One day in Hawaii, where we once lived, I chatted to two Ethiopians by the town’s seawall. They’d come looking for work but, not finding any, were sleeping on the beach. A friend could send money for them to leave the island, but they had lost her unlisted USA telephone number. My mind flew to the conversation I’d once had with an unpleasant New York operator; I immediately sympathised.
“But you could tell the operator it’s an emergency,” I said. “There’s a phone at the Relief Centre across the road.”
“Will you come too?” To be honest, I didn’t want to spend the time and effort. But I knew instinctively that the Christ-like thing to do was to help.
The relief officers were not welcoming. (Later I learned the Ethiopians had run up a bill on their phone, when for three days they guessed at the number!) But an officer coolly gestured to a phone I could use on their behalf.
I explained the predicament of my new-found friends. “They’re without money, sleeping on the beach ... could you call their friend and have her call this number in Hawaii?”
Twenty minutes later, one of the Ethiopians babbled away excitedly. Putting down the handset he exclaimed: “That’s the greatest miracle I’ve ever had!”
Back at the seawall I invited both to respond to God for what he’d done. The one who had accompanied me spontaneously raised both hands and blurted out in raw, loud, heart-felt excited prayer: “Jesus Christ! I really believe in you!”
Why not? Jesus had revealed shown himself through meeting him at the point of his worry. That one act of kindness revealed more of God’s character than my hour or two of witnessing.
From the Book of Acts, we know Christians are to use words. But it was often the demonstration of a miracle (or an act of kindness) that convinced non-believers. Take the jailor in Acts 16:20-30. In those days, jailors were executed if their prisoners escaped. Although Paul and Silas could have bolted when the prison walls collapsed, they stayed anchored to the spot. If they fled, the jailor’s family would be destitute. How could that be “good news”? In kindness, they met the jailor’s felt need. And out of gratitude the jailor fell before the apostles and exclaimed, “What must I do to be saved?”
God wants us not to just talk about the character of God. He plans for us to demonstrate it. Jesus did. His acts of kindness to Zacchaeus up a tree (Luke 19) and to Simon Peter when he granted him a miraculous catch of fish (Luke 5) are but two examples. Notice how they both came to deep acts of repentance as a result, though Jesus did not say anything about sin. Zacchaeus promised to return what he had stolen, and Peter left all to follow Jesus.
In other instances, when Jesus or the apostles did an act of kindness and there was no immediate repentance, they then said something about wrongdoing. Two examples of this are the cripple Jesus healed (John 5: 1-9, 14) and the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-9). But notice the sequence: First the act of kindness, then the talk about sin. John 1:17 summarises this beautifully: “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” In that order.
In his books on servant evangelism, Pastor Steve Sjogren describes how his Ohio church grew from 30 to 3000 in 10 years. His congregation constantly ministered through acts of kindness. A work brigade once offered to cut someone’s extremely long grass free of charge. Afterwards, the man was deeply moved and said, “I am an old man, and Jewish. I’ve never ever thought once about becoming a Christian. Until now!”
Acts of kindness are extremely effective in evangelism, but there are principles to follow:
- They have to be Spirit-led
- The more they meet a felt need, the more effective they are
- They must not foster dependency.
But the right kind of help can do wonders. After all, it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). The cross of Christ is a huge example; that’s how people are drawn to him (John 12:32).