She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” (Genesis 16:13, NIV) Humans have an innate, primal need to be seen. Not just to be looked upon, but to be seen and understood by one another. It is such a significant truth. Being seen is reality-based. When we are truly seen, we are validated and made to feel real. When we’re seen we feel connected.
Consider the “still face experiment” conducted by Ed Tronick in 1975. Let me describe the experiment. A twelve- to sixteen-month-old little girl is videotaped emotionally interacting with her mother; they are smiling and pointing, cooing, and laughing with each other. Two minutes into the experiment, the mother is asked to turn away and then turn back with a “still face,” an expression that is completely unresponsive to anything the child does to reconnect with the mother. Within seconds you see the child’s distress—she does everything she can to reconnect, even shrieking to get the mother to notice or acknowledge her. She thinks to herself, Where is my mommy? This doesn’t look like my mommy; this isn’t how she looks at me. Tronick states that the child “rapidly sobers and grows wary. She makes repeated attempts to get the interaction into its usual reciprocal pattern. When these attempts fail, the infant withdraws [and] orients his face and body away from his mother with a withdrawn, hopeless facial expression.” It remains one of the most replicated findings in developmental psychology. 1
The experiment has a powerful and positive resolution in that while the infant experiences emotional distress (and possibly trauma if not repaired) for 30-40 seconds, the recovery is almost instantaneous when the mother reconnects with her child. This reveals the power of “rip and repair,” another psychological concept discovered through this process. We are never perfect parents, friends, spouses, etc., but if we are willing, we can quickly repair our imperfect relating experiences with one another, with the reward that our willingness to repair the disconnect can lead to resiliency in ourselves and strengthen our relationships.
Like the infant, our need to be seen is so powerful that we will even change our story or our appearance to make it safe to be seen. We don’t trust that others will love us if they see the real us. The need to be seen can drive us even to produce negative behavior if it means that we will be noticed, often referred to as “negative attention seeking.” We will even engage in negative behaviors if the positive behaviors haven’t resulted in being noticed, seen, or acknowledged. Even though the negative attention doesn’t produce a positive connection, it is better than not being seen at all. It feels better to be seen negatively than to feel like a “nobody.” What we see is that regardless of the pain we are in, when we are seen, when we connect positively, the pain becomes much more manageable even if nothing changes in our circumstances.
This is the place where we find Hagar in chapter 16 of Genesis. Mistreated and discarded by Sarai, Hagar runs away from her mistress. Feeling unworthy, unwanted, and unseen in her flight, she finds herself alone in the desert near a spring beside the road to Shur. That’s when everything changes.
An angel of the Lord appears to her and asks where she comes from and where she is going. How amazing! In her state of feeling “less than” and “not enough,” the Lord sees fit to send an angel to speak with her. She is finally seen.
Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”(Genesis 16:9-10, NIV)
Not only is she seen by the Lord, the Creator of all things, the Almighty God of the universe, but her descendants are blessed by Him.
Can you imagine Hagar’s wonderment at the declaration of the angel of the Lord? Why would God look on me, one who is despised and unwanted by my mistress? The angel then tells her to return to Sarai and submit to her. The same unlivable situation that drove her out into the desert is the one that the angel tells her to go back to willingly, but she now has the strength to endure the inevitable hardship because she has been seen and valued by the Lord, the One who sees.
When God sees us, it gives us the strength to endure the hard things.
Imagine the hardship that Jesus endured on the cross. He endured every beating, every flogging, every conceivable ridicule, and unimaginable pain in order that we might have an unbreakable connection with God. Arguably the most painful part of his crucifixion and death was when all the sins of the world were heaped on His shoulders and God had to look away. In Matthew 27:46 we hear Jesus cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” One of the definitions of forsaken is “to turn away from.”2 This was unbearable anguish to Jesus. After crying out to God, asking “why” have you turned away from me, He finally said, “It is finished.”
That was the last time those words will ever be uttered. Because of what Jesus did on the cross, mortal man will never have to be forsaken by God again. Because Christ was willing to bear the sins of the world, God will never again have to “look away” from us because of our sin.
Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you. (Hebrews 13:5, NIV)
I have had times in my life when I felt so lost, like I was floundering, just plodding along. I couldn’t find my way, I didn’t know where was going or where I was, and nothing seemed to fit. I knew that God knew where I was, but I didn’t know where I was. I kept asking God to find me even though I knew I wasn’t lost by him, but I needed to be found.
I would pray, “Please, God, find me; I don’t feel found by you. I need to feel seen by you, do you see me? Do you see my circumstances? I’m afraid for you to see what I have done. Have you turned away from me?” Have you ever felt that way? This is how Hagar felt. Once God saw her, she could handle anything. She needed to feel found.
Trust me. I am the God who sees you. You may not see, but I am the God who sees you. I am the way, and I know my own way for you. I am the God who sees you. I am the God who knows you. I don’t lose anything of value, and you are of immense value to me.
I never walk away from what I have made. I am the great I am, and I am the God who sees you. I am not as distant as it may feel, nor am I as uninvolved as it may seem. There are things I am doing in your life that are beyond your comprehension; they are too vast for me to explain. They must just take their course, be experienced, and allowed to have the time needed to complete what I am doing.
Like a bread dough that is put aside to rise, to allow the yeast to do its work of expansion, you must wait on my work to complete in you. I am in the waiting on ingredients, making sure of their necessary order, knowing what the end result needs to be and the time it will take, I won’t leave you in the process. I will see it through to its full fruition. I am the God who sees you, I am the God of formation; I know my process within you.
You can trust the one who died for you.
You call to me and I listen; you call out to me, and I hear. I am near, more near than you can conceive. You are learning to discern my presence in different ways, in different stages and places.
Trust in Me, the Ones who sees you.
Knowing that God sees us and understands us, holding our future in the palm of His hand, we are now called to see and understand others. Are we looking on others with condemnation and disdain or in compassion, kindness, and love?
We need to be the eyes of Jesus, looking out on the world in search of the hurt, the forgotten, the lonely, the unseen. In the words of Teresa of Ávila, “Christ has no body now on earth but yours, no hands but yours, no feet but yours. Yours are the eyes through which the compassion of Christ must look out on the world.”
We are to understand that we are forever seen by God, never to be forsaken. “I have now seen the One who sees me.”
Like Hagar, we are to find the strength to endure the hard things in order to see the work of God completed in us.
We are to then to see—really see—the hurt, the forgotten, the lonely, the unseen and be the eyes of Christ to a hurting world.
- Look for ways to know God sees you in unlikely ways and unusual places—in a compliment you got that you really needed to hear, in a song that came on the radio that spoke to you, in a verse you read that cut straight to your heart, in a billboard that reminded you of something important.
- How can you actively seek to see and understand those around you?
1 Ed Tronick and the “Still Face Experiment.” Science Blogs. Jason G. Goldman, October 18, 2010. http://scienceblogs.com/thoughtfulanimal/2010/10/18/ed-tronick-and-the-still-face/