With having four kids in the house I feel like my anthem has become, “Be nice!” It seems as if I am telling (or more often yelling at) my kids to be nice all day long.
Yet in my ministry to the rest of the world I seem to be preaching a different message. You see, in my heart I know that Christianity is not about being nice. But wait, is that true? What about the command to “love my neighbor.” That seems kind of important if you ask me.
The Law tells me to be nice by loving my neighbor but I still find myself elbowing my husband when he snores, scowling at my kids when they are too loud, and ignoring the needs of others. No matter how well we might think we are loving others and being nice, the truth is, according to the law, we are failing miserably. Even one selfish thought about the person next to us is grounds for disqualification. Actually, we were all disqualified a long time ago the first time we selfishly grabbed a toy from another toddler or whacked our little brother over the head. We were born sinners. No matter how hard we try, we simply cannot fulfill the commandment to love others more than ourselves!
As I once again whined to my girls this morning, “Why can’t you just be nice to each other?” the words slapped me in the face. Would I tweet that? Would I stand in front of a group of women and whine law at them to get them to change? Didn’t I just tell my kids yesterday that telling someone to change won’t change them?
You see, the law cannot change our heart, it can only slay it. The law can only kill all hope that we could ever fulfill it. The law can make demands but it gives no power to the hearer to actually do what it demands.
It does not beat us over the head yelling, “Love your neighbor” until we submit. No, it just beats us over the head until we’re dead; it slays us with its sword, killing all notions that we can actually do it.
Unfortunately, many of us believe that Christianity is all about being nice, being a better person, etc. There is even a popular Christian song that urges us to look within and “find our kindness.” I don’t know about you, but the last time I looked deep into my heart all I found was a heart that is “deceitful and wicked above all things.”
The Good News is that we have hope aside from the Law. We desperately need the Gospel to deliver us because the Law leaves us utterly hopeless. Once the Law has done its deed in slaying every hope that we have ever had of being able to do what we have been commanded to do, the Gospel comes swiftly in to deliver us from our despair. It saves us, bringing life to our dead souls. As C.F.W. Walther says,
“The Gospel does not require anything good that man must furnish: not a good heart, not a good disposition, no improvement of his condition, no godliness, no love either of God or men. It issues no orders, but changes man. It plants love into his heart and makes him capable of all good works. It demands nothing, but it gives all. Should not this fact make us leap for joy?”
You see, there is only One who ever loved his neighbor the way that the Law demands. And he did it for you and me. He did it because his name is Love and his heart is pure.
So the question is, “Should I stop telling my kids to be nice and just let them pound on each other?” Of course not. There is a place for kindness but it can’t come from the command to be nice, it doesn’t come from “within,” and it doesn’t earn our righteousness. As Luther says, “God doesn’t need your good works, but your neighbor does.” God doesn’t need my daughter to stop giving her sister dirty looks or saying rude things but her siblings sure do.
Because we have now been freed from the curse of the law, we are liberated to a life of good works. We can go ahead and love our neighbor, we can be nice to those around us, because it does not earn us favor with God; we can go ahead and love our neighbor because we have his favor now, when we are nice or not. We can love others because we’ve first been loved (1 John 4:9). And, as Luther says, “It is not that the righteous person does nothing, but that his works do not make him righteous, rather that his righteousness creates works.”
So you see, we have been freed from having to be nice just because we are told to be nice. We no longer have to look inside of ourselves to find our kindness. It’s not up to us. As Reinhard Huetter puts it, “Christian freedom rejoices in God’s commandments and welcomes them as creaturely ways of embodying our love of God and neighbor.”