“I think religion is amazing,” my acquaintance told me.
I think she was trying not to offend me. She had recently discovered I was a Christian and, while she is “not religious at all, like personally,” she told me after that repeatedly that she likes the idea of religion and is fascinated by it and generally impressed by people of faith.
I am perfectly fine with this, not least because her attitude makes it very easy to have conversations about faith with her. She likes to talk about spirituality, not least because her beliefs are heavily influenced by New Age thought, and because she is very eager to reassure everyone that she respects whatever they believe or do not believe at all times. Occasionally, though, the conversation goes haywire.
We were talking recently about religion, and she was explaining to me that she liked to visit religious places: any kind of temple, church, or spiritual site. “I’ve been to Southern Baptist churches,” she said, “and a Methodist church, and a Lutheran one once, and I’ve been to a mosque, and it was amazing, and a synagogue, and…”
I’ll admit I was only half-listening, but then she said something that brought my head up. “And, like, I learn something every time I go to one of those places, because, you know, I mean every religion is fundamentally about the same thing, about being a good person, and–”
“Well,” I hedged, desperate to interrupt before things got out of hand, “not every religion. Not mine. In fact, Christianity says that good behavior isn’t what we depend on for salvation but–”
“No, I know,” she said, and I don’t think she heard me at all. She barreled on and then someone else interrupted the conversation and my desperate attempts to set the record straight were lost.
It was maddening. Is maddening. Every time I hear someone say “Christianity is about being a good person” or “Christianity is about right behavior” or “to be a good Christian you have to do good in the world” I want to shout my frustration into the town square: that isn’t it! That’s wrong! That isn’t it at all! That’s literally the exact opposite of the point!
And so, with your forbearance, I will write here what I wish I had had the time and the space to say to my acquaintance:
Oh friend. Oh friend. Christianity is not about “being a good person.”
In fact, it is mostly about people being generally awful, wretched, sinful, deceiving, nasty creatures. We lie. We steal. We murder and plot and scheme. We are selfish. Scripture acknowledges here is no hope for us that lies within us, no redemption or ultimate good that is inherent to human nature. The Enlightenment notion that humans are inherently noble and good and always progressing forward is a lie that is more and more evidenced by every progressing era. We are wretched. Christianity knows this. God and Jesus and the Holy Spirit looked at the human heart and saw it to be hopelessly stained with sin and death. In fact, Scripture say it doesn’t matter how good or righteous a human tries to be: it’s nothing besides real holiness.
Christianity is not about “being a good person.” Christianity is about God seeing that humans were wretched, sinful people who could not save themselves from their own inherent wickedness, cruelty, and darkness – and because He loved them He stepping in to save them anyway. Christianity is not about “being a good person.” Christianity is about God’s wild, reckless love saving hopeless, broken, sinful people.
Do Christians strive to do things that please God, that abide by His desires and rules? Sure. But we recognize, in the doing, that these things don’t author our redemption. We recognize, in the doing, that these are expressions of love and of gratitude written out in obedience. They are a reflection of soul transformation, not the cause of it. We recognize, in the doing, that any “being a good person” that comes out of us is because of what God is doing and has done within us.
Friend, you’re right: if Christianity is about “being a good person” then it is pretty much indistinguishable from a bunch of other religions, ideologies, and ethical systems. There are lots of ways to “be a good person.” You can find instructions on how to do that pretty much everywhere, and a lot of them sound the same. An atheist can be a good person. A Muslim can be a good person. Christians and people who believe nothing in particular can be good people.
But Christianity is different because it says that true goodness is and has always been out of our reach, and that only God can bridge the gap between us and it. Christianity is relentlessly practical and realist in its understanding of the human heart and human nature. It does not offer cheery platitudes about how being a thoroughly decent person will do the trick. Christianity tells us that being the most decent person to ever live is no help: that Christ is the help, and that’s it and that’s all.
Friend, Christianity isn’t about “being a good person.” It’s about people being awful, and God loving them anyway. And that’s far more radical in scope than people give it credit for being.