I’ve been reading the Old Testament book of Proverbs as I prepare to give some talks about godly wisdom at church. It’s been a while and I’d forgotten both the common sense approach and the challenge that these pithy sayings about wisdom for life can bring.
Early in the book, in chapter 3: 27, I read:
“Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act.”
This reminded me of something that happened to me a couple of weeks ago; it is a story which brings me no pride, but I think it’s one I need to tell.
I was on my way home after working on Holy Island. I was about to travel south and west and needed to top up the fuel in the car. The filling station was particularly busy, and I queued in one of the ‘pay at the pump’ lanes.
In the car in front sat an elderly lady (she must have been a few years older than me!). Her husband was busy at the pump.
I sat and waited…and waited…and waited a bit more.
Meanwhile, the man seemed to be participating in some sort of strange ritual. He would peer at the dials on the pump, push some buttons, put the nozzle into his tank, look at the pump, push the buttons again, remove the nozzle from the tank and replace it on the pump.
He repeated this ritual several times, occasionally supplementing it by leaning through the car window an talking to the women inside. With every repeat of the ritual he seemed to become more and more agitated…we used to have a dog who, when panicked or distressed, used to throw back her head, roll her eyes and look this way and that whilst running aimlessly back and forth. This man had that look!
Eventually I worked out that he was having trouble working out how the automatic pump worked.
Instantly, my kind, helpful, compassionate, godly heart failed me completely.
I was more irritated than I can say. I could not believe that anyone could be so incompetent. Surely he could read and understand the instructions. He’s the sort that gives older people a bad name…
At this point I reversed the car into the space by an empty ‘pay at the kiosk’ pump and started to fill up from that. From time to time I shot a glance across at the elderly man who continued to play out his ritual.
It was round about now that the small voice kicked in…”So why didn’t you help when you were parked behind them. It would have been so easy to help, and would have saved him some panic and you some angst. You could help now if you have the guts to leave your car at the pump and walk across the forecourt to help.”
My own inner voice countered…”If I leave the car here it will be in the way. I’ll be a nuisance as well and people will say I’m old and incompetent. It will be embarrassing! What if they don’t want my help?”
It then struck me that as I had to drive to the kiosk to pay I could tell the attendant, and she could help the man. I could still come out of this looking a bit good…
“I think the man at the pump over there is having some trouble,” I said.
She smiled. “I can’t help him if he doesn’t ask,” she said.
So much for customer service and my attempt to redeem the situation.
I drove away from the filling station still giving occasional glances back to the man at the pump, as he desperately continued his ritual. I desperately wanted to help, but it was too late and I couldn’t go back to do it.
I’m still glancing back even as I write this. It should have been so simple. I could have helped. We would both have felt good at our sense of achievement.
But I failed…he deserved my help and it was well within my power to help. It wasn’t even a difficult thing to do. But I withheld the help I could…should have given.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ll ever get the hang of this godly living thing. Thank goodness He’s got more faith in me than I have.
By the way, just to make myself feel even worse I’m reading through the whole book of Proverbs, and supplementing it with the frustratingly, challengingly good “Making Life Work” by Bill Hybels. Try it for yourself…you probably won’t thank me, but it’s good for us.