On our almost ten hour drive home from Michigan, we stopped at a rest area in Central Pennsylvania to stretch our legs, use the facilities and let our two sons (5 and 2) run around and expend a little energy so their mommy and daddy wouldn’t lose their minds on the rest of the drive. We were enjoying foot races around the picnic tables and trees, followed by clapping and high fives, when I was approached by a young man in what looked to be his early twenties. He was short and skinny – nothing threatening – with some gel in his hair, a little fuzz on his lip and a gold chain around his neck.
“Can I ask you a question?” he said.
Without waiting for my response, the young man told me his name was Eric and launched into a story begging for my sympathy.
He told me he had something major go out in his car (which he pointed to in the parking lot – a beat up red two-door sedan that had three barking dogs making themselves known through the slightly lowered windows) that required a $500 repair. He was trying to get to his mother’s house in Cape May, New Jersey and didn’t have enough money for gas because of the emergency repair on the car earlier that day.
He wondered if I would help him out with some money so he could continue on his journey.
He kept telling me his was a born-again Christian and was a good guy. He was nervous and shifty as he spoke.
I was incredibly skeptical of Eric.
I’ve been burned by these types before. I’ve pumped gas for well-meaning people pleading their case with me at gas stations, I’ve paid for meals for people telling me they had nothing – and a handful of times I’ve been taken. I knew it, I’d tell myself. I shouldn’t have done it. My gut was right. Why did I cave? And why am I so easy a target! I won’t do this again.
I remembered all these interactions and replayed them in my head as Eric told me his story. Yeah right, I kept thinking. He is just making this story up.
I told him I would talk to my wife, who was at the car. We’d discuss it and I’d get back to him. I watched Eric make his rounds, going car door to car door with people stopping to use the facilities and hit the road. Every one of the dozen or so people he asked turned him down.
I walked to the car, told Megan about the situation and reached for my wallet. “This guy asked for money. I don’t believe him. But I’m going to give him $5″ I grunted. I was not in a good mood, feeling as though I’d been cornered in my conscience and I didn’t like being pushed around, especially in the midst of a long mind-numbing drive home with two young kids in the car. Five bucks isn’t a lot, but just enough to appease him – and my conscience.
When he came near my car again, I walked with him toward the rest area building and asked him a question that initially I thought was well meaning and ‘shrewd’ on my part: “Why should I trust you, Eric?”
He was caught off guard.
“Give whatever your heart tells you to give, man. Whatever God tells you to give, you can give.” He seemed even more shifty.
“That’s not really what I asked. Why should I trust you?”
“I’m a born again Christian. I’m a good guy. I really am. I wouldn’t lie to you. I’m a good guy.” My skepticism grew, as he kept saying all the right things and all the cliches I’ve heard before – including the ones that included God.
“Here you go,” I forced out of my mouth as I begrudgingly I handed him a $5 bill and shuffled back to the car and my family drove away.
The interaction, though brief, stayed with me the remainder of the trip.
The truth is, I was just being a jerk. I was thinking I was being morally superior to ask him that question and to give him money when I didn’t have to. I didn’t like him and just wanted him to go away. I figured $5 was the quickest way to do just that. On the surface, it seems that I was being “a nice guy” for giving him some money, especially when others would not. But I assure you, I was not being a nice guy.
On the car ride home, a verse from 2 Corinthians came to mind:
Each of you should give what you have decided in your heart to give, not reluctantly or under compulsion, for God loves a cheerful giver.
God loves a cheerful giver.
Which means God was not very fond of my conscience-appeasing act of ‘generosity’ where I was stingy and frustrated I had to help this guy.
There was nothing remotely cheerful about that $5 to Eric. Nothing. Cheerfulness wasn’t even in the same zip code.
I was embarrassed.
All I could think about on the remainder of the ride home was that I won the battle, but lost the war.
Lord, forgive me for missing the point of generosity.