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The Joy of a Life That Smells Bad

A woman washing a man's feet that smell bad
Some of our best opportunities to love others come in less-than-fragrant circumstances.

Smelling good has always been a priority for me. If you think in the grand scheme of things this sounds silly and a bit obnoxious, you’re right.

I’ve gone to embarrassing lengths in the name of smelling good. When I was eight, I doused myself in Love’s Baby Soft perfume in the backseat of my dad’s truck (surprisingly, he didn’t appreciate the baby powder scent lingering in his Ford F150). Over the years, I’ve carried (and lost) countless sticks of deodorant in various purses. And before having friends over in our first year of marriage, I lit so many candles in our house that my firefighter husband asked me to put a few of them out in the name of fire safety.

My prioritization of smell came to a head when I was 11 and my elderly great-aunt moved into our home. I wrinkled my nose at the smell that accompanied her. The distinct stench of medical equipment and “elderly person” seemed to permeate every room.

But despite this and my self-centered preteen perspective, I noticed something beautiful and amazing. Day after day, my mom would joyfully clean up after my aunt, help her in the restroom, wipe her face, and sit with her. Eventually I learned to set aside my selfishness (and obsession with good smells) and spend time with my aunt. Today whenever I smell that cloying “country fresh” room spray my aunt loved, I smile and remember the beautiful example of service my mom showed me.

I learned a similar lesson when I was 16 and took a job as a restaurant hostess. One of my job duties was hourly “bathroom checks.” I dreaded it every time — walking in and holding my breath while filling the paper towel dispenser and picking stray toilet paper off the floor.

One busy Saturday night, I led a quiet couple to their table and noticed that the woman’s shoulders drooped while the man’s brow seemed locked in a worried furrow. I wondered what they were going through. Did they have a child in the hospital? A job loss?  Wishing I knew more, I laid their menus in front of them and walked back to the host stand.

During my next bathroom check, I was wiping blue soap from the edges of the sink when the door opened and a woman came in. When our eyes met, I realized she was the woman I had seated. As she washed her hands at the sink I had just cleaned, my heart swelled a little. Whatever she was going through, that woman deserved fresh paper towels and a clean sink, and I was humbled and grateful I could play a small part in making her evening better — even if it meant enduring the smell of the bathroom for a few minutes.

At the time, those lessons felt revolutionary to me, though now they seem a little ridiculous. I mean, many people faithfully perform jobs every day that require enduring terrible scents. At that same restaurant, my brother worked in the dish pit, getting splashed with the brown water from dirty plates filled with other people’s food. He never complained — not a single time. My husband regularly overcomes horrible smells as a first responder while helping people in their greatest times of need. Nurses, caregivers, waste collectors, meat processors — the list goes on.

As I study the New Testament and read about the life of Jesus, I realize that he, too, encountered horrible smells in his life on earth:

  • He took his first breath near animals (possibly in a stable) (Luke 2:7)
  • He washed filthy feet in the days of strappy sandals and dusty roads (John 13:5)
  • He fearlessly touched lepers (the stench of leprosy causes choking, and one can catch leprosy by simply inhaling its bacteria) (Matt. 8:2-3)
  • He opened tombs and summoned days-old corpses (John 11:38-44)
  • He was beaten and spit on, then died a slow death on a cross between two men in similar condition (Mark 15:16-39)

Jesus was fully human (in addition to being fully God), so we can only assume his nose worked as well as ours. I’m convinced that some of His greatest acts on earth were enduring horrible smells so he could love, heal, and serve.

As you go about your day and you smell something less than appealing, look around — there’s probably an opportunity to love or serve someone. Strike up a conversation with the person in line with you — even when their breath smells bad. Get on your hands and knees and scrub the bathroom for your family or an elderly neighbor. Clean up after a small child who had an accident; hug the person at church who forgot to wear deodorant; or hand out water to sweaty homeless people on a hot day.

Your worst-smelling moments are an opportunity to live out Ephesians 5:2: “Walk in love, as Christ loved us, and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.” While I still enjoy smelling good (I’m not giving up candles or perfume), I know that some of the most beautiful, Christ-like, joyful moments in life might also be the moments that smell the worst.

Copyright 2024 Kathryn Andersen. All rights reserved. 

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About the Author

Kathryn Andersen
Kathryn Andersen spills a lot of coffee and learns something new every day, so she’s very grateful for stain remover and Jesus’ amazing grace. She loves finding and developing stories as a broadcast producer for Focus on the Family’s daily broadcast, which reaches over seven million people weekly. She also works as a freelance writer and podcast host. Outside of work, Kathryn loves fishing with her best friend and husband, Cody, running, playing violin, and wearing cowboy boots as often as possible.

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