Therefore, although in Christ I could be bold and order you to do what you ought to do, yet I prefer to appeal to you on the basis of love. It is as none other than Paul… that I appeal to you for my son Onesimus, who became my son while I was in chains. Formerly he was useless to you, but now he has become useful both to you and to me.
I am sending him—who is my very heart—back to you…. Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever—no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
-Philemon 8-16 (NIV)
A typical 17-year-old in many ways, ten years ago Lizzie Velasquez was procrastinating from her studies, surfing online, watching some videos. She came upon a video with over 4 million views and, probably without giving it a lot of thought, clicked on it. The video was titled “The World’s Ugliest Woman.”
Whatever she expected to see, she did not see it.
She saw herself.
Literally. The video was a few seconds of…her, posted apparently by a school acquaintance. And then there were the comments. Thousands of comments, most of them ugly and hurtful, unspeakable, unrepeatable. She reported the video to YouTube, hoping to have it removed for violation of terms of service, and received threats from the original poster.
“When I saw it, my whole world just felt like it crashed at that moment,” she said recently. “I thought, how in the world can I ever pick myself up from this?”
She said that, by the way, in an interview she gave People magazine. Just ahead of the SXSW premiere of a documentary called A Brave Heart. A documentary about her.
Wonder if the poster of that video, or any of its thousands of commenters, ever had a documentary made about them?
Lizzie, by way of background, was born with a syndrome so rare that there isn’t even a name for it. No matter what she eats, or how much, she can’t gain weight at all. She has 0 percent body fat, and at 26 years old has never weighed more than 64 pounds. Her bones break simply because there’s no fat to cushion them. She’s blind in one eye, and her sight in the other is compromised. And, yes, her appearance can be a little shocking.
Lizzie is far from ugly, however.
She has great faith in God. She’s full of joy and kindness and gratitude. She is, incredibly, not angry about her situation, nor about the bullying she’s had to endure her whole life. She says that if she met whoever posted the video, she’d hug them for helping to bring out of her something she didn’t know was there. It certainly helped to launch her new career as a motivational speaker and anti-bullying crusader.
Oh, yes, that’s what she does now.
She started by posting her own YouTube videos: inspirational words, daily updates, even makeup tips. (Think about that one for a moment!) Then she gave a TEDx talk that wound up going viral. Almost 7.5 million views.
Remember, her “World’s Ugliest Woman” video only had 4 million.
Lizzie has written 2 books about bullying, with a third coming. And now her movie is coming out.
We throw words around so carelessly, words like “ugly” or “useless” or “worthless” or “stupid.” We throw them around because we’re insecure, or irritated, or angry, or just thoughtless. Our world makes it easy to judge people at a glance, to write them off based on fleeting impressions and incomplete understanding. But every one of those people is God’s creation, loved by him, and, as far as he is concerned, full of potential. They can be all he intended them to be. He has made sure of it.
Paul’s friend Onesimus, once thought of as useless, was recognized as useful when seen in a new light. The man Philemon would have ordinarily regarded as just a runaway slave was, from a different perspective, his family, his brother. And the new light, the different perspective, was Jesus.
Give him some room, and Jesus will change white people or black people into brothers and sisters in Christ. He’ll change people you might ordinarily dismiss as “illegals” into fellow-citizens of his kingdom. Let him have his way and he’ll change estranged spouses into lovers, enemies into friends, adversaries into allies. He’ll give old people the energy and idealism of youth, and give young people the wisdom of age. He’ll change ugly into beautiful, useless into useful, slave into free person.
And the changes he makes are just as likely to be to your heart as to other people.
Because of Jesus, there is no one beyond hope, or redemption, or reclamation, and when we write someone off, make no mistake, it’s an act of faithlessness. It denies the power of God to transform that person, and it closes off part of our hearts and minds to his work.
For that same reason, we must always be willing to see ourselves through the eyes of God’s grace and love. Often we throw around the words we do because we believe them to be true of ourselves. We call someone ugly because we believe, deep down, that we are too. We dismiss someone as useless because that’s what we’ve come to think about ourselves.
But, oh, if only we could see how beautiful we are to our God, beneath all the scars, beneath the way his image has been warped in us. He sees, though. If only we could imagine the ways he can use us to partner with him in his work in our world. If only we could see ourselves as he does, then words like “useless” and “ugly” would never cross our lips again.
So may we see others as God sees them: not without fault, but not without hope, either. And may we see ourselves in the same way, knowing that in spite of our faults our God knows our true beauty, and in Jesus has made it possible for us to show it to the world.
For women and men like us, who are sometimes made to feel ugly by the world, that’s the best of news.