Making eye contact with people can be risky. Like any form of communication, your quick glance or extended look can be misunderstood by whomever has caught your attention. There may even be cultural differences to consider. In the United States we expect people to look at us when we are talking to them. Not doing so is a sign of disrespect. In Nigeria the opposite is true. Looking into the eyes of someone can be construed as a sign of disrespect.
I remember a friend telling me that when he was correcting a boy about something he told him to “look at me when I am talking to you!”. He thought he was asking the boy to respect him by looking him in the eye. He found out later that the boy was respecting him by looking down! Looking at someone in other parts of the world can be a privacy issue. Watching them can be interpreted as an unwanted intrusion into their lives or their space. Their response can be a glare, a frown, or a challenge - ”Who are you looking at?!”
Unfortunately, we tend to respond to this dynamic by training ourselves to not look at people. We avoid having them “enter into our lives” by not making eye contact and thus sending a message that we are interested in them and we are here to listen and perhaps help. However when we avoid eye contact we are passing up ministry opportunities.
Do you remember the story of Joseph? In Genesis chapters thirty-nine and forty we learn that Joseph was ministering in an Egyptian official’s house when he is wrongly accused of inappropriate behavior toward the official’s wife. The Egyptian official has Joseph thrown into jail. How would you respond to this type of unjust treatment? Joseph’s response was to keep on ministering. Joseph is given two cell mates, the chief baker and the chief cupbearer, both of whom had committed the crime of offending Pharaoh. Joseph is put in charge of these men and he took care of them. This went on for some time. One day both men had a dream that they could not figure out. Here is what the Bible says,
“Then the cupbearer and the baker for the king of Egypt, who were confined in jail, both had a dream the same night, each man with his own dream and each dream with its own interpretation. When Joseph came to them in the morning and observed them, behold, they were dejected. He asked Pharaoh’s officials who were with him in confinement in his master’s house, ‘Why are your faces so sad today?’ Then they said to him, ‘We have had a dream and there is no one to interpret it.’ Then Joseph said to them, ‘Do not interpretations belong to God? Tell it to me, please.’ (Genesis 40:5-8)
The key to this story is that Joseph observed them, he made eye contact, he asked a question, “Why are your faces so sad today?”, and then he offered to get involved. You will want to read about what happens next!
Joseph recognized that it is important to notice other people. And, having the heart of a shepherd, he was quick to act on what he saw. This act of kindness was a pivotal point in Joseph’s life and in the life of the people of Israel. May God give us all the grace to see people through His eyes and to ask Him to use us to shepherd those that we see. Who are you looking at?