We all hear those inspiring stories of people who have paid for the meal of the person behind them in the drive-thru lane. Or people who have dropped $20 bills into the buckets of all those they pass by on the street. Or those who have purchased a hot drink for the person standing out in the cold. Our hearts warm as we hear of these and we are inspired to action.
At the risk of offending some, let me be honest: what you think is warm and fuzzy may in fact be the opposite to someone else. I was reminded of this last week when I met Heather. Heather is a homeless woman who just left her abusive boyfriend and is looking for money for a down payment on an apartment so she no longer has to be homeless. She suffers from spinal pain and can’t work, but has income from social security and disability.
The moment I saw Heather standing alone on the street, I made a bee-line for her. We talked and prayed and I told her of the love of God.
And as we talked, a woman came by and handed Heather a cup of coffee and walked away. Heather looked down at it and then eagerly re-engaged our conversation.
Missiologist Donald K. Smith once said that all communication is cross-cultural. David Hesselgrave has also written on the importance of contextualization, worldview, communications, and the like, as have many others. When we seek to serve others, we put their needs before ours. We deliberately work to understand what would best serve them. We seek ways to love and care for them so they feel valued and valuable.
The Golden Rule, for all of its brilliance, is often times a hindrance to true gospel witness and real relationships. Let me share a silly, but powerful proverb to make my point:
The restaurant had a sign that said, "We treat others as we want to be treated." Albert, who hated broccoli, was a waiter. Now one day Becky came in and ordered broccoli (which she liked). Albert refused to serve it to her, appealing to the golden rule: "If I want Becky not to serve me broccoli, then by the golden rule I shouldn't serve it to her." Becky complained to the owner.
The owner told Albert about the literal golden rule fallacy: "In applying the golden rule, we need to know the other's situation, which may differ from ours: the other may have different likes, dislikes, and needs. We need to imagine ourselves in the other's situation. And we need to ask, 'How do I desire that I be treated if I were in that situation?'"
You see, Heather didn’t need coffee. Who even knows if she likes coffee! Here was likely the reasoning that went into the woman giving her coffee: We like coffee. It’s cold outside. That person is standing outside and needs money. That person must be cold too. That person must like coffee too.
The fallacy in this is that we assume the other person likes what we like. What Heather needed most was someone to listen to her and to hear her story. She needed someone to acknowledge her and offer her hope that the future, despite what appears at present, can be bright. On the practical level, she needed money for a down payment.
But how often are we so eager to do a good deed in a way that doesn’t infringe on our daily life that we do more harm than good? (For a larger discussion on this, read Brian Fikkert and Steve Corbett’s When Helping Hurts by Moody Publishers.) Our checklist becomes a hindrance in times like these.
The only place to begin to really serve others well is by beginning with them. It’s through listening and asking good questions. It’s through leaning into God for guidance on how to help.
As I reflect on Heather a week later, I lament the fact that I didn’t listen better. And more. Our brief conversation dripped with gospel opportunities that could have led to healing deep wounds she still carries. One of my favorite passages in scripture is Acts 3. The Message version of vv. 1-8 reads this way:
One day at three o’clock in the afternoon, Peter and John were on their way into the Temple for prayer meeting. At the same time there was a man crippled from birth being carried up. Every day he was set down at the Temple gate, the one named Beautiful, to beg from those going into the Temple. When he saw Peter and John about to enter the Temple, he asked for a handout. Peter, with John at his side, looked him straight in the eye and said, “Look here.” He looked up, expecting to get something from them.
Peter said, “I don’t have a nickel to my name, but what I do have, I give you: In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk!” He grabbed him by the right hand and pulled him up. In an instant his feet and ankles became firm. He jumped to his feet and walked.
When we dip into the pockets of our resources, at the end of the day the most valuable thing we can pull out is hope. We give the gospel. And the gospel is only truly given when we stop long enough to see the person in front of us.
Who is he/she?
What is his/her story?
What does he/she long for?
Where does he/she hurt?
And of course, what is God calling me to do?
Here at the Billy Graham Center for Evangelism we create lots of resources to equip people to show and share the love of Jesus. We’ve created devotionals, blogs, YouTube videos, podcasts, and are even in the process of creating a beautiful 40-day Lenten image-based reflection guide based on Isaiah 53. We create all these things because we know that the gospel changes everything.
But at the end of the day, it’s about you, Church. It’s about us. Today is the day. Walk across the street, the coffee shop, the gas station, wherever. Drop the cup of coffee for a moment, look someone in the eye, and begin a conversation.