The Heart of True Hospitality
As a newly married woman, one of my first opportunities to be the hostess of my home led to an embarrassing situation with my next-door neighbor. Attempting to welcome me to the area, she dropped in for a visit. I hadn’t been expecting anyone, my husband was gone, my house was messy, and I had no idea what to do or say. So I invited her into the entryway—then I left the room long enough to make the situation awkward, unsure of myself or of how to adapt to this less-than-perfect circumstance. Running and hiding definitely wasn’t the answer! I turned what could have been a lovely visit into a less-than-ideal first encounter. Even though we are no longer neighbors, we still laugh about it to this day.
Today’s popular articles and blogs on hospitality usually display glistening photographs of uniquely decorated tables, hand-lettered place markers, perfectly glazed carrots, and five tips for creating engaging conversation. As a result, I sometimes put an expectation on myself to have a perfect home, a plethora of amazing snacks to offer visitors, and a charming persona, while also ensuring that meaningful and interesting conversation is achieved with my guests. But when I slip into this mindset, it’s a recipe for total disaster. With the wrong focus, it is easy to make hospitality about my abilities and forget that the heart of hospitality is about others.
I’ve come to realize that having a perfect home and being a magazine-worthy hostess isn’t the message that Paul intended to communicate when he instructed the church to love “one another as brothers and sisters [and] not forget to show hospitality” (Heb. 13:1-2, NIV).
True hospitality is taking the other person’s needs, interests, and enjoyment into account and then serving them in a way that shows we are paying attention. Our desire to be hospitable should not come from wanting to show off our homes or our talents, but to create a place where others feel that they have been served — whether through eye contact or espresso — and ultimately that God has been glorified in it.
The Bible says to “be hospitable to one another without grumbling. As each one has received a gift, minister it to one another, as good stewards of the manifold grace of God … that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ” (1 Pet. 4:9-11).
I can really identify with the character of Martha in Luke 10. I resonate with her Type-A personality and her take-charge approach. It is tempting when practicing hospitality to focus on the tasks at hand and creating a perfect environment, rather than on the people in front of me. Martha is an excellent reminder when I consider what it means to practice hospitality as the Bible defines it — using my gifts to serve others.
Martha buzzed around making preparations for Jesus’ visit, working to ensure that everything was just right for him and the other guests, but is described as “distracted with much serving” (Lk. 10:40). Her actions likely flowed from her natural God-given gifts and were not necessarily misplaced, but they led her to be distracted from what she desired most, and she ended up resentful of those enjoying fellowship — and grumbled about it.
When she just couldn’t take it anymore, she gave in to an actual outburst: “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” In allowing the preparations for the visit to become her focus, Martha missed the purpose of the visit, which was relationship with Jesus.
Are you tempted like I can be, and like Martha was, to allow perfect preparations to interfere with building real relationships? Going into my ninth year of marriage, I have grown from my first hostessing disaster, and now genuinely enjoy having people in my home for all kinds of events — from backyard hot dog roasts, to a quick brunch, or a full Thanksgiving spread.
There is no doubt that food has an uncanny way of bringing people together. Breaking the ice over a meal can forge amazing friendships. But I sometimes struggle with perfectionism when it comes to preparing food, longing to have everything turn out just right. Because this is my personality, doing some prep-work in advance is an act of love and service, because it allows me to be more present when having people in my home, and I enjoy the gathering more. But if I can’t get all those preparations in place, I try not to let it take away my joy for the event or distract me from loving and serving the people who are there.
Ultimately, hospitality is displaying the love of the Gospel to others through our lives.
We are given the responsibility to steward the gifts that God has uniquely given each one of us to bless others, whether by an act of service, a delicious meal, or a listening ear. When we give of ourselves with a heart to display Christ’s love, it is a true act of service and will produce fruit in our relationships. 1 Corinthians 13:3 says “And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, but have not love, it profits me nothing.” In the Greek language, the word hospitality literally means to “show love to strangers.” This is why our hospitality should always display one thing above all else — the love of Christ.
True hospitality always begins with an invitation to something, just as Christ gives us all an invitation to fully partake of His life! This is a picture of the Gospel, and this way of living takes real effort, and a big dose of selflessness. Some very practical ways to show hospitality might be to invite a person on the fringes of a conversation into one we are having or to be the initiator of a friendship with a friendless person; in essence, to invite others to be part of our lives, not just our tables!
During my first year of marriage, I met a lovely woman who came up to me at a gathering of people and said to me with a big smile and a huge hug: “We are going to be really good friends and that’s that!” I was delighted by the statement, though I was less-than-hopeful that anything would truly come of it. But she didn’t fail to live up to what she had spoken. She called to check on me while my husband was away working and then prayed with me on the phone, she planned get-togethers where we could just talk and get to know each other, she invited me to every event she was a part of and then stuck by my side to ensure I was comfortable.
To this day, more than eight years later, she is one of my dearest friends and one of the most hospitable people I have ever met, because she invited me — a nearly perfect stranger — into her life. She was a real hostess in the way she made her life, and not just her home, a place where I was always welcome. Because of the impact of my friend’s godly actions toward me, her life — a real picture of Gospel living — has in large part influenced my view on what hospitality is and how I show it to others.
In a culture of distraction and hurry, focused time and attention to love people as Christ loves them will make all the difference for eternity, whether hospitality takes place around a platter of perfectly glazed carrots or not. Trying to be perfect in our hostessing will make us frustrated and distracted, and will place the emphasis of any get-together on getting it all right. But true hospitality means letting Christ shine through our lives by being present for others — making ourselves available to them with an attitude of sincerity and givenness.
What gift has God given you to use to show hospitality? What gifts has He given me? I admit that I can’t whip up something delicious on the spot, and that I still often struggle with perfectionism in my hospitality. But I do know that God has given me the gift of encouragement, and that I can share that gift by listening to someone, even over a simple cup of coffee.