4 Reasons I’m a Better Person Now that I’m a Christian

September 1, 2008 | Uncategorized | 16 comments

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.

The Atheocracy had a similar take in response to this post, and various commenters have made statements along these lines throughout the history of this blog.

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.

16 Comments

  1. Mary-LUE

    I think a very important part of your post are the following words:

    “…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…”

    I haven’t quite figured out how to express this to people when issues of right and wrong come up, but I usually feel like asking someone, “According to whom?” According to whom is is right or wrong to… REgardless of what choice I would make if I created a world/society, I didn’t.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Jennifer L. Griffith

    Yes, it’s not all about “heaven”, it’s about being in the presence of God from now into eternity.

    The Light came on in my heart when I realized that “I was crucified with Christ. It’s no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.”
    Galatians

    Romans 6:6 For we know that our old self was crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with,[a] that we should no longer be slaves to sin.

    The Holy Spirit living inside of our hearts makes it possible to live life in Christ by dying to our flesh, allowing His spirit to live through us. Praise God. He changed me. Only a Living God could do that and it’s the blood atonement for my sins, the blood of Jesus, who makes me righteous enough to stand before God. “My righteousness is like filthy rages.” (Paul) It’s the righteousness of Christ who lives in me who makes me worthy…period. Like you said, “how good is good enough.” No one is good enough apart from Christ.

    Great post!

  3. Sara

    Friends told me that I had changed when I went from being what I thought was a pretty good Christian to being Catholic. I think that was when I finally lost that biting sarcasm, too.

    FWIW, I’m interested in the book progress, so keep us posted, please!

  4. MikeF

    Wonderful post, Jennifer!

    “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.”

    That, and the rest of that paragraph(!), is just so precisely how it has been for me…

    Thank you!

    Mike

  5. all holy books

    I suggest you read more sacred books about every religion and you will find that you can learn from every one of them a little

  6. mmsmith

    HI Jennifer,
    I’ve been reading your blog for several weeks now–found it somehow through your “why I became pro-life” amazing essay…from someone else’s blog. PLEASE, PLEASE, keep writing. You are a gifted writer, and close enough to your adult conversion that you have such a unique, clear perspective. I have been a Christian for about 15 years (raised in the church) but your writings and your faith really challenge me. They refresh me. Keep it up, my sister in Christ.
    Thank you.

  7. Myron

    Hi. I’m an atheist (well, sort of – I’m not anything approaching a Christian, anyway, but I think standard atheist thinking is flawed too, it’s so focused on provability that it misses common sense sometimes). Anyway, I have a question for those who are saying “It was just like this when I became a Christian/gained a deeper understanding of what it means to be Christian”. What have you learned about the way you should live your life that would transfer to non-Christians/people who either are uncertain about or do not believe in God?

    I’m not going to be like the person who says it’s sad that people have faith. And maybe that faith is the only way you could get to be the person you are today. Ok. But some people who are Christian today will, for various reasons, lose their faith. If that were to happen to you, what would you take with you from your experiences as a Christian? In other words, although Christianity has made you a better person, if you lost your faith would you go back to being exactly the same person you were, or would you still remain a more loving and kind person than you had been?

    I’m not trying to challenge anyone’s belief system here, but I think there are some things that could enrich people’s lives no matter what they believe in, and some of you as Christians might have uncovered some things that the typical atheist would miss, but would be able to adopt without a belief in God. This, in turn, would make the world a more loving place. So I’d like to spread those things around, but as a non-Christian, I’ve probably missed them too.

    Thoughts?

  8. sibyl

    Myron:
    Your question was a very interesting one, and one that I have wondered about in myself — I am a strongly believing Catholic who has certain intellectual difficulties with various technical aspects of the faith. What if the intellectual questions got the better of me?

    And facing it squarely, I saw clearly that my faith is not a set of propositions. Anybody can, as you say, gain certain positive traits — become a ‘better person’– through any number of ideologies. Including, e.g. Communism, pantheism, veganism, etc. Any coherent way of life requires some discipline, orderliness, and subsuming personal goals to the greater good.

