The Church of People Who Like to Be Liked

A Christianity measured by niceness is antithetical to the gospel

I really enjoy being nice to people.

Initiating friendly small talk with my grocery-store cashier or graciously showing patience to my overworked waitress brings 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 from that of the temperamental Christian.

None
January 07, 2013 at 8:00 AM

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