Sunday, January 13, 2008

The Difference Between a Christian and a Nice Person

Someone ran across an exchange I once started on a message board and asked me for further words on the subject.

The topic is: What is the difference between a Christian and a "normal" nice person? First, we need to define the terms. For this discussion, I will define a Christian as someone who studies and chooses to live by the teachings of Jesus Christ. That is a different definition than one which simply involves self-identification with the Christian religion. And it is different from one that defines a Christian as one who has been "born again".

There are many people who call themselves Christians who aren't very pleasant to be around. However, Jesus said that the greatest commandments are to love God and to love others. And it's a personal conviction of mine that loving people should lead to being generally kind and gentle in our interactions with them, an opinion which I could support with multiple Bible references.

Those who self-identify with the Christian religion but exhibit no evidence of love for others in terms of being nice to the people around them aren't part of my comparison here. The difference between that type of person and a "normal" nice person is obvious -- they aren't nice. However, there's a chance that they might still be genuine disciples of Jesus Christ who have yet to develop a consistent level of kindness in their lives. Although, my definition of being a Christian requires a desire to follow the teachings of Jesus Christ, it doesn't necessarily include great success at doing so. That's where grace comes in - from God and from those who have to deal with "rude Christians" (which oughtta be an oxymoron).

Jesus said that people would recognize his followers by their love. The question is, How is love that traces back to Jesus' teachings distinguishable from ordinary social skills that include being kind to those around us. My answer is that there's often no obvious difference in a civil setting. After all, Jesus said that anyone can love people who love them back. (Matthew 5:46) I think that includes being nice to people who are nice to us. As a disciple of Jesus Christ, I don't have to rely on my commitment to his teachings to be pleasant to pleasant people. Things simply go smoother for all of us when we practice social graces.

In my observation, the difference a commitment to Christ makes involves how we treat 1) those who are not nice to us; 2) those whose opinion doesn't matter to us.

So how do Christians treat such people when they are "at the top of their game"? The second group actually goes away. In loving others, Christians care about what they think, not because they are concerned about being liked but because they want what's best for others. Everyone becomes important to them, from the street beggar to the company owner. They care about people's opinions because they care about the people themselves. This is the first place that we begin to see the difference between a person demonstrating the love of Jesus and a "normal" nice person. In putting the teachings of Jesus into practice, the Christian is more genuinely concerned about more people.

That leaves the people who don't deserve our kindness. Will a commitment to following the teachings of Jesus Christ enable us to be consistently kind to people who, to put it mildly, aren't very nice? Again, it goes back to loving people, seeing them, caring about them, striving to understand them. The "normal" nice person starts to lose ground here. They may continue to be nice in hopes that it will bring good their way but it's often because they lack a better coping mechanism. Their "niceness" begins to look weak, as though they're unable to stand up to people who need someone to put limits on their behavior. In contrast, there is strength in the kindness exhibited by one who is kind because he or she is a Christian rather than out of weakness.

What started this thought process for me was the people who have told me that no one will ever know that I'm a Christian if I don't spell it out for them, e.g. "I am being nice to you because I am a follower of Jesus and not because you deserve it." That may be true for those who could reasonably expect kindness from me. It's when I treat people kindly for no reason at all other than that I am a disciple of Jesus Christ that there may be a noticeable difference.

What do you think?