We had just passed 42nd Street on the 2 train, downtown and Brooklyn-bound, which meant that here—in the heart of New York City—we were accustomed to seeing strange people. At every other stop, someone hopped aboard to ask for money, food, or any help at all. Some were desperate; all were on the fringes. And all of us subway riders—even me, after visiting the Big Apple for a total of six days in August 2016—were now well-used to it.
This particular woman sat by herself, eyes wandering, muttering constantly. From appearances, it had been a while since she had enjoyed a fresh meal or a hot bath. The other riders avoided eye contact, perhaps pretending she wasn’t there. She was talking and talking, her expression a little wild.
But I realized that what she was saying wasn’t crazy at all—at least, not to me. Her words poured forth about the goodness of a God who had sent his son for us, of the chance of life everlasting, of the blessings she prayed over every rider in that subway car and of her encouragement to face our day with joy, whatever it brought.
It dawned on me that in different circumstances I’d be giving my full attention to this message and my full respect to its deliverer. I looked her in the eyes, nodded, listened, and when the train stopped and I rose to leave, I caught her gaze and told her how much her words had meant to me, that they had blessed me and made a difference in my day, and that I prayed God would bless her too. I encouraged her to continue being bold and speaking the truth. I only had a few seconds—those closing subway doors wait for no man—but a few seconds were all I needed. It was a connection, and it was a good thing, perhaps even a holy thing, there in a grimy subway car in the middle of Manhattan.
As I walked the streets, I had to think about whether I would act any differently if this lady came into my church back in Texas. What kind of reception would she receive? Would we welcome her? Look away? Hope she sat in a corner by herself and didn’t catch the notice of other visitors? What if she won the lottery first and arrived in a BMW, sporting diamonds and a fancy dress, and dropped a thousand dollars in the offering between muttered words about God’s love? Would that be a different story?
If the whole world is our mission field, and if we are saved by grace—and that not through any works of our own—then shouldn’t we evaluate people by God’s standard wherever we are? We are all dust in the wind; we are all sinners. Cash, possessions, a stable income, a house, good clothes, a bathed and perfumed body… none of these things make a person any better, or any more valuable in God’s sight, and neither should they in ours.
In James 2, we find that this is not a new issue. James writes: “Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, ‘Here’s a good seat for you,’ but say to the poor man, ‘You stand there’ or ‘Sit on the floor by my feet,’ have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?” (2:1-4).
I’m afraid we have all discriminated, all become “judges with evil thoughts.” The Bible says that man looks at the outward appearance (1 Sam. 16:7), and how true this is. Studies show that people make up their minds about someone else in mere moments; a 2006 series of experiments at Princeton found that our judgment of a stranger is formed in one-tenth of a second. Talk about a first impression! Perhaps, deep down, we know that there is more to others than this, but that tenth of a second is about how long it took for people to avert their eyes from that woman mumbling about God on the 2 train in NYC.
So man looks at the outward appearance, but God—as Samuel informs us—looks at the heart. I know what comes naturally when my path crosses with someone else, especially someone whose outward appearance is not appealing. But I need to be more invested in God’s standard of evaluation than mine: Has that man heard of my love for him? Does that family need help you can give in the name of my Son? Is my Spirit nudging you to listen, speak, act, or give? Are you being Christ’s hands and feet to this person that I have loved from before the universe was made?
It doesn’t matter how people are dressed, where they were born, the color of their skin, their religion or background or a thousand other things we use to label and judge. Whether we’re at home, work, or church… whether on a subway car or a church pew… may we not act on first impressions, but on spirit directions.