ONE DAY LAST week I was downtown St. Louis on routine business. As I was walking back to my car, there in the heart of the city I came upon a man with his hand out. He was poorly dressed, dirty, and needed a shave. A first impulse said to pass him by (“he’s probably going to spend it on liquor anyway”) but something inside said “wait.” I asked what he needed. “Something to eat.” “When did you eat last?” He said the day before.

There was a Burger Chef just around the corner and it was lunchtime. The two of us had cheeseburgers and milk shakes. While we ate we talked. Some about Christ. Some about my new-found friend, Mr. Robb (not his real name). His story went something like this.

Mr. Robb was once a successful small-business man in St. Louis — ran a catering service, I believe. He became entangled in problems and turned to alcohol. This, of course, led to still more problems. In the end his wife left him, his business broke and he landed on the streets. Now he had a new set of problems.

There were (as he told it) cruel children … the “elements” … unkind policemen … plus the daily job of locating something to eat. He had an appointment for a job interview the day before, but it is hard to make it to a morning appointment on time with no alarm clock but the sun, no transportation but his feet and no friends or family to help. So he was late and missed the job.

Mr. Robb gave me some advice, too. Sin, he said, is gradual and deceptive. As he put it, there are three steps to the bottom. First you tolerate sin. Next you endure it. Finally you embrace it. (Here I thought of Psalm one, and the “walking, standing, sitting” it describes.) Then Mr. Robb produced a thick, stubby pencil from a pocket somewhere, and wrote these words very laboriously for me on a paper sack: “Weave carefully the threads of habit, lest they become a cable too strong to break.”

Preacher talk? Hardly. This was experience speaking. This was the man they don’t show you on the commercials. He had worked hard for sin, for several years. Sin had finally paid off.