    But the point is not to be a better person; that is something that He makes you if you let Him. The point is loving and adoring a Person, an actual Person who actually knows you because He made you. Physically, spiritually, intellectually. He loves with a completely mind-boggling love. And His love is personal, particular, and unwavering.

    It seems to me that true Christian faith means returning this love to the best of one’s pathetic abilities. I behave in certain ways because He wants me to. I try to love and forgive because He has said that this pleases Him. I try to step outside my own narrow desires to see His will in every situation; and most of the time I fail miserably.

    This is why it is so false to say that Christianity is false because Christians themselves are sinners. Of course we are. But if we are real Christians, we realize that for some unfathomable reason He still loves us and wants us for Himself. Our own failures don’t mean that God isn’t real, only that we are weak.

    So I guess, if I were somehow overcome by my purely intellectual difficulties about, for example, God as pure Spirit, I would be leaving Someone who has loved me far more than I deserved. I’d be spitting in the face of the best, kindest, truest friend I ever had.

    What I’d take away from my desertion? That sinking horrible feeling that cowardice and fear always leaves with me. A knowledge that I’d departed from reality. A sense of distance from the world and from beauty.

  9. Flexo

    Comprehending the uncomprehendable:

    these concepts — “heaven,” “hell,” “eternity” — are still vague enough in my mind that they don’t motivate me on a gut level.

    This is one reason why the Bible uses imagery that we are familiar with. But the fact that those images are contradictory, hell being depicted as both fire and as being cast into the cold dark night, shows that hell is not merely such familiar physical suffering. Rather, it uses images of physical suffering to pound into our little brains that hell is a VERY unpleasant place. The more accurate description, total separation from God (to the extent that we can be separated from Him and still exist), is something that we can begin to understand from our own relations with others.

    Imagine the loved ones in your life, those with whom you have formed a spiritual bond — spouse, children, etc. — and now imagine them abandoning you and permanently separating themselves from you. Imagine being dumped by the person(s) you love more than anything in the world. Imagine them telling you to get the hell away from them and never contact them again. Imagine the stress and anxiety you would feel — the stomach turned-inside-out excruciating anguish you would feel, praying for death so that the pain would go away. That is hell.

    Of course, it is not God who abandons us — we abandon him — but the feeling of separation, the feeling of being ripped apart from love and cast into emptiness, those feelings are the same. Only far worse.

    I have never avoided doing something bad because of the thought, “If I do that I might go to hell!”

    Well, most of us do not think much of our mortality, so what we think and do while healthy is not much of an indicator, whether we are a believer or non-believer. When we are facing death in the face, then see if your believer or your everyday agnostic or atheist avoids doing something traditionally deemed to be “evil.”

    As for your specific life, Jen, I don’t remember from your bio, but I’m sure that you have experienced some down times in your life (as we all have). Perhaps it was bad enough to sink into depression, and perhaps that was bad enough to skirt the edge of despair, really intense depression.

    When faced with that level of emotional pain and suffering, some people commit suicide to end the pain. Some people do not; they put up with it, even though they may pray everyday that they wake up dead.

    Why don’t they simply end it? Why don’t they make themselves dead, rather than merely wish that they were dead? It is because of “the dread of something after death, the undiscover’d country from whose bourn no traveller returns, puzzles the will and makes us rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of. Thus conscience does make cowards of us all.” They do not cause their own deaths, and instead continue to suffer, because of the possibility that hell might exist. And if hell does exist, then God exists, and to throw away the gift of life that God gave us would be a mortal sin.

    They do not commit suicide because, as bad as this life is, they might end up in a far worse place. And that is not a gamble that they are willing to take.

  10. Flexo

    Myron — as Sybil points out, to be truly Christian is more than to adopt a certain “belief system.” It is not what you believe, it is who you are. So, to “lose faith” is to lose ourselves.

    Today, September 3, 2008, Pope Benedict spoke about St. Paul. He says Paul’s conversion from persecutor of Christians to an advocate of Christ “did not happen as a consequence of his own reflection, but to a powerful event, an actual encounter with the Risen Lord. . . . This turning-point in his life, the transformation of all his being, was not the fruit of a psychological process, of an intellectual and moral maturation or evolution, but something that came from without: it was not the fruit of his thinking, but of the encounter with Christ Jesus.

