Does Christianity make people nicer?

I saw this quote one day, and it got me thinking:

“I’d be more willing to accept religion, even if I didn’t believe it, if I thought it made people nicer to each other but I don’t think it does.” ~Andy Rooney

It misses the point entirely. Perhaps some religions exist to make people nicer, because in many religions, eternal destiny is decided on a scale of good vs. evil within an individual person. Christianity has quite a different object in mind. It doesn’t care about good vs. evil in a person, as much as who the person belongs to. Christianity is more concerned with making entirely new creations, the consequence of which might be a person who is “nicer” than he once was, but that might not always be the case right away. He will most certainly be a different person than he once was.

Frankly, I don’t think “niceness” is of much concern to God. There were times when Jesus himself was not very “nice.” He even name-called. “Brood of vipers, white-washed tombs, and hypocrites,” are some of the phrases he uttered toward certain people. And his rebukes were not about making sure everyone was nicer to one another. He asked for something much harder and deeper: He demanded that we love our enemies, and pray for those who persecute us. To love our neighbor as we love ourselves.

Niceness is not always loving, and loving does not always seem very nice. It is a much richer, harder, fiercer thing to love someone than it is to be merely nice. Niceness, when you boil it down to brass tacks, is not particularly impressive. Any kindergartner can do it, if the right incentive is there.

It’s pretty easy to be nice, and it comes easier to some people than to others by their very personality. There really isn’t much inherent virtue in being nice, though it is certainly pleasanter to be around nice people than mean ones. Still, what does it say about a person who is nice on the surface, but seething with hatred inside–usually shown by the gossip they spew behind someone’s back? We’ve all experienced the feeling of humiliation when we find out someone we thought was “nice,” later raked us across the coals to others. Turns out being nice doesn’t really say much about a person’s character, really.

Personally, I want my niceness to come from somewhere deep inside. I want my ability to be nice to stem from genuine love, compassion, grace, and mercy for my fellow God’s-very-image-bearing human beings. I struggle with this mask-wearing tendency as much as the next person, but I also understand that someday, my Christianity–rooted in a blood-bought relationship with Jesus Christ–will tear every mask I own to pieces. When that happens, I want there to be something of substance left when all my “niceness” is stripped away.

C.S. Lewis addresses this very issue in Mere Christianity, and says it all far better than I could:

“Christian Miss Bates may have an unkinder tongue than unbelieving Dick Firkin. That, by itself, does not tell us whether Christianity works. The question is what Miss Bates’s tongue would be like if she were not a Christian and what Dick’s would be like if he became one. Miss Bates and Dick, as a result of natural causes and early upbringing, have certain temperaments: Christianity professes to put both temperaments under new management if they will allow it to do so. What you have a right to ask is whether that management, if allowed to take over, improves the concern. Everyone knows that what is being managed in Dick Firkin’s case is much ‘nicer’ than what is being managed in Miss Bates’s. That is not the point.

And now, let us go a little deeper. The manager is going to put in new machinery: before Christ has finished with Miss Bates, she is going to be very ‘nice’ indeed. But if we left it at that, it would sound as though Christ’s only aim was to pull Miss Bates up to the same level on which Dick had been all along. We have been talking, in fact, as if Dick were all right; as if Christianity was something nasty people needed and nice ones could afford to do without; and as if niceness was all that God demanded. But this would be a fatal mistake. The truth is that in God’s eyes Dick Firkin needs ‘saving’ every bit as much as Miss Bates. In one sense (I will explain what sense in a moment) niceness hardly comes into the question.

Do not misunderstand me. Of course God regards a nasty nature as a bad and deplorable thing. And, of course, He regards a nice nature as a good thing—good like bread, or sunshine, or water. But these are the good things which He gives and we receive. He created Dick’s sound nerves and good digestion, and there is plenty more where they came from. It costs God nothing, so far as we know, to create nice things: but to convert rebellious wills cost His crucifixion. And because they are wills they can—in nice people just as much as in nasty ones—refuse His request. And then, because that niceness in Dick was merely part of nature, it will all go to pieces in the end. Nature herself will all pass away. Natural causes come together in Dick to make a pleasant psychological pattern, just as they come together in a sunset to make a pleasant pattern of colours. Presently (for that is how nature works) they will fall apart again and the pattern in both cases will disappear. Dick has had the chance to turn (or rather, to allow God to turn) that momentary pattern into the beauty of an eternal spirit: and he has not taken it.

There is a paradox here. As long as Dick does not turn to God, he thinks his niceness is his own, and just as long as he thinks that, it is not his own. It is when Dick realises that his niceness is not his own but a gift from God, and when he offers it back to God—it is just then that it begins to be really his own. For now Dick is beginning to take a share in his own creation. The only things we can keep are the things we freely give to God. What we try to keep for ourselves is just what we are sure to lose.”

That’s all I really wanted to say.

Grace & Peace,


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