You Can Counter
With Good Ones
You Can’t Eradicate Them
Have you ever wondered why people act out?
I’m talking about the good people, the ones who usually appear quite decent, no foul language or anti-social behavior.
Why do these people get caught in lies or found stealing, or worse, unexpectedly?
Sounds horrible, I know, and we don’t like talking about it but it does happen.
But the real question is this. Have you ever wondered why Christians sometimes act badly, worse even than many non-Christians?
We consider that an anomaly.
Christians are the ones who adamantly oppose wrong and hassle those who practice or promote it. They also claim to be the best and there is good reason to believe they should be.
So when a Christian does something out of character with the image they project, we get caught off balance. Makes you scratch your head and wonder what went wrong.
It can also make Christians feel a little insecure.
If it happened to them, can it happen to me?
It’s a different story for non-believers. In fact, the stubbornly non-believing are almost gleeful when Christians color outside the lines. It’s all nonsense anyway so a misstep is all the proof they need to cry hypocrisy.
Less damning unbelievers entertain the same thoughts but are a bit more gracious. They don’t assume hypocrisy or make a lot of noise.
Hypocrisy, of course, can be an issue. We can’t just ignore it but is that the only reason Christians act badly?
Are there other factors to consider?
The only way to answer that question is to understand what influences behavior and it isn’t that complicated. In fact, once you understand the factors – more than one – you’re no longer surprised when the supposedly best of people, Christian or not, do the worst of things.
In brief, there are three things that influence behavior and only two of them apply to non-believers. Those three things are:
- Your old nature.
- Your shaped nature.
- Your new nature.
Two of these are fixed. Only one is variable – shaped. Understanding the variable nature helps clear the mystery.
How We View People
We usually think of people as a mixture of both good and evil, some being more good than evil and some being more evil than good.
And, why not? Sinfulness is something that clearly happens by degrees. We don’t all sin to the same extent or even in the same way. Some lie, others steal, but there is a difference between the sins we commit and the nature from which those sins arise.
And we do change but not the way we think. A person’s character – their shaped nature – changes with action. It’s molded through time and experience, either for good or bad.
Your inborn nature, the one referred to as old, doesn’t. It remains constant from the moment of conception to the time of death.
The Old Nature
Everything starts with your first nature, the one you’re born with. This nature is usually referred to as the Old Nature or the Sinful Nature. It is always flawed and everyone has one.
You cannot change this nature in either direction. It can’t be eradicated, made perfect or even made better, and it also can’t be made worse.
The good news is, you’re not guilty because you have a sinful nature and you won’t be judged for it either. It’s inherited.
The second nature is variable. It is shaped through time and experience and it continues to shape and reshape as time goes on.
Shaping is determined by:
- What you’ve been taught.
- The experiences you’ve had (good and bad).
- The choices you’ve made.
- And your genetic predisposition.
Shaping can happen anywhere: at home, at school, in your culture, etc. and the process never stops. In most cases, we do what we are taught and act like the people around us, or not. Either way our responses shape us.
Character is the outcome of this molding process. It is the sum total of all the influences in a person’s life combined with the choices they make.
Unlike your Old Nature, character can be changed. The shaping process never stops, but it is important to note that the qualities shaped in one’s character, good or bad, can never be entirely eradicated.
You can counterbalance bad character qualities with good ones but you cannot remove them. Liars must learn to speak truth. Thieves must learn to give but the knowledge and sensations learned from undesirable actions never go away. A dry alcoholic is still an alcoholic.
Character is constantly shaping but it cannot be completely renewed. No one gets to start at square one again.
You’re also not guilty nor will you be judged because the environment in which you were born influenced you in inappropriate ways.
This nature applies only to believers.
It is the one God graciously gives you at the point of salvation. Just like the Old Nature it is instantaneously implanted. There’s nothing you can do to earn it or deserve it.
You neither get credit for it, nor are you a better person because you have it.
You’re safe, you’re secure but you are not better.
Genes refer to the traits we inherit from our parents.
Genetics determine, not your personhood, but your potential, your inborn abilities. Some people are born with an athletic gene. They have the ability to become high level contenders but only if they put in the necessary work.
There is a difference between a person’s potential and their achievement.
Genes determine your potential. Effort determines your achievements. Achievement isn’t automatic.
Effort is what makes the difference, not genes.