    “In this sense, it was not simply a conversion, a maturation of his ‘I’, but it was his own death and resurrection – one existence died, and another was born with the Risen Christ. Paul’s renewal cannot be explained any other way.

    “Not all the psychological analyses can clarify and resolve the question. Only the event itself, that powerful encounter with Christ, is the key for understanding what happened. . . .

    As for us, we ask what can all this mean for us? It means that even for us, Christianity is not a new philosophy or a new morality. We are Christians only if we encounter Christ. Of course, he does not show himself to us irresistibly, luminously, as he did to Paul, to make him the apostle for all Gentiles.

    “But even we can encounter Christ, in reading Sacred Scripture, in prayer, in the liturgical life of the Church. We can touch the heart of Christ and feel that he touches ours. Only in this personal relationship with Christ, only in this encounter with the Risen Lord, do we truly become Christians. In this way, our mind opens up to all the wisdom of Christ and the richness of truth.”

    Our Christianity is not what we think, it is who we are. To subsquently deny Christ, would be to deny ourselves.

  11. Myron

    Hey Flexo:

    A few points in your response to Jen made some assumptions about typical atheists and agnostics. While I can’t speak for “typical” atheists or agnostics, I can speak for myself as a non-religious person, and the things you have assumed don’t represent me.

    For example:

    When we are facing death in the face, then see if your believer or your everyday agnostic or atheist avoids doing something traditionally deemed to be “evil.”

    I would address this by saying that the most important thing to me, as someone who sees no reason to believe in an afterlife, is the world I leave behind. While my life may be limited, and when it’s over it’s over, the consequences of my actions will last much longer, and in a sense are as close to eternal as anything I can think of. So even if I was staring death in the face, I wouldn’t disregard my sense of right and wrong. In fact, I would want my last days to be the most representative of who I am as a person.

    And now, to your thoughts on suicide:

    Why don’t they simply end it?

    because of the possibility that hell might exist. And if hell does exist, then God exists, and to throw away the gift of life that God gave us would be a mortal sin.

    I would most certainly not presume to speak about how other people handle that level of emotional difficulty. If you’ve been through it personally, and your belief in hell kept you alive out of fear of the unknown, well… ok. For me that’s not how it worked. When I was younger (say from age 6 through 16, where I’m currently approaching 30) I went through quite a lot. I won’t go into detail, but I will say that uncertainty is what kept me alive, not fear. I wasn’t sure whether there was a heaven to go to, and thought there probably wasn’t. My reasoning for not killing myself was simply that if I decided to remain alive I could take back that decision at any time, whereas if I committed suicide that decision was final. So I had to be 100% certain that suicide was the right choice before I could do it, whereas staying alive didn’t require certainty. If I had not thought heaven probably didn’t exist, I probably would have killed myself during one of the particularly tough times, on the off chance the afterlife might be better. Regardless of the “mortal sin” status of suicide, I couldn’t see how removing myself to stop being a burden on other people could be anything other than a good thing. To say my suicide would be wrong in that situation would be manifestly unfair, and if I had believed in heaven and hell, I would also have believed in a fair God who would understand my motives, even if everyone on earth said what I was doing was wrong.

    Bottom line: a belief in heaven and hell would have killed me. Uncertainty about the afterlife is what kept me alive. And I’m glad it did, because I turned out fine. But based on my experience, I would be very hesitant to suggest that it’s a good thing for a suicidal person to believe in the afterlife.

    I don’t want to derail this discussion with my personal experiences, but I also don’t want anyone to go trying to convince a suicidal person that heaven and hell exist, just in case the result isn’t the same as you’d think.

  12. Myron

    Flexo:

    to be truly Christian is more than to adopt a certain “belief system.” It is not what you believe, it is who you are. So, to “lose faith” is to lose ourselves.

    Fair enough. Sybil’s response does echo this, and I’m sure many other people’s would as well.

