The strangest thing happened last Sunday night. An older man wearing some worn jeans and a baseball cap came into the church building and asked to see the preacher. There were only 7 or 8 people left in the building, and I was one of them.
He walked up to me and said, “I’d like to give $250 to your church,” and handed me $250 in cash. “I went to the Baptist church across the street tonight first, but they were rude to me, so I decided to come here and give you the money.”
This was so unexpected that for a moment I struggled to find the right words. But I managed to ask him his name, where he lived, and where he went to church (among other things). He didn’t want to answer any of my questions, but as he walked out I invited him to come back to church.
Weird, right? That was last Sunday. Maybe he’ll come back and obey the Gospel. I hope so.
I can’t say that has ever happened to me. But since I am a preacher who sees everything as a potential sermon illustration, consider three lessons from this situation:
1. Don’t Judge Someone’s Intentions Merely By Their Appearance.
When I saw this man enter the church building, my very first thought was, “Oh no, another person asking us to pay his utility bill.” I know, that’s bad; I shouldn’t have thought that.
Don’t get me wrong – I’m happy to help people! Jesus expects His disciples to be benevolent to strangers (Matt. 25:31-46). But after you help them, very rarely will they return for worship or agree to a Bible study. I find this to be really discouraging.
And this man fit the bill perfectly. About 99% of people who walk into church building after services, dressed as he was, come asking for money. Thus, my gut reaction was, “Okay, how much is he going to ask for?” You can imagine my surprise when he handed me $250.
Jesus said, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment” (John 7:24). What the eye sees on the surface might not be what is actually in the heart. Don’t judge too quickly, like I did. Make sure you know all of the details about someone before you make conclusions.
Evidently the Baptist church he went to first judged by his appearance before they took the time to listen to him. Don’t be that church. Be eager to talk to everyone with an attitude of patience and compassion.
2. Treat everyone as though they had $250 to give you.
I know that sounds shallow, but I don’t mean it that way. What I mean to say is this: assume the best about everyone until they prove you otherwise. The next stranger who walks into church late might be wanting to give the church $500. Or better yet, he may want to obey God’s plan of salvation by being baptized (i.e. Acts 2:38; Rom. 6:4; 1 Pet. 3:21). Regardless, I’m going to treat him like he’s important.
This is one of the attributes of true love. Consider the fact that God is love (1 John 4:8), and Christians are to be like Him (Eph. 4:24). The love of God “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Cor. 13:7). I need to treat people like I believe the best about them.
This principle is implied when Jesus said, “Whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them” (Matt. 7:12). I want people to believe the best about me! Therefore, I am going to be very reluctant before I believe the worst about someone. In fact, they’re going to have to make a pretty good case as for why I shouldn’t think highly of them.
3. People respond to guilt differently.
When you read this story, another thought might enter you mind: “What’s bothering this guy’s conscience? Who did he murder?” But again, that’s not fair to assume (see the above points); we don’t know this man. For all we know, going around and giving $250 to churches may be his hobby.
But for illustration purposes, pretend for a moment that his conscience really was bothering him.
People deal with guilt differently. Some, for example, give money to a church when they feel guilt because of sin. Others hide and compartmentalize it within themselves, hoping it will just go away. Still others confess whatever is burdening their conscience to a friend, thinking that admission of their fault to someone will alleviate their guilt.
Yet the Bible specifically tells us how to deal with guilt. Guilt should direct us to repentance. Any other outlet is a waste. Paul said, “For godly grief produces a repentance that leads to salvation without regret, whereas worldly grief produces death” (2 Cor. 7:10).
The crowd on the Day of Pentecost felt guilty because they were responsible for crucifying Jesus. Peter told them to “repent and be baptized” (Acts 2:38). Repentance is the only worthwhile response to guilt. It necessitates three things:
- First, one must be sorrowful. The crowd on the Day of Pentecost was “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37). Those who are guilty of sin face the judgment of God (cf. Ex. 34:7). That should prick the conscience!
- Second, one must change. That means you’ve got to stop sinning. The 1st century church in Corinth, for example, was comprised of Christians who were formerly adulterers, homosexuals, thieves, drunkards, and brawlers. But they couldn’t continue living that way if they wanted to be saved, so they changed (1 Cor. 6:9-11). As another example, God almost destroyed the city of Ninevah because it was an evil city. But upon learning of their impending destruction, they changed, and God spared them (Jonah 3:1-10).
- Third, one must make restitution. This is sometimes the most difficult part because it puts a price-tag on repentance. To make restitution means you will replace, or make whole again as much as possible, that which you have hurt. For example, if you have murdered someone, you can’t just give, say, $250 to a random church. You’ve got to make restitution by going to the murdered person’s family, paying the price, and facing the consequences. If you’ve stolen anything (such as someone’s reputation, possessions, or marriage partner), you will give it up, pay for it, surrender it, or repair it. Zacchaeus made restitution (Luke 19:8-9), the Israelites were required to make restitution (Lev. 6:2-5), and so should we.
Has anything like this happened to you? What lessons can you draw?