Whether or Not an Angel

Hebrews 13:21 says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by doing so some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

I’ve known this verse since I was a child, and I remember imagining that people I interacted with were angels in disguise, which made me try to be courteous and friendly in most situations. Sadly, as I grew up, it grew easier to show a tough exterior and to keep people at arm’s length.

When I was 17, however, I had an interesting encounter that brought to life this verse and others on the topic of kindness. My family lived in Taiwan at the time, and I had an appointment for a checkup at a hospital. My dad was supposed to meet me there to help translate, as I hadn’t mastered Chinese well enough to understand medical terms. However, he was running late and I realized I might have to manage without him, which was very intimidating for me.

While I was struggling to fill out a form all in Chinese, a young man who spoke English fluently approached and asked if I needed any help. I was frazzled and felt under pressure, so I acted a bit annoyed and aloof—but I did need help, so I ungratefully accepted.

Once the forms were filled out, the young man helped me find the floor and waiting room for my appointment. Once he left, I let out a sigh of relief and called my dad to let him know where to find me, but he still hadn’t arrived by the time my name was called. I went into the doctor’s office and asked if he spoke English. He didn’t.

More frustrated than ever, I was about to leave, when the door opened, and the same young man came in unannounced and said he would translate for me. I knew I should have been grateful, but I couldn’t hide my annoyance at the whole situation.

Finally the appointment was over. “I’d better stay with you until your dad shows up, just in case you need my help again,” the young man said as we left the room. Instead of engaging in conversation with him, I kept my arms crossed and silently brooded.

When my dad finally arrived, he and the young man quickly and easily struck up a conversation, and when it was time to leave, they shook hands. I reached out my hand as well, but the young man backed away and put his hands up. “No, no, I was glad to help,” he said.

During the drive home, I had time to regret my attitude. Why was I so rude to him anyway? It’s not his fault my dad wasn’t here to help, and it was actually very friendly of him to step in. It occurred to me that if he had been an angel, I had certainly failed in showing him hospitality. Over the next few days, I thought about this encounter a lot—not so much trying to decide if he was an angel, but more generally considering the way I treated people.

You see, it didn’t matter whether that young man was an angel or not. This event helped to remind me of the important fact that everyone deserves to be treated with kindness and respect, regardless of who they are or how we feel. Here someone had gone out of his way to help me, and I repaid him by acting aloof and snubbing him. I never even asked for his name.

How much would it have cost me to be kind and show gratitude, the way Jesus would have done? Probably only a morsel of my pride.

I hoped I would bump into that young man again, so I could apologize and tell him how sorry I was for how I’d acted; but we don’t always get a second chance, as I didn’t. What I could do, however, was determine to let that experience change me so I would act better the next time with another person, in another situation.

Even if others are discourteous or plain rude, which wasn’t the case in this instance, God’s Word instructs us to “clothe [our]selves with tenderhearted mercy, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience”2 in our interactions with them. Our kindness toward others shouldn’t be dependent on how they treat us.

I have since stopped looking for angels in disguise (although it would be fun to know I have met one!) and have instead focused on trying to follow Jesus’ example of being ready to do good, slandering no one, being peaceable and considerate, and always gentle toward everyone3—whether they are angels or not.

  1. NIV
  2. Colossians 3:12 NLT
  3. See Titus 3:1–2.