Consider the Paperclip

I want you to think a moment about paperclips. Now, at first blush, you might think there is not much to think about when it comes to paperclips. They’re pretty simple, aren’t they? You don’t have to tax your imagination overmuch to figure out what they are for. They say what they do, and they do what they say. They also do it pretty well, but is that all they have to be? Do they have to be regulated to the lowly function of clipping papers together all of the time?

Thinking Outside the Box

In the book Breakpoint and Beyond by George Land and Beth Jarman, the authors use paperclips – among other objects, rubrics, and techniques – to measure divergent thinking among fifteen-hundred people. This divergent thinking is simply the ability to come up with varied solutions to one problem, and one of the problems they measure is this: how many uses can you think of for a paperclip? Most people may come up with ten or fifteen, but a truly divergent thinker will come up with a couple hundred uses. Yes, for a paperclip.

The research they did was a longitudinal study, meaning they kept coming back to the same subjects over a period of several years, evaluating them on their divergent thinking at multiple stages in their lives from early childhood to adulthood. They found something pretty staggering. At age five, 98% of the children scored at the highest level for divergent thinking. By age ten, that number had dropped to 50%. By adulthood, that percentage had fallen drastically farther.

Everyone in Their Place

As we get older, we like to impose order in our lives. Things fall into narrower and narrower categories. We like a place for everything and everything in it’s place. Unfortunately, while paperclips may not be adversely affected by our tendency to categorize everything, we also do this to people. We have those labeled as “friend,” who we share our joys and secrets with; those with whom we live closely and will be well aware of our spiritual walk; those who may even be sharing that spiritual walk with us.

Everyone else, we lump into categories based on our opinions of them, and those opinions are not always kind. We throw around various terms and labels that serve to dehumanize those with whom we differ behaviorally or ideologically. Even if we don’t intend dehumanization, those labels, at least, form a barrier between us and them – many synonymous with “enemy” in our minds. How likely are we to share God’s word with someone we view as an enemy?

Then we have those harmless labels that still serve as barriers in our spiritual relationships with others. These labels are not demonizing or nefarious in any way. They are merely functional labels. They describe the purpose that person serves in our lives. These are perhaps the true paperclips in our lives – those we see often in our daily jobs, errands, and chores, but we never try to pursue anything more than that context-specific relationship.

Looking Beyond the Labels

If everyone is pigeon-holed as either someone unlikely to receive the gospel (because we’ve judged them to be unlikely) or as someone we never even think of outside the context of their function in our daily routines, then the number of people we may actually consider sharing the gospel with can grow vanishingly small.

Let’s look at some of the people Jesus reached out to in His ministry:

  • A Centurion. In Matthew 8:5, a centurion comes to Jesus, expressing faith in Christ’s power to heal his servant. Here is an idolator; here is one oppressing Jesus’ people, but He shows mercy upon this one the world would define as an enemy.
  • Zacchaeus. In Luke 19:2, Jesus meets and goes to the house of Zacchaeus, despite his being a potentially dishonest tax collector, one who would have been looked upon with scorn and loathing by others.
  • An Adulteress. In John 8:3, the Scribes and Pharisees haul a woman caught in adultery to Jesus’ feet. Instead of condemning this immoral and immodest woman, Jesus shames her accusers and offers her mercy.
  • Peter. In John 21:16, Jesus speaks to Peter, the two reuniting after Peter had cursed and denied Christ. He had betrayed the very one he professed to follow, but Jesus forgives him and charges him to continue serving Him.
  • Judas. In John 12:3, Jesus gives a soft answer to Judas, despite Judas having a heart of greed and betrayal. Even with one who for whom all hope seems lost, Jesus shows kindness, even up to the very end.

How might we have treated these people differently? To illustrate, here’s a story I saw getting passed around Christian circles a couple of years ago:

…Inside one of my favorite restaurants, I noticed that my waiter was wearing a bright blue ,“Obama 08” tie; again I laughed to myself as he boldly and proudly advertised his political preference for all …When the check finally came I decided not to tip my waiter and explained to him that I was going to implement a practical application of Obama’s Redistribution of Wealth concept…He stood there in stoic disbelief as I explained to him that I was going to redistribute his rightfully earned $10 tip…

The problem is that this (presumably) Chistian didn’t look at the waiter as a soul who needs Christ. All he saw was a “liberal joke” that needed to see the error of it’s ways. Whoever this guy was may have felt like he won a political argument for a day. He might have felt better about himself at the expense of another. He might have earned praise and accolades from those who agreed with him, but what did he do for that waiter’s soul?

Seeing What God Sees

To get past our secular labels, we need to see each other as Christ and God sees us – as helpless sheep in need of guidance and protection. In the final Servant Psalm of Isaiah, the prophet laments that we, like sheep, have gone astray. No matter the sins we have committed or the great deeds we have done, we are no better and no worse than straying sheep. Jesus, in Matthew 18:12-14, tells us the value God places on every one of His sheep.

If we can do that, then there will be no reason for us not to be willing to share the gospel with every person we meet. We need to stop seeing “cashier,” “bank teller,” “mechanic,” “liberal,” “socialists,” “wing-nuts,” “illegals,” “welfare queens,” or whatever other labels secular minds place on their fellow souls. Instead, we should be thinking divergently from the world and see something beautiful and new when all they see are paperclips. Then, just then, we may be able to begin loving and teaching the way Jesus did.