creation, made to rule and walk with God, but also rebels who oppose God in our pride.

In the Gospel, God resolves this tension between our worth and our unworthiness. We deserved death, and yet God did not want us to perish. In his grace, he found worth in unworthy image bearers.  He valued us enough to give up his greatest treasure to save us. On the cross, God opened up a way so that anyone who repents and believes can have a restored relationship with him.

Our unworthiness humbles us out of our boasting. We cannot claim salvation because of who we are or what we’ve done. Our worth to God gives us unspeakable peace and security: we have been bought by the precious blood of Christ.

Third, I should remember the way that Jesus lived during his earthly life. Throughout his ministry, Jesus encountered many people who we could imagine appearing on the Humans of Israel: Nicodemus, a religious elite who still felt uncertain about his faith. The Samaritan woman with her many husbands. Zacchaeus, a tax collector who was shunned by his people. The centurion with his suffering servant. We could go on and on. We don’t know the exact circumstances or motivations of these people, but I’m sure each had experiences which would make their stories sympathetic to us. Each of them had worth as an image bearers of God. How were they treated by the perfect Son of Man?

Jesus crossed boundaries and ignored stereotypes. He talked with the Samaritan woman. He ate with sinners, prostitutes, and tax collectors. He befriended the needy and the poor. He healed the sick. He took each person seriously and treated them with dignity, even if he disagreed with them strongly.

And still, Jesus preached the truth of God’s Word. He did not affirm anyone’s inherent goodness, nor did he shy away from talking about God’s coming judgment. Instead, he proclaimed the good news to Pharisee and tax collector alike: “repent for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 4:17). For Jesus, a high view of God’s holiness did not mean a disregard for human worth, or vice versa. He upheld God’s Word, even when it was offensive, and loved people, even when it was hard.

It is good to empathize with those interviewed on Humans of New York. It is good to wish for all people to flourish. It is good to react with anger when individuals are oppressed and treated unjustly. However, none of those things mean we should minimize God’s judgment or lower his holy standard, even if at times it feels like the more inclusive thing to do.

Instead, we should let HONY remind us of how much we all need Jesus. Most of us can seem composed and put together on the surface. However, on a site like HONY, where we must admit our longings, disappointments, fears, and hopes, we see the truth about our hearts: most of the time, we are hurting and lost.

And yet, this should give us hope, both in our personal walks with God and in our evangelism. The Gospel has always been most precious to the hurting and the lost. Instead of trying to rework the Gospel to fall in line with the humanism of our day, let us remember anew how God has saved us and changed our lives. Let us follow Stanton’s example and listen to everyone’s stories with patience and compassion. And from there, let us share the message of God’s surprising grace to all who will listen.

Andrew Ong

Andrew is a third-generation, San Francisco Bay Area ABC (American Born Chinese). He and his third-gen wife have two daughters and still live in the East Bay. After graduating from the University of California Irvine and Westminster Theological Seminary, he completed his PhD in World Christianity at the University of Edinburgh, researching Chinese American evangelicals and Neo-Calvinist theology. He presently serves on staff at Christ Church East Bay in Berkeley, California. Andrew's a simple guy whose passions include: sushi, pizza, nachos, and the Golden State Warriors. On his less sanctified days he lives by the maxim: #ballislife.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.