Have you ever noticed how unfree you are when it comes to first impressions? When meeting someone for the first time, the other person makes a thousand judgment calls, in a fraction of a second, that give them pause or instant warmth. Strangers unconsciously assess us in the blink of an eye. They judge the shirt we’re wearing, how unkempt our hair is, the way we smile, or how we shake hands. And we’re doing the exact same thing to them.
Hopefully, we let the majority of these wrong impressions calibrate as we actually get to know this person, but we are all well acquainted with instances where that change is not favorable. The verdict isn’t always positive. We swipe left.
Even beyond these first impressions, the same “unfree” feeling begins to make its presence known within all of our relationships. Why do we feel the way we do about anyone? What charges us with a sense of superiority in certain relationships and inferiority complexes in others? What’s behind our inability to celebrate that coworker getting a promotion or that feeling of my-life-would-just-be-better-if-such-and-such-person did not exist? The closer we get to these questions, the more we find we are locked up under affections and apprehensions we do not choose for ourselves.
C.S. Lewis once observed how much easier it is to be enthusiastic about capital “H” humanity than it is to love individual men and women, especially those who are uninteresting, exasperating, depraved, or otherwise unattractive. Loving everybody in general can always serve as a great excuse for loving nobody in particular.
Consider the ease with which we typecast friends and family around us as if they were characters in the drama of our own story: “of course Uncle Charlie made the night about him, he’s such a narcissist” or “that’s so like Stacy to take your things without asking, she’s been doing that for years.” The labels we receive and stick onto others cement more quickly than we notice, locking us and them into categories with little hope for release or redemption.
There’s a subtle parable in the fifth chapter of the book of Acts that puts this interpersonal imprisonment on display.
The religious high priest and his entourage, controlled and compelled by an unrelenting sense of jealousy and resentment, literally imprison the apostles for preaching the gospel. One flash of their religious ruler badge, and the apostles are thrown behind bars in the local penitentiary.
But during the night an angel of the Lord opened the doors of the jail and brought them out. “Go, stand in the temple courts,” he said, “and tell the people all about this new life” Acts 5:19-20
God sneaks into the prison undetected and unlocks the door. But he does more than just release them. They are to go back and communicate to their captors that everyone is behind bars that can’t be seen. No one is free, all are imprisoned. Though we can’t see the chains that bind us, we often feel them weighing on us in our own jealousy, bitterness, and even hatred toward people God himself made and delights in. The religious rulers proudly wear their self-righteous resentment, but it’s shown to be a noose tied by their own hands.
God sends the apostles back to the temple courts to share how the law has no power to liberate. Even the temple, despite all of its ordinances and commitment toward transformation, can only condemn perpetrators. This is what makes the rope-removing, prison-releasing salvation in Jesus so surprising. It’s the death of God that holds the power and promise of this new life. And he is making his way to everyone who is held captive to the tyranny of self, locked behind the bars of judgment and judging one another.
The angel of the Lord effortlessly breaking the apostles out of prison is like neon letters presenting “the how” of Christianity. In the death of Jesus on the cross, he willingly redirects all the scorn you’ve ever felt toward someone onto himself. Moreover, he receives and even becomes the righteous indignation anyone, including God, has ever felt toward you.
Martin Luther says that God receives none but those who are forsaken, restores health to none but those who are sick, gives sight to none but the blind and life to none but the dead, he has mercy on none but the wretched and gives grace to none but those who are in disgrace. We might add that he sets free none but those who are bound.
Someone will be critical of you today. You are powerless to stop them. But the gospel is news that God is decidedly not critical toward you today and everyday. He does not judge you based on his first, second, or 10,000 impression of you. Perfect love casts out criticism. And the love that brought Jesus to Calvary rests at the very heart of reality. It’s of the prison-breaking, judgment-absorbing variety, and it’s given for you.
This post originally appeared on mbird.com