“What do you notice about the pictures in this book?” I pointed to the page and leaned towards the second-grader in front of me.
“Ummm…” The boy looked at the page. “The boy is different at the beginning.” He touched the grayscale image. The colorless character looked out of place in an otherwise polychromatic world, a barely noticeable shadow among the bright and happy children filling the page. I nodded and flipped to the end of the book.
“And what does he look like at the end?”
“He’s in color,” the boy responded.
“Yes,” I said. “Because he has friends now, and they see him.” The boy sitting across from me was thoughtful for a moment. He paged through the book, The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, and I watched his expression soften.
“He has friends,” his eyes seemed to say as they wistfully swept the page. He’s seen.
Even from a young age, one of the greatest desires of the human psyche is to be seen. Children play hide-and-seek but build in safeguards such that they are found—a loud thump here, a toe peeking out from behind the sofa there. We long to be seen because we know that being seen means that we are, at least to some extent, understood and that our existence makes a difference in some way.
We spend most of our lives asking some variation of the question, “Do you see me?”
It can take different forms—am I enough? Am I deserving of love? Am I appreciated, desired, and understood?
As we age, the questions become more urgent. No longer can we satisfy our longings by playfully cheating at hide and seek, so we turn to other methods. We work harder in our careers, thinking that surely if we climb the corporate ladder high enough, others can’t help but see us. We cultivate our mental, physical, and emotional health in an attempt to control who we are and how others perceive us. We think that if we are good enough, brave enough, or at least if we try hard enough, we will be someone who can be both fully known and fully loved.
The problem is that we don’t really want to be known as we are actually are. We want our skeletons to stay in the closet and the social media posts to stay airbrushed. Because if we were seen for who we really are, we no longer control the narrative. No longer could I show you who I’m striving to be, or who I hope to be one day when I’m better, but you would see who I am—after a stressful day, in moments of weakness, and in the countless other ways I don’t live up to the version of myself I want you to see in living, breathing color.
We think that if we are good enough, brave enough, or at least if we try hard enough, we will be someone who can be both fully known and fully loved.
Being seen, from a human perspective, would seem to imply there is both one who desires to see and one who desires to be seen, two pairs of eyes engaged in the mysterious coaction of what it means to be understood.
In the beginning of the Bible, right in the book of Genesis, we find the curious, Sunday School unfriendly story of Hagar. We don’t know much about her except that she was an Egyptian servant of Sarai (later named Sarah), the same Sarai who was married to the patriarch Abram (later Abraham). God had promised that Abram would be the father of many nations, but Sarah remained barren, her aging arms bereft of the promised life, and her biological clock reading well past the twilight of her prime. Tired of waiting, Sarai instructed Abram to have a child by Hagar so that she would “obtain children by her” (Gen 16:2). Hagar did indeed conceive, but Sarai, displeased by Hagar’s arrogance as the favored concubine upon whom was given the joy of life, chose to mistreat her servant. Hagar fled into the desert.
And it is here, to Hagar—a woman pregnant by the husband of another woman, a stranger far from her fatherland—we see the mercy of God in screaming color. Genesis 16:7 says, “The angel of the LORD found her by a spring of water in the wilderness, the spring on the way to Shur.” In words reminiscent of those spoken to Adam and Eve after the first sin in the Garden of Eden, the Angel of the LORD says, “Hagar, servant of Sarai, where have you come from and where are you going?” (Gen 16:8).
He knew her name. He knew her occupation. He sought her when she was cast out, and he did not permit the sin, shame, and confusion of her condition to separate her from his unending love. And because he sought her, Hagar knew his name, too: the Angel of the LORD was none other than the LORD himself. “So she called the name of the LORD who spoke to her, ‘You are a God of seeing,’ for she said, ‘Truly, here I have seen him who looks after me’” (Gen 16:13).
Years after this encounter, Abraham sends her away again, and Hagar once more finds herself in a barren wilderness awaiting death. But the Angel of the LORD is not content to leave her there. “Then God opened her eyes, and she saw a well of water” (Gen 21:19). God granted her the vision to see the saving water: her only hope for survival.
Scripture reminds us that Hagar is an image of the covenant of law (Gal 4:21-31). Her child was not a child of the promise, but a child born out of man’s effort to bring about the will of God by human exertion. The slavery of the law rightly breaks us, rightly smites our self-righteous attitudes that we can contribute to our own salvation. Our best efforts to make ourselves seen and to bring about our own justification only serve to darken our souls and drive us to the wilderness of despair, grief, and doubt. We long to be seen, but not as we are—we long to be seen in the beautiful shades of perfection instead of the reeking rags of our guilt.
The Angel of the LORD—the Second Person of the Trinity, Jesus Christ—covered Hagar in the riotous color of His grace. The first physical appearance of God in human (or human-like) form recorded in Scripture (outside of the Garden of Eden) is to a woman with a child outside of the promise-bond of marriage. Thousands of years later, this “Living One Who Sees Me” was born to a virgin not outside of a promise, but because of a promise—not the vow of husband to wife, but of God to humankind. Hagar was told, “The LORD has listened to your affliction” (Gen 16:11). Years later, in the months leading up to the very first Christmas, an angel of the LORD would echo that sentiment to Joseph, the earthly step-father of the Christ: “An angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream, saying, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’” (Matt 1:21).
The LORD opened Joseph’s eyes. The end of sin’s reign was in sight because of the God of seeing, the Christ who is a great light to the people walking in darkness, the vision of the blind, and the exact image of the Invisible God. We who were robed in the gray pallor of death and brokenness are painted with the scarlet blood of the Lamb who was not content to let us wander in the wilderness of our sin. Our story ends in color because of the Artist-Creator who became our Redeemer, the One who entered the wilderness of this world to fully pay for the ugliness of our sin. In the many-colored robes of his grace, mercy, forgiveness, and love, we will be lead to the King of Kings (Ps 45:14), and because of the promise of his salvation, we can joyfully proclaim that the sunrise of his promise approaches. The end is indeed in sight.