Jan Johnson
Jan Johnson

Articles: Spiritual Growth

Growing A Heart For People
by Jan Johnson

When the call came from a company vice-president, Rosemary buzzed her boss. She knew he was talking with a part-time secretary in his office, but she figured he would want to speak to the vice-president immediately. To her surprise, he said, "Tell him I'll get back to him in a minute, OK?"

Rosemary relayed the message and chuckled to herself that he meant it when he teased that secretaries were the most important people in the company. "He stood out because he spoke as warmly to the janitors as he did to the managers," she says of her former boss. "He was well-known within the company as a Christian, not because he carried a Bible, but because he was fair, upbeat, and kind. He seemed to have a clear picture of who Christ was -- someone who cared about people."

In a time in which cash machines have replaced bank tellers and E-mail messages filter out a quivering voice or exuberant smile, it's easy for life to become impersonal and isolated. Add competition and rivalry to this mix and a co-worker becomes someone who might get the promotion we want, not someone whose needs God is prompting us to meet. People and their needs can be inconvenient when you have meetings to attend, projects to tackle, deadlines to meet. Without realizing it, we begin using people and loving things.

In response to our utilitarian culture, we've seen a craze to do "random acts of kindness," but for Christians the principle is different: How can we treat people the way Jesus treated them? How can we plant in our lives the purpose Jesus produced in His: healing the broken-hearted, serving instead of being served (Luke 4:18, NKJV; Matt. 20:27)? How can we avoid being tainted by a bottom-line mentality that is not conducive to ministry, evangelism or community building?

Seeing people the way Jesus sees them means going the extra mile, the extra minute, the extra muscle. But it doesn't come naturally to follow the example of a Savior who must have amazed people by responding to a boy who was rolling on the ground and foaming at the mouth by asking the boy's father, "How long has he been like this?" (Mark 9:21). Why was Jesus conducting this one-on-one Parents of Possessed Children's support group when there was a demon to be cast out? It wasn't that He needed the information. Rather Jesus not only healed physical bodies, but also created safe places in which anguished people could talk. Jesus liberated one person at a time, although His mission was to save the whole world.

Far from being a behavior we can turn on and off, caring for people comes from the inside. We have to ask ourselves, "What does it mean to grow a heart for people? Am I willing to pay the price of having items on my "to do" list left undone because I pay attention to people?


It would be easier if people stated their needs directly: I need to be included; I need to be affirmed; I need to be asked to help. Many people don't know their needs and if they do, they don't feel comfortable stating them. Our task is to pray: "God, what is within this person I need to see?"

We may be best equipped to understand the hidden needs of those whose paths we have also walked. Larry tells the janitor at the factory where he works that he's doing a good job because Larry knows how the janitor feels. Larry cleans his church building weekly as a part-time job. When the church moved to a facility four times bigger, he was overwhelmed. "Everyone was so excited about the new building, but I had at least 18 toilets to clean. It took four to five hours to do the vacuuming. On the first Sunday in the new building, several people told me they couldn't believe how well I kept up with the increased workload. That helped."


We often work so hard at being efficient that we feel inefficient when doing only one thing at a time -- especially listening to people. As I realized this, I felt convicted. I stopped myself from loading clothes into the dryer as my 14-year-old son talked to me. I sat in a chair next to him and fastened my eyes on him. I forced myself not to interrupt to ask him where he got the stain on his T-shirt. It felt strange to give him focused attention. Too often, I only half-listen.

It's easy to pay attention only long enough to develop a counter-argument or to interrupt. I confess I've had to work against. Sometimes we half-listen waiting for a reference to what interests us. Without realizing it, we're asking, What's in it for me? How can this person help my work, my ministry, my church, my favorite causes? It can be difficult to strive to have a deep, open-hearted, unjudging reception of the other person.


Last week, I took a deep breath as I entered a ballroom. There I was, an introvert who hates interruptions during my workday, attending a networking meeting with 200 therapists from three counties. As a member of the press, I have to do this sort of thing but I don't like these time-consuming meetings.

As I picked up my name badge, I reflected on how God has been teaching me to pray for each person whose eyes meet my eyes. Could I pray and schmooze at the same time? With two hundred people? As I began praying for each person I talked with, I forgot to consider whether he or she was a useful contact. I enjoyed hearing about different interests and approaches.

Instead of praying that God would seat me at lunch next to someone who could further my agenda, I asked Him to seat me next to whomever He wished. I ended up next to an elderly man and we threw ideas back and forth, including thoughts about faith. I don't know if I made any crucial press contacts, but I had more significant conversations than in any other meeting I've attended.

Praying for the people we're talking with creates a setting in which we're more likely to listen for their needs. The desire to use that person for my own advancement fades.


Even if you're a people-oriented person, it doesn't come naturally to "look not at your own interests, but also the interests of others." (Phil 2:4). When John visited someone he knew in the convalescent hospital, he talked with others as well, but he distanced himself from Rick, a severely affected cerebral palsy victim. "I didn't want to get involved with him," says John, "because conversation was so laborious. He spoke only by using a pointer extending from a headband to indicate letters on a board in front of him. You had to wait for him to spell out words and make short sentences."

But John kept seeing people talk to Rick and then laugh, so he tried. "Rick was so funny," says John. "Even though the attendants tucked his hands under his legs in the wheelchair, his arm would occasionally come loose and fly up in the air involuntarily. If your head was in the way, you got socked. Then Rick would tease you about it.

I found out he was writing a book with his pointer and electric typewriter. I realized that although Rick couldn't scratch his own nose, he was a bright human being with a terrific sense of humor."


Jesus sought out those from whom others distanced themselves. As a Jewish teacher, He talked to a woman in public (not proper) of mixed race (not done) of questionable character (also not done) about religious matters (never done) (John 4:1-30). God specializes in welcoming those who are often avoided.

The church Alma attends didn't think much about ministry to homosexuals until Alma's brother was dying of AIDS. In the five months Roger lived with Alma, people from her church came to visit him often. Sometimes they took him for a ride, but usually they just talked because he wasn't strong enough to do anything else.

Roger began attending church with Alma, and he was shocked that the church members hugged him. He assumed they would be afraid to touch him. "I am a different person," Roger
wrote to the congregation before he died, "As I hunger for spiritual food, I reflect on the precious moments at church and the people of your congregation."

Alma looks back at the changes in Roger and says, "I never said to myself, "Here's another one I can help!' I don't try to change anyone -- I do try to love people where they are."

Growing a heart for people means reflecting the warmth and responsiveness that Christ showed as He gathered children in His lap and delighted in them. As the arms and feet of Christ, we can create safe places for people to sense God's heart for them.


To consider this issue in a Bible study format,
see sessions 4 and 5 of
Spiritual Disciplines Bible Studies: Community & Submission.


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