By Scott Keith –
Yes, I said it, you are not a nice person. In fact, there are no nice people. Everyone you meet is mean and self serving, and in their heart just as cantankerous and callus as I am. I know you know this to be true, and I would like us all to stop pretending otherwise. Recently, as I was sitting on a well worn barstool with the my lovely wife, the Koch’s, and a few other friends, and I was quite surprised to find out that no one agrees with me on this point. Furthermore, when I mentioned it, everyone seemed to get rather perturbed with me. This, of course, left me dazed and confused. Perhaps as you read this, you too have had it with me, thinking that I am just what my title explains; cantankerous and grouchy and that I don’t know what I’m talking about.
That night at the bar, their objections to this statement were as predicable as yours probably are. “I know many nice people,” a few said. “I’m a nice person,” exclaimed my beautiful wife. Pastor Koch claimed that he knows and old fellow whom he visits with from church on a regular basis whom he would say is very nice. Heck, the lovely and talented Mrs. Koch even accused me of being nice (clearly she is mistaken). The point is that they are all missing the point. They are not nice, they do not know nice people, and I certainly am not a nice person.
In many ways this conversation reminded me of the first few classes I took on parenting and early childhood education. Yes, for a time, the Cantankerous Critic was a preschool teacher! Scary right? Some of the lessons I learned in those classes stuck with me to this day. The instructors in those classes would tell us that we were to address the child’s behavior, and not accuse the child. Let me explain. If you ask a child to pick up the blocks and they don’t, it is ineffective, and probably inaccurate, to accuse the child of being lazy for not listening to your request. Rather, you address the behavior. The fact is that the child did not pick up the blocks when asked, so you as the parent or teacher address that behavior in whatever way you deem appropriate in order to get them to do what you need them to do; pick up the blocks. If this is true, then the reverse is as well. Just because we know people who treat us nicely, seem to act nicely generally, or do a good job of outwardly conforming to society’s rules concerning polite behavior, does not mean that they “are” nice.
What puzzles me is the disagreement I get from Christians to this idea. If we believe in the concept of total depravity––the teaching that, as a consequence of the Fall, every person born into the world is enslaved to sin and, apart from the work of the Holy Spirit on account of Christ, is utterly unable to choose to follow God, refrain from evil, or accept the gift of salvation as it is offered in Word and Sacrament––then not one of you (or I) are nice.
Those who are depraved are by definition not nice. But what about those who are already converted, aren’t they nice? No, they are saved, but remain sinners who can act nicely in a civil or outward fashion, but they are not nice. Saved sinners can do good, and they can be nice to others, on occasion, but they are not nice. The difference is that even the imperfect niceness of the Christian, though it really is no more civilly perfect than the niceness of the heathen, is seen as nice, or good, on account of what Christ has won for them. And herein lies the difference. What Christ has won for them is freedom from the Law that demands that we sinners be good, right, nice, and holy before God. This freedom from the Law declares that Christ has won the victory for us, has been our good and righteous Savior, and everything that He is, is credited to us, though we are not. He takes our unrighteousness and trades it for His righteousness. We unrighteous people “are” not nice, but we are seen as righteous in him and set free from all of the demands of the Law, which we can never and will never keep. So you are not nice, but you are free! You are free to go out and be nice and act nicely to as many people as you possible can knowing that when you fail you will not be condemned because you are not nice or have not been nice, because in Christ you are free. Isn’t it better to be free than to be nice? Thanks be to God in Jesus Christ our Lord who has made us free despite the fact that we are not nice.