ust after the close of World War II, a man was browsing through a flea market in France. He came across a painting of a vase and flowers, and, though he couldn’t make out the artist’s signature, he liked it well enough to buy it and take it home. Without even bothering to frame the painting, however, he put it in his attic, where it lay forgotten for decades.
Finally, in 1993 when he took the painting to an expert in Zurich, Switzerland, it turned out to be a previously unknown Vincent van Gogh original. The following year Still Life (Vase With Flowers) made its debut at Amsterdam’s Vincent van Gogh Museum.
People are too often like that unknown Van Gogh original: they languish in the world’s attic, their gifts and talents—their worth—undiscovered and unappreciated. One reason for this is that we put downright outrageous value on some kinds of human talent yet completely depreciate that of others. We measure success in wildly inconsistent ways.
A player, for instance, in American baseball who gets on base a mere 30 percent of his chances is paid a gazillion dollars a year. We wouldn’t put up with that kind of success rate in, say, a plumber, a gardener, or a house painter. What would we do if a teacher passed only 30 percent of the students in a class, or a secretary correctly spelled only 30 percent of the words in a letter?
Another reason we overlook the worth of others is that we evaluate people merely on appearance. The prophet Samuel was sent by God to the house of Jesse to select the next king of Israel. Samuel did no more than set eyes on Jesse’s eldest son, Eliab, before he burst out, “Surely the Lord’s anointed stands here before the Lord” (1 Sam. 16:6).*
But God had other plans. He could see hidden strengths and skills in Jesse’s youngest son. From Samuel’s human viewpoint, Eliab appeared to be the hands-down favorite. Apparently he had the bearing of a king. But as it turned out, he wasn’t the best candidate for the job.
Unlike Samuel, Jesus was an absolute master at seeing the value in people when others around them completely missed it. His 12 disciples were the oddest assortment of hotheads, schemers, and losers that you could imagine. In fact, the one that seemed most likely to succeed—Judas—turned out to be the only disappointing counterfeit. The rest were unframed, unappreciated masterpieces. They themselves had no clue as to their potential.
Religious leaders of the day must surely have shaken their heads in amazement when Jesus invited Matthew, a hated publican, or tax-gatherer, to enter His training program. The phrase “publicans and sinners” appears again and again in the four Gospels, most often in a negative context. “Here is one of the greatest instances in the New Testament,” writes William Barclay, “of Jesus’ power to see in a man, not only what he was, but also what he could be. No one ever had such faith in the possibilities of human nature as Jesus had.”1
The Art of Encouragement
With Jesus as our example, the skill in seeing value in others can be cultivated. Sometimes it takes no more than a bit of encouragement. The possibilities are limited only by your imagination and willingness to help others. In the fifth chapter of his first letter to the Thessalonians, Paul shares some specific, everyday techniques that we can use to encourage those around us:
• “Build each other up” (verse 11). Take the time to compliment someone for a quality that you appreciate in him or her. “I really like the way you carefully bag my groceries.” “You always do such a nice job in washing those windows.” Mark Twain once said that he could survive for two months on one good compliment.
• “Warn the idle” (verse 14). Another way to say this is to challenge those who aren’t involved. Invite someone to join you in a project. “I have to deliver hot meals to eight shut-ins in only two hours after church this afternoon. Could you help me?” “Next time you go by the hospital, could you look in on Mrs. Enders? She’s really feeling low right now.” When you seek someone’s help with a personal project, you are offering the benefits of companionship as well.
• “Encourage the timid” (verse 14). When it comes right down to it, most of us are a bit unsure of ourselves, especially when we’re trying something new. Be sensitive to this when you see someone who seems to be hesitant to step out in faith. “I know you’re wavering about whether to accept that invitation to become a children’s Sabbath school teacher. You have such a way with children; why don’t you give it a try?” “You express yourself so well in writing. I’m sure the editor of the church newsletter could surely use someone like you to write some articles.”
Sometimes it’s even possible to show encouragement without saying anything. When we know that someone is experiencing emotional pain, we can often show how much we care simply by being close and attentive. In his book The Curate’s Awakening, George MacDonald describes a person visiting a sick friend who “bowed reverently, seated himself in a chair by her bedside, and, like a true comforter, said nothing.”2 Most of us can remember times when someone gave us a boost simply by showing us we were important enough to listen to.
• “Pray continually” (verse 17). Expand your prayer list to include the names of those you know who especially need encouragement. Then be sure to tell them that you’re upholding them in prayer. “I’ll be praying for you as you lead out in the program next week.” “You can count on
The need for encouragement is so universal that even those who are accomplished seek reassurance. “You never know what little bundle of encouragements artists carry around with them,” says Luciano Pavarotti, “what little pats on the back from what hands, what newspaper clipping, what word of hope from what teacher. I suppose that the so-called faith in ourselves is the foundation of our talent, but I am sure these encouragements are the mortar that holds it together.”3
If we are to be like Christ, we’d do well to spend a little time working on our ability to recognize worth in others, especially those who may be overlooked or unappreciated. We may not always recognize the Artist’s signature on the person next to us at school or at work, but we can always be watching for ways to help others realize their potential. Everyone is unique. Everyone is an original.
* All scriptural references in this article are quoted from the New International Version of the Bible.
1 William Barclay, The Daily Study Bible Series: Matthew (Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1975), vol. 1, p. 330.
2 George MacDonald, The Curate’s Awakening (Minneapolis: Bethany House, 1985), p. 103.
3 “Points to Ponder,” Reader’s Digest, June 1994, p. 155.