I know we have all heard the phrase, “Don’t judge a book by the cover”, at one time or another. Well…like so many wise sayings, this one has always been a hard one for most of us, if we were to admit it. We live in a world that thrives on stereotypes and sometimes we can even justify this but often we let it hinder us from living life to the fullest.
I don’t think most of us go around consciously looking at other people and passing judgment on them but we all do it to a degree. Just a week or two back, I had a young lady at a football game tell me that she couldn’t believe that I was a “preacher dude” after she and her friends sat beside me and my wife during the first half a football game. I laughed and asked her why and she said she couldn’t picture me in a suit and tie behind a podium and I laughed again and told her that I avoid suits and ties at all costs.
I had an atheist on my Facebook page who assumed that I hated him just because he didn’t believe in God and he was very mean to me without cause. He could not believe it when I told him that I loved him and respected his views. No one likes being judged and labeled before getting a fair chance to show others who they really are.
My problem has always been this: many times I have been correct, just like you have, when looking at the outside of a person or situation and found out that my pre-determined judgment was absolutely correct. There is a fine line between judging a book by its cover and just being observant and smart. For instance…I had a man in shabby clothes come up to me in the streets of Hot Springs, Ark., and tell me a long, sad story, about his mom being in the hospital in Little Rock and his car running out of gas. He said he needed a few bucks for gas so he could get back on the journey to be at his sick mothers’ side in the hospital. (Now, all I could imagine in my mind was my own mother dying with cancer in a Little Rock hospital when I was 9 years old and wishing I could be there with her.) I was young and grew up in a small town so at the time I encountered the man who needed the money and had never experienced this before so I eagerly gave the man $10. Now that may not sound like much but I was living on $200 a week at the time so it was a considerable amount to me. I could drive my S-10 pick-up for an entire week on $10 back then! I watched in disgust as the man went into the gas station across the highway and came out with beer and cigarettes. I almost went across the street and rammed his head into the pay phone on the side of the building but I calmed down and learned the first part of a valuable lesson that evening. Things like this affect the way we look at others and we all have been burned a time or two. My response to this one instance was refusing to give a dime to anyone for years because of this one mans’ deception, unless I already knew them. I was just a teenager when I encountered the man begging for “gas money” but the event caused me to have a hard heart towards strangers in need for years.
When I gave my heart and life to Jesus Christ, I was 23 years old. One of the first things that God started changing about me was this attitude of distrust and indifference with people who were begging or homeless. I remember going to a Wendy’s in Eldorado, Ark., one day and there was a man in line in front of me who only had a few teeth in his mouth. He was smelly, nasty, and looked like he was on drugs or something. He was counting out change in pennies to try to buy a second burger off the $1 menu. He was about a dime shy of the amount needed for two burgers and the girl at the register told him he didn’t have enough. I was standing behind him doing exactly what I had become an expert at by then…I was thinking about how stupid he must be for getting into this sort of situation. Thoughts like, “Why don’t he have a job? What kind of drugs made his teeth rot out? Where does he live and am I paying taxes to buy him cigarettes? etc.”….Before I knew what I was doing, I was ordering my meal and I bought an extra burger, some fries, and a large chocolate shake. The man was over at the condiments putting a gallon of ketchup on his little burger when I did what I couldn’t believe I was doing! I gave him my big bacon burger and the fries and the shake and I kept the little $1 burger!!!! I told him that Jesus Christ loved him and died to set him free. He smiled at me and looked me in the eyes before giving me a big hug and then he stuck his tongue out at the cashier and walked out of Wendy’s. I walked back to my vehicle and wondered why in the world I had done that and I knew God had prompted me to do it. I was arguing with God in my mind all the way back to my hometown. I was thinking, “Didn’t God know what kind of man that was? Did he not realize that this man was a regular bum around the store and that was why the cashier was so irritated at him? Why did I waste my money and supper on this loser?!!”….As you can see, I wasn’t a very cheerful giver. But that didn’t matter to the man with the chocolate shake…he thought he had an encounter with Jesus himself the way he looked and responded to my unplanned generosity and love.
I found myself doing this kind of thing more and more often and each time it happens to me I just laugh in amazement at what God is doing in my life. It reminds me of a story I haven’t yet shared with the world that is pretty amazing to me:
This past April I was in Greenville, South Carolina, taking my finals for my PhD when I encountered a beggar. I was on my way into my hotel lobby to write a five-page paper that was due the next morning and it was already 10 p.m. A typical “thief, bum, or beggar”, whatever you want to call them, was hitting people up for cash in the valet parking area. I was already thinking the usual thoughts about this man and I was preparing some rude comment for him when he got between me and the front doors. He told me he was hungry and that he needed a few dollars for food. I was just joking with him when I said, “OK…let's me and you go next door to that pizza place and get a bite to eat.”
He looked at me with my dress clothes on and then looked at himself and said, “You wouldn’t want to eat with me, look at me.” I was persistent because I knew he was only wanting money to get drugs or alcohol so I told him, “Oh no buddy, I’ll eat with you, let’s go get some pizza!” To my surprise he said OK. We walked into this pizza restaurant/bar next to the hotel and stood in line to order. When we got up to the register, I told the lady to give me a slice of pepperoni and to get my friend whatever he wanted from the menu. He got 2 slices of pizza and the biggest glass of iced tea they had. Most of the seats were full so we walked up and sat on two empty bar stools in the front window, overlooking the busy sidewalk and street. I felt something inside me begin to change as I started talking to the man and asking him to tell me about himself. He did smell like whiskey and he talked very loud so most people in the restaurant could hear at least his half of our conversation. I listened to him tell me all about his life and his health problems etc.
