There are people who consider themselves self-sufficient in their “goodness”. The Venerable Archbishop Fulton Sheen referred to them ironically as the nice people.
Nice people see belief in God as necessary only for the weakest, who need a divine force to compel them to act in an ethical and supportive manner, under threat of punishment.
In fact, it is not necessary to have a religion to be a correct citizen. “We all have an intrinsic moral code. I don’t need the Ten Commandments to know that I shouldn’t kill someone”, said agnostic author Dan Brown. This statement is in line with the teaching of São Paulo:
So, when gentiles, not having the Law, still through their own innate sense behave as the Law commands, then, even though they have no Law, they are a law for themselves. They can demonstrate the effect of the Law engraved on their hearts, to which their own conscience bears witness; since they are aware of various considerations, some of which accuse them, while others provide them with a defence . . . (Rom 2, 14-15)
The common idea of a “good person” is just a person who does not kill nor steal, and who eventually practices some acts of solidarity. This is very different from the Christian ideal of “new man”: one who seeks to achieve holiness. To be good (within the criteria of merely worldly kindness), no one needs religion. But to be holy, there is no way but begging for God’s grace.
This difference is clear in the encounter of Christ with the rich young man. The young man did not kill, did not steal, respected his parents, did not lie. He did all this, even before he met the Lord. However, Jesus indicated that if his desire was to go further and reach perfection, he should leave his goods and follow Him (Matthew 19, 16-21).
Christ and the Gospel are not methods of personal improvement. Anyone who sees religion in this way ends up discouraging and abandoning religious practice, or sinks more and more into moralism – a devotional practice that is reduced to following rules. Eventually, the person discovers that he does not need Christ to be a nice person, with a behavior considered ethical and even admirable by society.
Christianity is not meant to teach us to be nice people, but to show us how we can die and be born again, resurrecting to the world as new creatures. That is why Jesus said to Nicodemus: “Whoever is not born again will not be able to see the Kingdom of God” (John 3, 3).
This death that precedes spiritual rebirth, necessarily involves the pain of lovingly carrying our daily crosses – from the smallest to the greatest.
There are many testimonies of people who lived in crime, prostitution or enslaved by drugs, and who only got rid of these ties after embracing some religious practice. Obviously, it is very good. Religion has a moralizing effect, which injects balance into lives that were previously lost in chaos. However, religion does not exist merely for this.
To reduce the role of religion to the task of making us “good boys” and “good girls” (or “good men and women”) is to equate it with sports, psychoanalysis, NGOs or meditation. Because, just as many gave up drugs, crime and prostitution thanks to the church, so many others achieved the same effect by those other means.
Jesus Christ did not take a slap in the face and died on the cross to do the same as a good therapist, a great human love or an angry mother with a slipper in her hands. He is God! Christ’s proposal is not to make us better people: it is to make us NEW CREATURES.
I shall give you a new heart, and put a new spirit in you; I shall remove the heart of stone from your bodies and give you a heart of flesh instead. .I shall put my spirit in you, and make you keep my laws, and respect and practice my judgements. (Ez 36, 26-27)
The Good News is a doctrine of radical regeneration, not of mere improvement. It is a life proposal for people who recognize themselves as nothing without God. This is evident in the parable of the Pharisee and the Publican:
‘Two men went up to the Temple to pray, one a Pharisee, the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood there and said this prayer to himself, “I thank you, God, that I am not grasping, unjust, adulterous like everyone else, and particularly that I am not like this tax collector here. I fast twice a week; I pay tithes on all I get.” The tax collector stood some distance away, not daring even to raise his eyes to heaven; but he beat his breast and said, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner.” This man, I tell you, went home again justified; the other did not. For everyone who raises himself up will be humbled, but anyone who humbles himself will be raised up.’ (Lk 18, 10-14)
This Gospel passage is shocking! The person shown by Christ as a reference is an example of repentance, not an example of morality. Because only those who recognize his nothingness are ready to recognize that they need to be filled with the everything of God.
This is God’s plan for our life: to transform ourselves into “another Christ”. “I am alive; yet it is no longer I, but Christ living in me”. (Gal 2, 20).
Those who practice religion understanding it as “staying in line” are the type who most easily despair and lose faith when things go wrong. When illnesses, betrayals, financial problems, the death of a loved one or humiliation knocks on the door, the person revolts, because he thinks it’s not fair that God allowed such sufferings to someone “as good” as him.
God does not expect good behavior from us, but REPENTANCE and FAITH. On this double basis, HE WILL DO HIS WORK IN US, He will transform our hearts through the action of the Holy Spirit.
That is why St. Paul teaches that we will be saved by faith, and not by works, so no one can boast (Eph 2, 8-9).
Transformed by the grace of God, we can be more and more capable of doing good works, which are the sign of true faith. Christ have created us for good works, which are to make up our way of life (Eph 2, 10).