    My question is, are there things you are doing now because they express your love for God which meet these two criteria:
    1. I, as a non-Christian, probably wouldn’t even consider doing them.
    2. They would be worth doing for everyone, Christian and non-Christian alike.

    I think probably there are things which meet these criteria, I’m just curious what they might be. As Christians, you might be less concerned about improving yourself as a person because God will do the heavy lifting where personal change is concerned, if you just focus on showing your love for him. For me it’s different – I want to be as good as I can be, and I think I pretty much have to do it on my own, so I’m wondering if, as Christians, you have ideas I haven’t considered.

    PS: “Be a Christian” is one I have considered, and continue to consider. (Yes, seriously – through discussions with a catholic on an atheist board, I’ve been convinced to give reading the gospels another shot. I don’t have high hopes of my conversion, but I’m not closed off to the possibility) I’m looking for suggestions other than that, which I can share with people who definitely won’t consider Christianity. I’ll give credit where credit is due, though, and make it clear where any ideas shared here came from.

  13. Kaltro

    Hmm. Jen, I’d be interested how, in the light of your clearer views on right and wrong, justice, and so on, you view God as depicted in the Old Testament.

    How, for instance, do you square a loving God with a deity who drowns the world he doesn’t like and has given up on?

    Or take any of the other atrocious acts God committed in the Old Testament.

    A related question: before your conversion, did you read the bible from cover to cover to make sure you could accept all that was written in it? For that matter, have you read the whole thing or are you working on doing so now?

  14. Beverlydru

    I am learning so much from reading your blog. I think it is so cool how you calmly respond to the harsh comments. Here I am wanting to slap them up the side of the head and you are so patient. I am also seeing a perspective I’ve neever looked at before. I grew up in a home where faith was instilled early on. Thank you for sharing so clearly.

  15. svdbygrace

    I am happy to read that you have become part of the church. I read in your blog about how you have gone through the conversion process. What I didn’t read and maybe I just missed it was…..Have you believed in your heart on Jesus Christ the Son of God who willingly and lovingly gave Himself to die to pay the price for our sins? His blood is the only atonement for our sins. The only way we can be forgiven and He is the only way to God the Father and eternal life in heaven. (John 3:26) Have you confessed that you are a sinner and asked Him to be your Savior? The Bible tells us that we have all sinned (Romans 3:23 and that God is willing to forgive us from all our sins (Romans 6:23, I John 1:9). Being a Christian is so much more than a name or being a member of a church or religion or following all the rules or being good. It is ALL about Jesus Christ, the gift of salvation that He extends to us and sharing that with the world so that no one has to perish in hell but that we can all have eternal life.
    Yes, being saved if wonderful! God gives new life! He will never leave or forsake. Life is not perfect. We are not perfect, for we are still human, but someday-praise His name-the Bible says, He will come back for us and take us to heaven and we will be like him. We will be with Him for all eternity to praise His name. I hope and pray that I will meet you there and fellowship with you. In the love of Christ.

  16. Anonymous

    I find it interesting the completely incorrect understanding that many non-Christians have of salvation. Many non-Christians assume that salvation works like this
    1.) God said be good
    2.) If I’m good, God will let me into heaven
    3.) Therefore I should be good

    In fact, all Christian denominations agree that the gift of grace and salvation is freely given from God through His son Jesus Christ, and it is simply up to us to accept it. From there different denominations go different directions, but all of them agree on this basic point.

    Once we understand this, we can see how ludicrous this ill-informed “free thinker’s” whining was. The relationship between Christians and God is similar to that of me and my parents. I do good things and help my family because I love them and want to see them happy, but because I’m afraid if I don’t they will stop loving me. They will always love me no matter what, as will God. Thus the impetus for doing good is because we love God, not because we’re looking for a reward.

    Oh, and not to cause divisions in the body of Christ, but with regards to svdbygrace’s comment; I am not Roman Catholic and do not intend to convert. However, to be perfectly frank, Roman Catholicism is much more philosophically sound and much more “biblical” than any new born-again screaming nondenominational church service. If anyone doesn’t believe me, they can just read the book “A Biblical Defense of Catholicism” by Dave Armstrong. It will change the way you see things.

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