Another key verse about angels is Hebrews 13:2, which says, “Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.” Again, the main point being made is not to teach us about angels but to motivate us to try higher-risk hospitality, even inviting people we don’t know into our homes. Before we can open our mouths to ask, “But what if they turn out to be dangerous criminals?” the author suggests, “What if they turn out to be angels?”
At very least, we know this happened to Abraham and Sarah (Genesis 18). They made a meal for three strangers who showed up at their front tent-flap, and it turned out the three strangers were visitors from heaven (and not only angels, but a visitation from God).
But even if the people we bring home for dinner turn out to be people, they bring their guardian angels with them. And when the house fills up with hungry humans eating our physical and spiritual food, behind each chair stands at least one angel who is grateful that we are partnering with its assignment to bring that human to know and love and walk with Jesus.
I had this realization when I was living in the home of a family who practiced radical, high-risk hospitality. Not only were they renting their spare bedroom to me, they had taken in a little girl, one of five children whose father was in prison for violently attacking her mother. Just the amount I had heard of this child’s story made my heart hurt and my faith shudder. And the thought came to my mind, What if that verse about ‘entertaining angels unawares’ means not only that the people could turn out to be angels, but also that the angels assigned to the people will fill our homes and be blessed by our hospitality? And as soon as I thought it, such a heavy sense of the presence of God settled on me and filled the car that I couldn’t speak, only be in awe.
I greeted the family-plus-one-little-girl, who were all on the sofa watching a movie, and went up to bed. As I lay there, I thought about the holy angel assigned to that ‘little one’ (Matthew 18:10). What a horrible job! To stand there helplessly and love that child and see everything, feel everything, every time her innocence had been lost in a new way. I wondered almost bitterly if the angel had even been able to do anything, if the girl’s life would have been even worse if the angel hadn’t been there. And I cried out to God, “How does she bear it?”
The thought came powerfully: “Why don’t you ask her?”
Immediately, I went into a vision in my mind. The angel that was staying in our house came and stood before me. She took the form of a woman, tall and powerful and regal and beautiful, in a dress of a million colors but with face and hands the same rich brown color as those of the little girl she watched over. And with tall, brilliant white wings. I started to weep and ask her, ‘How do you bear it?’ If I had been less emotional I might have been more intimidated by her demeanor: I would sure never dare to mess with a woman who looked like that!
The mighty angel reached out and touched me on the forehead. At once, a memory from my own happy childhood filled my mind. The whole story came in an instant, like a zip file being downloaded to be opened:
My sisters and I had inherited a beautiful dollhouse that my grandmother had made for my mother. It had real electric lights and tiny food on plates. We endlessly set it up and then rearranged the rooms and set them up again. Nothing more exciting ever happened in the lives of those dolls than being seated at the table and fed their dinner and put to bed, in order to wake up and have all their furniture rearranged again.
Except, that is, during the annual visits of our Cousin-Who-Was-A-Boy. When we endured the trial of several days of Playing With A Boy, we and our lego villages were attacked with everything from imaginary rattlesnake poison to imaginary hydrogen bombs. The weapons were upgraded each year based on the most powerful and destructive forces he had learned about in the past twelve months.
This particular year, he had agreed to play with the dollhouse, and agreed that the dolls would be the good guys and that we would all be on the same side, the side of the dolls. The dolls would be attacked by the plastic trolls, a toy of the era, little naked plastic creatures with a brightly colored fluff of hair that stood straight up and was taller than they were themselves. At first, it would look like the trolls would win, but then in the end the dolls would defeat the trolls and live happily ever after. Having agreed to the plotline, we began the game.
We brought the red, blue, and pink-haired trolls up to the front door of the dollhouse, and my cousin helped me make the dolls barricade the front door. If I had been in charge of the game, the dolls would have defeated the trolls in the Battle At the Front Door and gone back to their happy lives. But my cousin made the trolls break through the front door and seize the living room, while the dolls made a hasty retreat into the kitchen and barricaded the door again. My living room arrangement was desecrated by tramping trolls. Very well, we would defeat them in the kitchen and then set my poor living room up again!
But we did not defeat them in the kitchen. The advancing trolls drove the dolls out of the kitchen and all the way up the stairs, leaving havoc in their wake, winning battle after battle. And at some point in the destruction, I began to doubt whether my cousin had meant what he said when we had agreed that the dolls would win. It certainly looked like he was fighting on the side of the trolls!
When at last the trolls had seized (and ransacked) both floors and the dolls were all barricaded in the one last bedroom and it looked like all hope was lost, I threw in the towel. “I’M NOT PLAYING WITH YOU ANYMORE! I’M GOING BACK TO MY MOM!” I cried, and fled the scene of the war for the living room, where the adults were watching Jeeves and Wooster and there were no trolls.
My cousin came to the living room later and asked me, “Why did you stop playing? I was going to make the dolls win in the end, just like I promised. I told you, the trolls attack and it looks like they will win but the dolls win in the end. You should have kept playing with me.” I realized that his idea of “At first it looks like the trolls will win” involved far more loss and destruction than mine had, but he had been on my side all along.
Now, in adulthood, the problem of evil–that question of whether I can trust God in the face of the evil in the world–followed a similar plotline. God has already committed to the storyline of history. He’s promised that evil looks like it will win, and that it gets to destroy a lot, but that His rescue plan will win in the end. In the meantime, He puts up with a lot more loss and destruction than I want Him to, even the loss of the innocence of little girls like the one downstairs. When it looks like evil is gaining ground and even that all hope is lost, I can doubt whether He is really on the good side or will really keep His promises. I can feel angry at the loss He’s allowed. And I can decide to stop “playing with Him” or I can keep believing in Him until the end of the story.
All of these memories and thoughts flooded my mind in an instant, while that angel’s hand rested on my forehead. She waited until I had finished opening the “zip file” of memories and I was still. Then finally, she spoke into the stillness, spoke the only words I ever heard her say. She spoke her answer to my question, my walking cry of “How do you bear it?”
Her answer was simple. Only one sentence. Only a few words. Her voice was full of power, sorrow, and faith.
“I just keep playing with Him.”
And then she disappeared.
That little girl was only able to stay with us for a few days before the “trolls” in her life advanced and she and her angel had to pack up and move on. Before they left, I borrowed colored pencils and drew a picture of the tall angel with the dark face, multi-colored dress and huge white wings, standing behind the little girl and holding both her hands. On the back, I hastily wrote out the gospel, told her that Jesus had died for her and that He was always with her and so was the angel He had assigned to her. I pressed it into her hand the last time I ever saw her. I wanted her to know what I knew: that she was never alone.
How many angels have passed through your doors, unawares?