We all tend to feel most comfortable around things that are familiar, and that includes being around people who fit in with our ideas of what people should be like. When we see someone out of character to our normal world we may be fascinated, but we also feel a little at a loss to know how to relate to them. Once we know more about them we might feel more comfortable, because we can put them into a familiar pigeonhole.
Where I found myself going wrong over the years was categorising people based on my limited ideas and experience. For example, I had little experience around old people or disabled people as I grew up. I had ideas about such people, but they were untested. I thought anyone over the age of sixty was already planning their funeral. I thought disabled people or the deaf or blind, were unable to really connect with life.
I thought of old people as irrelevant and out of touch. I thought of sick people as only needing sympathy. And so on.
I can think of various situations where I was surprised by people who didn’t fit the profile or pigeonhole I wanted to put them in. I was ignorant, and had to realise that bit by bit.
On one occasion, while at Bible College, I was preaching at a church several hours away from campus. I greeted the people before the service and noted that they were generally older and seemingly quite conservative. I preached a great sermon that night and was glad God had enabled me to do that.
At the end of the meeting a little old lady approached me. She was shrunk with age, quite slight and very grey. She seemed pleasant and I thought of her as a kindly old lady who was probably anticipating her funeral service.
She took my hand and told me that at the start of the meeting she had the impression of a large chip on my shoulder. She decided to pray for me through my preaching and at the end she saw it was gone.
That shocked me. This woman didn’t fit my profile at all. She was far more spiritually aware, far more proactive and far more about spiritual business than I would ever have guessed.
I had to stop being condescending to older people. I had to realise that any one of them could be a powerhouse of prayer, deeply theological, rich in godly character or proven by a life of faith-filled living.
At the same time I had to realise that children and youth could well be much more in touch with God’s voice in their life than I would expect. Ordinary looking men and women could be at just about any place in walking with God and being ahead of me in awareness of what God is doing.
It’s the old ‘Don’t Judge a Book By Its Cover’ story. We tend to create our favoured pigeonhole categorisations and try to fit everyone into them if we can. The reality is that everyone is a unique person, with a unique walk with God. We don’t know what that is unless God shows us. So we are best to approach people with open hearts and without shoving them into some pre-conceived idea of who and what they are.
Not all youth fit your idea of what youth are up to these days. Not all ministers are like the ones you have defined in your head. Not all elderly people live for the same things, and not all businessmen have the same set of values.
Your danger is in judging others, which invokes God’s judgement on you.
“Judge not, and you will not be judged. Condemn not, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven.” Luke 6:37
Let me point out that one way we are judged is by being denied the good that person can be to us.
I have had to consciously remind myself to be more open to people than I might naturally be. I am getting better at it, and at times I really enjoy the surprise of finding more about people. I often chat with people who are in random service roles, such as those stacking shelves in a supermarket, or carrying bags in a hotel. I discover that some are funding themselves through some pretty serious academics, or creating their own music in their backyard, or starting some business or other. People are often quite surprising.
At the same time, in church, I find that some very ordinary looking people have a deep hunger for God, a rich love for various Bible topics, a great care for certain types of needy people, much experience in witness or service that I wouldn’t have guessed, and so on.
I have also found needy people who have been much more open to getting helped and who have surprising past experiences to draw on.
The key for me is to take each person as they come, and to find out who they are and what God is doing in their lives.
I have to remember some key Bible truths, such as that God treats all people equally.
“God is no respecter of persons” Acts 10:34
God loves each of the people I meet, as much as He loves me or anyone else. And God invites everyone, including these people, to enjoy all the salvation God offers.
“God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” John 3:16
God’s plans for these people are as wonderful as His plans for anyone else.
“I know the plans I have for you. Plans for good things and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope.” Jeremiah 29:11
So, friends, open your heart to all those around you and all those God sends your way. Remember that God loves them and wants them to enjoy every spiritual blessing. So make sure you Don’t Pigeonhole People.