HOW CAN YOU BECOME A BETTER PERSON?
by Bryan J. Neva, Sr.
by Bryan J. Neva, Sr.
In my last two blog postings, I presented a rational argument that if you want to help change the world for the better, you have to begin by changing yourself for the better (which is easier said than done). Throughout our history, mankind has struggled to become better with limited success. Some have succeeded to varying degrees, but as we all know, most have not.
So how can we become better people? How can we become more kind to others? How can we live more honestly, decently, ethically, and morally? How can we change ourselves for the better? These are the sixty-four thousand dollar questions mankind has been asking for generations? And there are no simple answers. If it were so easy to become better people, we would be living in a utopia by now.
So rather than first asking how can we become better people, let’s first ask how did we get into this condition in the first place? How did our world become so unfair and unkind?
First of all, Judeo-Christian teachings say that God is the Supreme Being who created everything in the universe, and according to His divine will and providence, keeps them in existence. God is infinitely perfect and the source of all life, knowledge and truth. God is all-holy, almighty, all-eternal, all-good, all-knowing, all-present, all-wise, all-loving, all-just, and all-merciful (just to name a few).
Surprisingly, followers of Judeo-Christian teachings believe that just by natural reason we can come to know God. All you have to do is consider the universe we live in…. All the created realities from the stars in the night sky, our sun and moon, the earth we live on, the wonder of nature, all the creatures that inhabit or world (from the smallest to the greatest), or our own human bodies give evidence of God’s existence. Consider the phenomena found in nature and the physical, mathematical, and life sciences that study them and try to explain them with varying degrees of success. Yes mankind has learned a lot over the ages, but it’s still only a drop in the ocean compared with what we still don’t know. But actually there’s a much simpler way to know God: just look deep within yourself—into the recesses of your mind—and you’ll know there IS a God!
In the beginning, men and women perfectly reflected God’s own perfect holiness, goodness, wisdom, knowledge, power, and love. They were free from suffering and death and were given the freedom to choose or free will. By obeying God, they could remain in this wonderful state of perfection; but by disobeying God, they’d lose the wonderful gifts He gave them.
Our God-given ability to freely choose or free will means that God will not force us to love him or to obey him, nor will God force us to act honestly, decently, ethically, and morally in our dealings with other people, but ultimately God will hold us all accountable for the way we lived our lives and how we treated other people.
Unfortunately, men and women fell from this original state of perfection through pride, selfishness, and disobedience to God. They lost these wonderful gifts God gave them, and this is what brought suffering and death into the world.
Since the fall of man and woman, all generations that followed have failed to live up to God’s moral and ethical laws; this is what followers of Judeo-Christian teachings call original sin and it disrupted man’s intimate, loving relationship with God our creator.
As a result of this original sin every man and woman was born into a fallen state of separation and alienation from God and became subject to suffering, death, ignorance, and a strong inclination to sin and to disobey God. Men and women lost God’s wonderful gifts of holiness, justice, grace, great knowledge, control of their passions, and freedom from suffering and death.
History has clearly shown that we cannot save ourselves or reverse the effects of this curse of original sin—only God can! Every generation that has come and gone has tried and failed miserably. Some would argue that the world is slowly getting better and we’re more advanced than previous generations. Our technology and scientific understanding have grown. They could argue that we’re no longer stuck in the dark ages and there’s relative peace in most of the developed world. But before long, someone or something will change all that: murder, mayhem, misunderstandings, conflict, war, famine, natural disasters, sickness, disease, etcetera, etcetera…. The more things change, the more they stay the same. And deep down inside each of us we know that life is basically unfair and unkind?
Fortunately, God didn’t give up on us! He immediately began to save the human race from our fallen condition. The history recounted throughout the Bible recounts the unfolding of God’s plan to save the human race from this curse of original sin.
God made covenants (or solemn, unbreakable agreements) with our forefathers beginning with Noah and continuing with Abraham, Isaac, Jacob/Israel, and Moses. He sent prophets (or seers) to tell us the right way to live and warn humanity of the consequence of bad behavior.
God spoke to all of us in various ways throughout the ages reminding us of his love for us and his desire for us to return to him through righteous living. And eventually, God spoke to us directly through His own Son Jesus Christ. God’s redemptive plan to free mankind from this curse of original sin and restore our original destiny to share God’s blessed life was fulfilled through the birth, life, suffering, death, burial, resurrection, assumption into heaven, and the glorification of the human nature of Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the God-Man, and the second person of the Holy Trinity (the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit). Simply put, we couldn’t save ourselves, so God sent His Son into the world to do it for us.
This redemptive act is beautifully summarized in St. John’s Gospel (3:16, 17): For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.
Why would God do this? Because he loves us all dearly! We’re his children. He could no more abandon us than a good mother could abandon her children.
This in a nutshell is the Good News (or Gospel) of our salvation: God offers this free gift of redemption and salvation from original and actual sin to anyone who will believe in Him or have faith, is baptized in His name: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (or the Holy Trinity), and then perseveres in a life of love for God and their neighbor by striving to live honestly, decently, ethically, and morally good in accordance with God’s teachings.
