You can hardly read Facebook, especially during election season or any kind of controversy, or just about any comments on anything online, without wishing people would be nicer to each other. We’re all so prone to forget the admonition to treat others with the same respect and grace with which we would want to be treated, especially when we deem them wrong in some way.
But is it possible to be thoroughly nice and still not right with God? Some years ago while reading Mere Christianity by C. S. Lewis, I came across a passage where he discusses that. It’s from the chapter “Beyond Personality” in a section concerning the truth that you can sometimes have an unsaved person who is actually nicer than some Christians. Lewis goes into many reasons for that which I won’t reproduce here, but one reason has to do with general disposition. Person A may be a quieter, calmer person and generally nice and personable, yet unsaved. Person B may have a more excitable personality and a fiery temper which the Lord has been giving him grace to overcome, and he may be a lot better than he was, yet compared with Person A he doesn’t seem as nice. Lewis then goes on to say (emphasis mine):
If you have sound nerves and intelligence and health and popularity and a good upbringing, you are likely to be quite satisfied with your character as it is. “Why drag God into it?” you may ask. A certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily to you. You are not one of those wretched creatures who are always being tripped up by sex, or dipsomania, or nervousness, or bad temper. Everyone says you are a nice chap and (between ourselves) you agree with them. You are quite likely to believe that all this niceness is your own doing: and you may easily not feel the need for any better kind of goodness. Often people who have all these natural kinds of goodness cannot be brought to recognize their need for Christ at all until, one day, the natural goodness lets them down and their self-satisfaction is shattered….
If you are a nice person — if virtue comes easily to you — beware! Much is expected from those to whom much is given. If you mistake for your own merits what are really God’s gifts to you through nature, and if you are contented with simply being nice, you are still a rebel: and all those gifts will only make your fall more terrible, your corruption more complicated, your bad example more disastrous. The Devil was an archangel once; his natural gifts were as far above yours as yours are above those of a chimpanzee.
….We must not suppose that even if we succeeded in making everyone nice we should have saved their souls. A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world — and might even be more difficult to save.
For mere improvement is no redemption, though redemption always improves people even here and now and will, in the end, improve them to a degree we cannot yet imagine. God became man to turn creatures into sons: not simply to produce better men of the old kind but to produce a new kind of man.
If what you want is an argument against Christianity (and I well remember how eagerly I looked for such arguments when I began to be afraid it was true) you can easily find some stupid and unsatisfactory Christian and say, “So there’s your boasted new man! Give me the old kind.” But if you once have begun to see that Christianity is on other grounds probable, you will know in your heart that this is only evading the issue. What can you ever really know of other people’s souls — of their temptations, their opportunities, their struggles? One soul in the whole creation you do know: and it is the only one whose fate is placed in your hands. If there is a God, you are, in a sense, alone with Him. You cannot put Him off with speculations about your next door neighbors or memories of what you have read in books. What will all that chatter and hearsay count (will you even be able to remember it?) when the anesthetic fog which we call “nature” or “the real world” fades away and the Presence in which you have always stood becomes palpable, immediate, and unavoidable?
Jim Berg quotes Lewis in Changed Into His Image and then goes on to say:
Surprising as it may seem, there are many of us who really try to be good, not because we are allowing God to work in our lives to produce His fruit, but because it seems that life has fewer snags when we stay out of trouble. We often achieve the accolades and image we want. We can become smug around others who aren’t doing right and can become easily embittered during the times when we are being good and don’t get what we want.
We sometimes think we are pretty good people who “mess up” once in a while. The biblical picture is just the opposite: we are pretty bad people who do right only by the grace of God.
The true strength of my sinful heart…was not fully known to me until I resisted it.
“Being good” can be just our own way of making life work without God.
One of my friends had a hard time coming to the Lord for that very reason — she felt she was every bit as good as the people witnessing to her and therefore didn’t “need” to be saved. Thankfully the light finally broke through.
The Bible tells us that “we are all as an unclean thing, and all our righteousnesses are as filthy rags; and we all do fade as a leaf; and our iniquities, like the wind, have taken us away” (Isaiah 64:6, KJV). Next to God’s blazing holiness, our righteousness is like filthy rags.
But how can that be, you might ask. You’re not promiscuous or hateful, you return the money when the cashier gives you too much back, you give to good causes, you drive the speed limit.
Think of it this way. Jesus said the greatest command is to love God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. So it follows that the greatest sin is breaking this commandment…and we all fail in that way several times a day. Plus the Bible tells our our heart is deceitful, so there are likely ways we sin that we don’t realize.
This is a paltry comparison, but imagine you have a favorite white shirt that still looks pretty good to you. But one day in the store you find another white shirt and decide to get it. When you bring it home and hang the new shirt next to your old one, you’re horrified. Your old shirt, which looked perfectly fine to you the day before, now looks grey and worn next to the bright new one.
The only righteousness that meets all the qualifications for heaven are His.
For I bear them witness that they have a zeal for God, but not according to knowledge. For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness. For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes (Romans 10:2-4, ESV).
And be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith (Philippians 3:9, ESV).
Christ took our unrighteousness on Himself on the cross, and when we repent of our own way and believe on Him, He credits His righteousness to our account. As Chris Anderson’s hymn, “His Robes For Mine,” says:
His robes for mine: O wonderful exchange!
Clothed in my sin, Christ suffered ‘neath God’s rage.
Draped in His righteousness, I’m justified.
In Christ I live, for in my place He died.
So, I am all for being nice and wish the world contained more niceness. But before God, being nice is not enough. Instead of trying to make our own righteousness come up to Him, an impossible task, we need the righteousness that comes from Him. If, like me, you’ve made that exchange, rejoice with me in His grace. If not, I invite you to come to Him today.