They brought out our pizza and I asked him if he would pray with me as I blessed our meal. He nodded his head and closed one eye as I peaked up at him to make sure he was closing both. I prayed and at this moment, everything changed…I began to cry as I asked God to bless our meal and our time together. I felt the man's’ hand on mine as I finished the blessing and he smiled at me and told me that I would have to excuse his manners because he was really hungry. I started off using my fork but ended up joining him for an all out pizza feast with bare hands. I kept on asking him questions about his life and then I moved on to life in general. He talked and talked as people in the restaurant kept their eyes on us. I could see the tables of people in the reflection of the window behind us. I finally asked him if he believed in God and what his thoughts were of Jesus Christ. He told me that he always knew that God existed but that he never really thought too much about Jesus. It was at this time that I let all my reservations go as I told him how much God loved him and that God had a plan and purpose for his life. I told him about Adam and Eve and the fall of mankind. I explained how sin entered the world and why things are temporarily messed up as a result of that. I explained who Jesus is and why He came down from heaven for us to be able to be freed from the power of sin and find a new life. I told the man of Christ’s sinless life, death, and resurrection from the dead. I told him of the coming judgment and the age to come. I told him about heaven and the streets of gold and the forgiveness available to all those who will turn away from sin and surrender their lives to Jesus as Lord.
The people in the pizza place were finished eating and listening to us talk. I quoted scripture like never before and everything I told the man was supported by the Bible. The beggar began to cry and he told me that he wanted to give his life to Jesus. He said that he knew that he may never get off the streets or get a healthy body but that he wanted to give what little he had to Christ! He told me that he had stopped using drugs about a month ago but that he had been drinking ever since then. He said that he knew it was wrong and that if God would accept him as His child, he would never use drugs or alcohol again. Then he asked me if God would hear him if he prayed with me right then and there. I told him to go ahead and we held hands and he prayed the most sincere prayer I have ever heard. He turned from sin and turned to Christ as the Lord of his life inside a pizza parlor! I saw other people in the room wiping their eyes and some of them got up and left. We finished praying and I got up and I gave him a big hug. I was so proud of him.
He reached into his little bag that he carried and pulled out a pink Bible that had never been opened. He told me a woman had given it to him but he never opened it. I told him to start reading it every time he felt like getting high and he eagerly agreed. He told me that he couldn’t wait to get a job and that he would be looking for some type of employment in the morning. We got up from the bar and walked outside and told each other goodbye. I felt like I had known him my entire life and I wanted shout for joy. He didn’t ask for another dime and thanked me for my time and for telling him about Jesus. He gripped the pink Bible tightly in his left hand and smiled at me. I told him that I would be praying for him but that I had to go back to my hotel and write a paper for school that was due in the morning. He said he was ready to go to read his Bible and get to bed too. We shook hands and gave each other a quick hug and started walking in opposite directions on the sidewalk.
I was almost out of shouting range when I heard him call out to me. I turned around and for a split second I went back to being my old self. I thought to myself, “he is about to ask me for more money after all of this!”. But that is not what happened. I’ll never forget his parting words as he shouted down the busy street, “I’ll never forget you JOSH STEED….you know the Bible says that people have entertained angels before without even realizing it!”. I stood there in awe as he blended into the crowds and was gone. Needless to say, I got goose bumps and almost ran to the elevator and up to my room. I quickly called my wife to tell her all about what had happened. It was almost midnight when I got off the phone and started my paper. The reason I was so amazed by the man's last statement was….I never told him my first name, much less my last one! How did he know my first and last name? He had been drinking and we talked for over an hour and I know I never told him my name. I never even got his name!
I laid in my bed at the hotel that night and wrote a five-page paper in record time and I got an “A” on it the next morning and I graduated. I was so happy to be alive. I drove for the next 13 hours on only about four hours of sleep all the way back to Camden, Ark. I still have a hard time not judging books by their covers and I’ll never know, on this side of eternity, the difference between thieves and angels but I will never forget learning a lesson from the two different beggars. God never told us that we would be responsible for how people use the gifts we give in His name….He just told us to love others and to share with them out of our abundance. God will set the record straight on judgment day but we shouldn’t let our preconceived notions stop us from being His hands and feet each day.
There is no way in the world that I would give anyone begging on the streets money apart from Christ living inside me. It is so funny when this happens to me cause I know that someone out there is thinking, “wow, he is so caring and generous”, but if you think this way about me…you are very wrong! I still struggle with the memory of that first dude tricking me out of my $10 back in Hot Springs! I don’t have a generous spirit or a big heart for the beggars and addicts. It is all God in those moments when I give and love those whom I normally wouldn’t acknowledge. Every time I see God work in this manner it makes me fall in love with Him even more deeply! We can’t even imagine how much love God has for even the lowliest of all people. There is so much more I have to learn in life but as long as I am alive….I am going to keep seeking to please my Lord with my decisions and time each day. I can’t wait to see Him face to face! I hope that you too will make the choice to love others regardless of their looks, social status, race, and sometimes their smell. God died for everyone and each person alive was made in His image so before we are tempted to hold back from loving others….lets remember that only God knows the differences between books and covers, thieves and angels, sinners and saints, and preachers and crooks!