This post is part of the Flashback Series featuring posts from the site archives. It was originally published on November 18, 2007.
A reader writes in response to this post:
How sad to see that you abandoned reason for faith. would it not be even better if you started living your life as if it mattered in it’s own right and not just so that you could get into a special heavenly club. I think doing good for no other reason then such a selfish desire is despicable.
I see where they’re coming from. I too used to level those claims at Christians: when I heard people say things like, “I’m a better person since I found God, ” it struck me as selfish. Why not be a good person either way? Why does it take some “God” and perhaps the carrot stick of an eternal payoff to motivate you to do good things?
But now that I’m one of those people who bores others with my own talk of being a better person since becoming a Christian, I see statements like that in a different light. I think that I am a much better wife, mother, friend, daughter, and person than I used to be before I was religious (and word on the street is that my friends and family would agree). The reason for that isn’t as simple as wanting to go to heaven and avoid hell. In case anyone’s interested, I’ll explain what I think is responsible for the changes in my life, my actions, and my heart. I don’t speak for all Christians (or atheists) here, this is just my personal perspective:
1. What’s right and wrong is very clear now
I tried to be a good person when I was an atheist. I generally attempted to do what was right and not to do what was wrong. The problem was, there was a lot of gray area there. For example, I believed that it was right to be kind to others. It seemed like a pretty clear, straightforward rule. It only took a few spats with friends or disagreements with classmates, however, for “be kind to others” to sort of drift into “be kind to others unless they’re total schmucks.” There was a fine, blurry line between justifiable and unjustifiable rudeness, and it tended to move depending on the extent to which my pride had been wounded.
That’s just one example, but there are countless matters on which the distinction between right and wrong was not clear in all circumstances, and the discernment of where to draw the line was clouded by my unparalleled selfishness and laziness. As I wrote about in more detail here, some deep instinct told me that such a thing is true right and true wrong did exist — independent of each person’s subjective experience and opinions — and when I read about what God supposedly is and what he supposedly wants from us as laid out in the Catholic Catechism, it smacked of truth. I believed that the details of what’s right and what’s wrong as laid out Catholic doctrine were an articulation of the natural law that’s written on the human heart, that comes from a source outside of the material world.
So, even early on in the conversion process when I didn’t “feel” God or have super strong beliefs, simply having such a clear description of what’s right and what’s wrong really aided my efforts to “do the right thing”, and helped me keep myself in check when I was tempted to tell myself a story about why some bad thing I was doing was not actually bad at all.
2. It is about heaven…sort of
I do want to go to heaven. Unfortunately, I am not spiritually mature enough to really conceive of what exactly heaven is. I know that to be “in heaven” is to be with God in some way, and that God is the source of perfectly pure love, joy, and goodness. I know that to be “in hell” is to be separated from God for eternity. One certainly sounds better than the other. But these concepts — “heaven, ” “hell, ” “eternity” — are still vague enough in my mind that they don’t motivate me on a gut level. So while I know on an intellectual level that I want to go to heaven and stay out of hell, I have never avoided doing something bad because of the thought, “If I do that I might go to hell!”
There is a very big motivator, however, that is related to the concept of heaven: I don’t want to reject God. In the past few years I have slowly (very slowly) begun to recognize and feel God’s love more and more in my soul. I’ve come to believe the Christian claim that God not only loves each of us, but is the ultimate source of love. When I turn away from him by doing something unkind or selfish — even a relatively small act or thought — I realize now that it is a tragic rejection of love itself.
3. Something within me has fundamentally changed
Back in college a professor asked us to come up our personal motto, a short phrase that summarized our outlook on life. With a smirk I realized that the best I could come up with was, “People suck.”
Even going back to early childhood, a salient characteristic of my personality was the ease with which I became irritated with the people around me. Though I was usually empathetic to people in difficult situations and was mostly nice to friends and family members, I did not have any kind of fundamental love for “other people” as a general concept — and I certainly did not feel (or show) love for my enemies. I once counseled a friend who’d been hurt that “forgiveness is for suckers, ” I firmly held on to grudges, openly criticized anyone and everyone who I found annoying, and amused myself with thoughts of getting revenge on people who had wronged me.
But then, a funny thing happened on the way to becoming a Christian: ever so slowly, I stopped being so irritated with the people around me. In fact, I started to feel love for them.
As I wrote about here, I never intended for this to happen. Once I thought that God might exist and Christianity might be true I started going through the motions of praying and occasionally going to church, just to see if anything would happen. I was kind of hoping that maybe God would give me some cool sign like he did with Constantine or that I’d have some awesome vision that explained all the mysteries of life or something. To my slight disappointment, none of that happened.
What I didn’t see at the time, however, is that something much bigger was happening. A blazing symbol in the sky or a mysterious vision I could have written off as perhaps having to do with that second glass of wine or just not getting enough sleep at night. But what God did instead, though a much slower process, is far more convincing, and far more powerful: he fundamentally changed my heart.
I don’t know exactly when it happened, but one day I woke up and realized that I had a love for my fellow human beings that didn’t used to be there. I never thought that things like cynicism, biting sarcasm, and criticism of others were wrong, and I never intended to change those areas of my personality…yet I found that the longer I was involved in Christianity the less room there was in my heart for them. They were slowly edged out by profound peace, joy, and love.
Now that I’m a Christian, I work hard at becoming a better person — being kind to others, helping people in need, forgiving those who have wronged me, putting others first — not out of eagerness for an eternal payoff, but out of love.
4. I have help
Until recently I never understood the concept of “grace”. I’d heard people throw around the term but never really knew what it meant. It was when I began contemplating how much life had changed since getting involved in Christianity, how different my actions and even my thoughts were, that I realized: I cannot do this. I cannot be patient with that one family member, sincerely wish the best for that person who insulted me, or sacrifice something I desire for the benefit of someone who won’t even appreciate it. That’s just not me.
It was when I realized this that the concept of God’s grace clicked with me. Truly, it is only by a power outside of myself, by grace, that any of this has happened.
To be clear, I don’t meant to imply in any way that I am some perfectly selfless, loving, giving person now that I’m a Christian — I am FAR from it. I’m also not saying that you have to be a Christian to be a good person. My point is only that I am a better person than I used to be, and I’m a whole lot more motivated than I used to be to continue to improve. Not out of a desire for a payoff, but out of love.
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