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Look for It By James Whitford

Look for The Image-Bearer Beyond the Poverty We See

“Look, gangs were a big part of my life. I would always walk out the back door of the house thinking someone might shoot me if I walked out the front.” Jake was 12 then, living in L.A. with his working mom and alcoholic dad. Fast forward 30 years, and he’s on the streets of my city in S.W., Missouri, addicted to meth. He reached his end at our mission and was reborn through faith in Christ. His transformation was radical – from a grisly addict, homeless on the streets, to a clean-cut Christian working at our local hospital. I overheard two women comment after he passed through the foyer of our mission, “Was that Jake? No, that couldn’t be Jake.” They were surprised by his transformation. Their failure to recognize him reminded me of the neighbors in John 9 who failed to recognize the blind beggar after he was healed.

That has to do with failing to look at people, especially the poor. Maybe we’re seeing, but I question if we’re looking. Seeing is passive and receptive and can occur without a thought of looking. Looking is active, external, and purposeful.

Seeing the manifestation of poverty in a person’s life can elicit emotions of fear, pity, or, for some, judgment. Sometimes, it’s a combination. These are mostly coping mechanisms – emotional walls thrown up in response to the subliminal awareness of human commonality and that this wrecked life is not so far removed from yours. It’s hard to accept that life is so fragile; any of us could have ended up half naked, paralyzed, and dragging ourselves through manure on a dusty road or in America, drunk in a dark alley and half frozen with hepatitis.

Can you see that?

Seeing is a passive, receptive activity that can trigger an unexpected response. Maybe it’s misplaced guilt. Perhaps it’s the tossing of alms. Regardless, the reaction to seeing something we’re not looking for is always different than if we were first looking for it.

So, what if we looked?

Peter and John did. In Acts 3, they “looked intently” on the poor paralytic at the gate called Beautiful. Some versions read they “fixed their eyes” on the man. (v.4) The Greek is ἀτενίζω atenízō, to look fixedly, gaze intently. The root is teínō, to stretch and strain. What is it to strain when looking? Let’s explore a few examples where the same word is used.


Recall when Jesus was taken on the night of His betrayal. Peter followed and was watching from a distance by a fire. A girl was there, and she “looked intently” at him. “This man was with him, too!” she said. (Lk 22:56, NAS) Imagine yourself there trying to make out Peter’s face, examining him in the light of a fire. atenízō


Recall that 40 days after Jesus was resurrected, He ascended. The disciples “gazed intently” into the sky before two angels addressed them, “Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking up into heaven?” (Acts 1:10-11, NAS) Any one of us would have, too, been searching the clouds in amazement. atenízō


Finally, before Stephen was stoned to death, while the religious leaders were screaming at him and gnashing their teeth, Stephen also “gazed intently” into heaven and saw the glory of God. (Acts 7:55, NAS) What incredible focusatenízō

When you look at someone whose life is ravaged by poverty, is it atenízō-lookingDo you examine him for who he is, search him for what’s hidden, and focus on him as the center of your attention? That looking is the beginning of true and effective charity. Too often, people see the poor as objects of benevolence, failing to look deeper into the life of a person with potential and purpose.

Peter and John looked at the paralytic, and when they did, they saw the potential for what the world would call impossible – a man who had never stood on his own feet, leaping and praising God. (v.8). Let’s lead others to look at people in a way that recognizes the image of God in every person and the potential for a miracle regardless of the circumstances. Maybe then, the transformation of human life won’t be so surprising.


James Whitford is the founder and CEO of True Charity. He leads to advance the cause of privately funded, effective charity nationally at the most local level. James received his doctorate from the University of Kansas Medical Center. He practiced physical therapy and wound care before he and his wife, Marsha, founded Watered Gardens Ministries in Joplin, Missouri, in 2000.

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