I really enjoy being nice to people.
Initiating friendly small talk with my grocery store cashier or graciously showing patience to my over-worked waitress all bring me happiness. There’s something about sharing a laugh with a stranger or bringing a smile to a person’s face that is nearly exhilarating. I love it. I walk away with an extra skip in my step and a part of me thinks, “I love being a Christian!”
In my mind, whenever I am kind to someone for no reason at all, whenever I extend mercy at a time when others might not, whenever I inquire about the day of the telemarketer who calls–I equate all these things with the Christian life. Christ compels us to love our neighbors and our enemies–to love EVERYONE–so the warm feeling I get from these encounters must be related to Jesus, I reason. It is the part of my heart that is conformed to his.
And perhaps that is true. Perhaps Jesus was just as friendly and happy-go-lucky with everyone he crossed. But I would be lying if I said that this mindset can’t be deceptive. Behind my joy is also a deep desire to be liked by everyone I meet. While I genuinely enjoy encouraging strangers because I do care about them, I also want people to think I’m nice and funny and kind. It builds me up inside. It makes me feel like a good person.
I know that not everyone is like me. Some people don’t care what everyone thinks about them. Others are so profoundly introverted that it is difficult to engage in the smallest exchanges with strangers. But I am quite sure there are other Christians like me, and there’s a part of me that wonders if my personality type gravitates toward the church. After all, the church affirms my natural inclinations. When I treat people the way I would treat people anyway (Christian or not) I can call that behavior Christian. I can credit spiritual fruit to myself even when there is no actual spiritual growth.
In his book Mere Christianity, C.S. Lewis wrote of this problem. He warned of the “fatal mistake” of believing that Christianity demands niceness alone. He believed that “a certain level of good conduct comes fairly easily” to some people, and he attributed this to what he called “natural causes.” Lewis therefore concluded that God does not look at an individual’s nice or nasty temperament the way we do. We might see an ornery Christian and call her a hypocrite, whereas a kind and gentle Christian incites our praise. What we fail to consider is where each person started. Who were they before they knew Christ? If they were just as nice and friendly prior to salvation as they were following, then their sanctification will look different than that of the temperamental Christian.
While the grumpy Christian may seem to be in greater need of grace, Lewis warned that nice Christians are in greater peril. Where there is no perceived need, we depend less on God. If niceness comes naturally to us, and niceness is the goal, then we are less desperate for God.
That is a great danger. Given that people-pleasing is a form of idolatry, it can be easily hidden within the realm of the Christian community. It can be passed off as Christ-likeness when it is, in fact, sin. That is not to say that being kind to others is wrong, but that we must scrutinize our motives. On this front, Jesus offered some helpful words in Luke 6:
“If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful. (v. 32-36)
Even in loving my enemies there is a temptation to people-please because I cannot stand the thought of someone disliking me. Yet admitting that temptation is the first step toward loving my neighbors and enemies for the right reason: by the grace of God for the glory of God.
At the heart of people-pleasing and a Christianity measured by niceness is a works righteousness that is antithetical to the gospel. The ultimate cure for this tendency is total dependence on God. Those for whom friendliness is harder are more likely to depend on God in this area; the rest of us are less so. That’s why it is crucial to remember the final aim of the Christian life is not niceness but complete and total transformation, as Lewis wrote,
“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.”
That is a work that God alone is capable of achieving.
Have you read “Almost Christian” by Kendra Creasey Dean? It talks about how youth ministry/Christian education seems to be teaching niceness and morality rather than bold action and dependant faith in God.
Wonderful as always!
I really like how you captured the issue with this line: “At the heart of people-pleasing and a Christianity measured by niceness is a works righteousness that is antithetical to the gospel.” We certainly can tend to measure our relationship with God by how much other people seem to appreciate what we do for them. It almost becomes, “They like me, so God must be really pleased with what I’m doing!” It sounds ridiculous when I write it out but I’ve fallen in to the trap too, even though I am way over on the introverted side of the spectrum.
I think that there is another legalism at work here as well. A couple of days ago a friend told me about a conversation with someone who felt that people at church were not being welcoming and supportive enough, in essence not being nice enough to her. My friend said church is not a place where you go because other people will treat you nicely. I thought that was a perfectly good insight. Church is the gathering of God’s people for God’s glory. Sure, this involves encouragement and edification and bearing one another’s burdens, but if all a person wants is to get happy they can go to Disneyland (which I love, by the way!).
Thanks for another great post to get me thinking, Sharon.
Ouch. This is really convicting and I’m so glad I read it. You have a gift for peeling away layers of “religion” to get to true Christianity. Thanks for sharing your gift!
Thanks for your insight. Being Christian does make us generally nicer to people than we would be without the Gospel. I’m a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and despite what we hear people tell us, we are Christians. We love him and his gospel with All our hearts, or at least we’re always striving to. There are so many different Christian Faiths around where I live to, and it’s just amazing having so many kind, helpful, and dedicated Christians around. Thanks for your post, and I love CS lewis’s books!
I just stumbled across your blog and have spent almost the last hour reading through the archives. I read entry after entry that either spoke directly to questions or thoughts I’ve had recently as I’m finishing up college… thank you for honest, thoughtful, Christ-centered posts!