“There are no good people Nathan,’ I told my oldest son one night in a moment of rare inspiration – “only bad people who know God, and bad people who don’t.” As a parent reading bedtime stories to a young child, I’d grown increasingly uncomfortable with the conclusions my son was beginning to draw. His world seemed so simple and the categories so few that I suppose it was almost inevitable that he would eventually began to classify all the characters in every story we read as either ‘good guys’ or ‘bad guys.’ And for a while, that worked.
But then something more alarming started happening. Without warning, this classification system for his story characters morphed into a qualification system as well – for heaven. “So those are the good guys? So they go to heaven? And the bad guys don’t?” At this point I became troubled by the possibility of inadvertently smothering his understanding of the central and ‘surrounding’ role grace plays in salvation, so I stammered out perhaps the best explanation of God’s unmerited favor I’ve ever managed: “There are no ‘good’ people Nathan – just bad people who know God and bad people who don’t.” In other words: it's not whether you're a 'good' or 'bad' person that determines what happens to you after this life. It's whether or not you have a relationship with the only One who is good -- the God of the Bible.
‘Why do you care?’ you may wonder – ‘Why complicate such a trivial thing?’ Here’s why -- because if I raise my son to look at the world through the lens of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people, I’m dooming him to forever struggle with either a Pharisee-like spiritual pride (we tend to automatically assume we’re the good guys), or a ‘Quixotic quest’(think Don Quixote) to nail down the post-modern world’s ever-shifting criteria for what qualifies a person as “good.” The other day I met a homeless woman who put a face to my point. Her name was Barbara.
I think I love Barbara because she breaks the stereotypical mold most people fix in their minds-eye of what a ‘good guy’ looks like. Let me be frank – Barbara did not look good. In fact, she looked downright scary. Had she been an illustrated character in one of my son’s stories, I’m pretty sure she would have, without question, merited the title of ‘bad’ on sight. Poor hygiene, teeth falling out, and for all appearances utterly unsuccessful in life (at least according to the world’s standards). And yet, she has come to represent for me a real picture of the difficulty in distinguishing the ‘good people from the ‘bad people.’
Barb needed a ride to Redding. I was reluctant, but felt a ‘Holy Spirit nudge’ since I was going down the mountain anyway and had 4 other car seats that suddenly seemed conspicuously empty. Almost immediately I was startled by Barb’s depth and insight during our conversations. I never would have guessed either to be possible based on how she looked. She had frightful manners (and mannerisms), insisted on wearing a dual glove layer of protection for her hands and was adamant about covering my front passenger seat with a piece of cardboard before getting in. But over the course of that hour I became convinced that Barbara knew Jesus.
At some point in our conversation Barb mentioned noticing a recent spike in church hostility towards transients. ‘Why do you think that is?’ I wondered aloud, and somewhat casually. To be honest, I expected a response loaded with entitlement. What I got instead was the spoken word of God. ‘The love of many will grow cold (Matt. 24:12)’ she offered simply, and turned back to look out the car window at the scenery flashing by. Bulls-eye. Was I one of the ‘many?’ Are you? Is our real problem with grace an identity problem, an “us” vs. “them” problem? Have those with the most need stopped coming to church because our skewed view of grace has re-directed our love to the lovely?
I once heard the story of a pastor who tried and tried to have the sanctuary piano moved to the other side of the stage, but every time he moved it, the congregation, the elder board, the choir and every last one of the ‘little blue-haired old ladies’ with clout would threaten a church split until & unless the piano returned to it’s position of sacred tradition. The pastor eventually gave up. Some years after taking work at another church, that pastor re-visited his old place of ministry and was stunned to see the piano on the other side of the room – and no one rioting! After the service he approached his successor and asked, with no small amount of exasperation, how he had managed such a feat? ‘Well,’ replied the new pastor, ‘I just moved the piano 1 inch every Sunday. Three years later, it was on the other side of the room… and no one noticed.’
Has the same thing happened to our understanding of grace? Have we Christians become so accustomed to God’s favor and entitled to our blessings that we’ve convinced ourselves we actually deserve them? Have we sleepily adopted the position of Jean-Paul Sartre (famous non-Christian philosopher guy), pointing and willing our guilt away from ourselves so that “hell is other people,” so that badness is only “out there” while the 'good guys' take refuge inside the church walls? Oddly enough, ‘moving the piano of grace’ has often been the result of a sincere desire to defend Christianity from becoming too much ‘of the world.’ Nevertheless, by doing so in an attitude of superiority, we implicitly pit “good guys” against “bad guys” in our homes, in our churches, in our minds – and are succeeding in subtly indoctrinating each successive generation of Christian faithful against the grain of grace.
Non-Christians are not “the bad guys.” You are not “the good guy.” There are no good people, but there are God’s people. Non-Christians are not primarily “wrong,” and you “right.” Their wrongness of thought and belief is a secondary symptom, it’s just a bi-product of a deeper, heart-rooted condition. First and foremost, they're lost, while you and I ‘live and move and have our being’ within the providential good favor of having been found. You are not superior to the non-Christians you see all around you (or other Christians for that matter)– you've simply received a gift… and the minute you try listing the reasons ‘why,’ you have again lost your grip on grace. The perpetual attitude of grace in the life of a child of God is simple. It’s a mental loop, constantly reminding you that ‘There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Superiority is the sacrament of pride. Gratitude is the attitude of grace.