Since the early years of the Christian Church they have faithfully recited the Apostles Creed (or variation of it) during their worship services. And it succinctly describes what Christians believe in: I believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead. I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting. Amen.
When people asked Jesus how a person should live a truly good life he answered (Matthew 22:37-40): Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.
This is the law of love that Jesus commanded for his followers, which is beautifully described in detail in His Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapters 5, 6, and 7. In His Sermon on the Mount, he made the practical connection between the written Jewish law and loving God and others.
He taught that it’s not enough to have faith in God to save us we must also persevere in love for God and others. For example, He taught that it wasn’t enough to love our friends and relatives or those who love us; we must also love our enemies or those who treat us poorly.
The Apostle Paul in his first letter to the Corinthians (13:4-8,13) explained this law of love further by describing the virtues of faith, hope, and love that practicing Christians should strive for: Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails. And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
Persevering in a life of love for God and others is what practicing Christians strive for their whole lives. Salvation is a process of being liberated or freed from evil or from the undesirable through the redemptive work of Jesus Christ. We can’t simply say, “I believe in God!”, and all our troubles and bad habits will magically disappear. It doesn’t work that way. Ask anyone who’s addicted to alcohol, illegal drugs, or anything else? God certainly didn’t need our help to create us, but He certainly won’t save us without our help. It takes time and effort and perseverance. The old adage God helps those who help themselves is quite true. There’s also an old adage that says For every step you take towards God, God takes two steps towards you.
And remember, that God has given all of us the capacity to choose good rather than evil; although, our freedom to choose good is wounded by this curse of original sin. We overcome sin and bad behavior in our lives through our daily, continued faith and trust in God’s mercy, grace, and forgiveness, and through our continued obedience to His will and moral edicts.
When we fail to live up to God’s high standards, we pick ourselves up, dust ourselves off, pray for God’s mercy and forgiveness, and continue on our Christian struggle. And, if we’ve wronged anyone, we need to reconcile with him or her by asking forgiveness and making amends. But what we don’t do is give up and become despondent because it’s too difficult! It is more challenging and difficult to live a life of love than it is to live a life of hate. It’s harder to be good than it is to be bad. If you don’t want to be good, then all you have to do is nothing!
Consider what Jesus taught about the final judgment (Matthew 25:31-46): he never said we’d be judged on how religious we were, but on how we treated others especially the poor, the dispossessed, the powerless, and the disenfranchised. Did we feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, shelter the homeless, care for the sick, or visit the imprisoned? In other words, did we help bring the Kingdom of God into the world through love, peace, justice, and good behavior? Or, did we act like everyone else and oppress the poor and downcast, lie to others, cheat others, treat others badly, and hate our neighbors?
Christians believe that we cannot separate our faith from our everyday lives. We cannot compartmentalize our lives by behaving righteously in some circumstances and behaving unrighteously in others. What good does it do to go to church on Sundays but behave badly during the rest of the week? We can oftentimes fool other people; sometimes we can even fool ourselves; but we can never fool God!
Persevering in our Christian faith is an integral and necessary part of becoming better people. But ultimately, Christians don’t believe we become better people by getting smarter or through our own hard work, but through our trust and faith in God to work in us and through us. We must try to do our best and then let God do the rest.
Some call this cooperating with God because all we can really offer to God is our free will. St. Paul wrote (Ephesians 2:8-10): For by grace you have been saved through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—not by works, so that no one can boast. For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.
Because of this, practicing Christians don’t claim to always be perfect, upstanding citizens. We’re human beings—just like everyone else—full of flaws, weaknesses, and insecurities. But the process of persevering to overcome our sinful ways and live honestly, decently, ethically, and morally is what God is looking for from us, and then his grace will do the rest in us. St. Paul discussed the necessity of persevering in our Christian faith this way (Philippians 2:12-13): Continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose.
These are all encouraging things to ponder, but what about the big problem that the philosopher Qoheleth brought up in his book Ecclesiastes: the problem of death? Recall that Qoheleth believed that it is death and our fear of death that make life so pointless, frustrating and meaningless for all of us. Well salvation is not only being liberated from evil or the undesirable but it’s also being liberated from death!
For practicing Christians, our hope is in the resurrection from the dead so that we no longer have to live in fear of death. As Christ conquered death by rising from the dead, we believe that someday he’ll raise us from the dead as well. Our belief in the resurrection from the dead is what gives Christians hope beyond our futile existence that somehow God will one day raise us from the dead to an everlasting life with Him in heaven. And since we no longer have to live in fear of death (our necessary end), we can live a meaningful life knowing that our persistence in living honestly, decently, ethically, and morally won’t go unrewarded.
In short, based on the premise of original sin, redemption, and salvation, we can become Christians through faith and baptism. And then we become better people by persevering in a life of love for God and others through honest, decent, ethical, and moral living. These are what save us. For Christians, faith is the beginning but the end result is love for God and others.