In his superb biography of Francis Schaeffer, An Authentic Life, Colin Duriez tells us that Schaeffer was known for his kindness. In Escape from Reason, Schaeffer recounts meeting a young man who attended one of his lectures. He lovingly describes him as having a “good-looking, sensitive face, long curly hair, sandals on his feet and ... wearing blue jeans.” Schaeffer greeted him the next day, provoking this response: “Sir, that was a beautiful greeting. Why do you greet me like that?” The great evangelist and apologist replied, “Because I know who you are—I know that you are made in the image of God.” He goes on: “We then had a tremendous conversation.”

Greetings matter. Jesus knew this:

And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? (Matt. 5:47)

Character is largely formed through manners, even by how we acknowledge the presence of others. Virtues and vices begin small and grow larger through habits. Virtues and vices may take over, making us a saint or a devil. Who, having read C. S. Lewis’s “The Weight of Glory,” could forget this?

It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.

Even in seemingly small ways, we contribute to each other’s destiny through our speech and our silence. As we begin a new year, a time in which we re-evaluate many of our habits, we might ponder this: How might one develop good habits in greeting these immortal beings? Here are some reminders I find helpful.

Throughout the day, we can pronounce a silent blessing on many we encounter. I often pray, “May God bless you and keep you, make his face shine upon you, and give you peace.” The Bible is packed with blessings and benedictions for our discovery and use. Thinking and praying this way opens us up to greeting people with heartfelt good wishes and without fear.

In a Western cultural context, we may not greet everyone we see with words, but we can at least acknowledge them with brief eye contact or a smile. I must discipline myself to do this, but I am improving. Of course, I am often lost in thought (which means I have lost my car, my keys, my phone, my briefcase, my textbooks, and more), and may not notice my fellow immortals. If so, shame on me. Being a philosopher is no excuse for being aloof or rude.

Other settings call for more involvement, as when we meet our waiter, checker, or barista. These are immortals, not mere functionaries or means to our ends. The German philosopher, Immanuel Kant, had it right in one of his formulations of the categorical imperative:

Always act in such a way that you treat Humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of another as an end in itself and never merely as a means.

One need not exchange names to recognize a person as valuable in their own right or a center of irreplaceable worth. A sincere “hello” and a smile may be enough. Perhaps one could say something complimentary to the person but without being too personal. Too many busy, multitasking clods barely acknowledge the humanity of their servers, especially in settings of rapid delivery, such as Starbucks.

When being introduced to an image-bearer of God, kindness leads us to make eye contact, smile, and offer appropriate touch, which is usually a handshake. Those from non-American cultures will have different sensibilities, and this should be kept in mind. (In some cultures, it is forbidden for men to touch women in public.) I have found that after being introduced or introducing yourself, saying something kind (but not silly) will tend to put people at ease.

We often recoil in the presence of those radically different from us. But we should not be allergic to human beings. We may be rankled by their tattoos, piercings, body odor, gaseous perfume, tattered and putrid clothes worn by the homeless, immodest dress, or whatever is your particular point of offense. But they are all, like us, made in God’s image. Therefore, we should put ourselves out to demonstrate love in action.

We may not give money to someone begging on the street, but we can acknowledge him or offer him some bottled water or even stop and talk (if safe). I try to offer roadside solicitors a bottle of water, a handshake, well wishes, and the promise of prayer. (I do so immediately after.) I ask them their names. They have names, you know—and histories and tragedies. If possible, we should greet them, even if we cannot—then and there—restore them to their rightful place in society. I know a man who hands out umbrellas to homeless folks caught in the rain.

Article continues below

It seems like a small thing, but it really isn’t. How we greet—or fail to greet—others says much about our character. But in the power of the Holy Spirit, we may practice the presence of people by acknowledging and recognizing them for who they are: creatures made in God’s image.

Douglas R. Groothuis is professor of philosophy at Denver Seminary. He is the author of Walking through Twilight: A Wife's Illness, a Philosopher's Lament (InterVarsity Press), publishing November 2017.