A person might, for example, be born with an socially aggressive gene but that doesn’t mean they are doomed to aggressive behavior. Just like with athletics, they must:
- Make a conscious effort to learn and develop aggressive behavior. They must allow it.
- Work against law enforcement agencies that regulate such behavior and the social backlash that looks down on it. Bad behavior doesn’t happen in a vacuum.
Whatever your genetic faults, and we all have them, they will never make you guilty. Compromised, yes. Vulnerable, yes, but not guilty or condemned.
And that brings up a very interesting concept: CHOICE.
People make choices and the choices they make shape character. Choices define us more than genetics.
Here’s what we have so far.
We are all born innocent and guiltless but still have a flawed nature that is genetically predisposed to problematic behavior.
Along with a set of genes we also inherit an environment that includes parents, family setting, neighborhood, school, opportunities, competitions, and in the middle of all this we make choices.
All of these things taken together shape character. They define us. Actions help mold character and then spring from character.
What Changes With Salvation
A good question to ask is what happens when a person becomes a believer? Or more specifically, what happens to the old nature?
The answer is simple and emphatic. Nothing!
It stays exactly where it was, like it was. The only difference is the person receives a new nature. Instead of one nature the Christian now has two. One is unchangeably corrupt. The other is unchangeably perfect.
This makes sense. God isn’t saving or rejuvenating the Old nature. He is giving you a new one that is incorruptible and will never need saving.
Think about it. If changing your actions could change your nature, we wouldn’t need Jesus. We could just act differently and all would be well.
Every individual response by a Christian proceeds ONLY from one of these two natures.
The new and old natures do not mix, mingle or negotiate, and neither can change. The new can’t get any better. The old can’t get worse.
In addition to genes, environment and personal choices, they help influence character, and as character changes actions follow.
Here’s what it looks like.
The Old Nature doesn’t shift. The New Nature doesn’t shift. Only character changes and with it, actions.
But we’re still stuck with the same question which could be posed two different ways:
- If we have a perfect nature that can’t get better and would never lead us in the wrong direction, why do Christians act badly?
- Or, why do some non-Christians act better than Christians?
The answer is found in each person’s character. Not in their nature but in their character.
Another word for character is Habit. One way character is shaped is through routine. Healthy routines build habits that protect us.
That is why environment is important. Before a person becomes a believer he or she is shaped by their environment, for good or bad.
- Culture or what the community values. This shaping requires no conscious effort. Culture surrounds us. People mimic culture, they don’t analyse it. We just accept it.
- Associations. We learn from the people we live with, bond with or admire.
- Birth Order. First born are more responsible, reliable, organized. Second born are more competitive and diplomatic or devious. Third born are spectators.
- Information. Not education but how important education is. One person attends school and hates it. Another attends and thrives.
- Nurture. How people treat you especially compared to how they treat others. (Free Online Dictionary – the properties acquired as a consequence of the way you were treated as a child)
- Experience. What happens to you personally.
- Choices. Not personal but parental choice. No one enjoys absolute freedom of choice but children enjoy the least amount. Children make choices based on the options allowed, which is determined by authority figures.
All of these things help us form habits, both good and bad. Every person is to some degree the product of their upbringing.
Disclaimer: I’m not suggesting we are victims of our environment. We can choose to go against the flow but environment does play a part.
A person raised in a healthy environment will have Christian-like qualities. It won’t make them Christian but it does make them appear Christian.
A person raised in an unhealthy environment may develop bad behavior that isn’t so easy to overcome if and when they do become Christian. It’s easy to adopt Christ-like behavior initially but when pressure mounts people can revert.
Becoming Christian is simple, easy even. Living Christian involves a learning process. There may be ups and downs, forward and backward shifts.
Like I said in a previous post, people revert. They sometimes get tripped up by old habits. It makes it easy to see why non-Christians are sometimes better behaved than some Christians.
Also, the fact that people with the poorest character qualities are the first to admit their need for salvation means that many Christians may be struggling to overcome some very bad habits.
Their struggle makes Christianity look real, not fraudulent.
Salvation introduces a new nature with new possibilities but it doesn’t erase your old nature or any poor character qualities. It creates tension and it never goes away.
The new and old natures are in constant conflict. That’s a given.
If the character was good before salvation, that can work to one’s advantage. If it was bad, that could be a problem.
The only thing we see, the only thing we can go by, is the way a person acts and what they say.
Here’s how Paul put it:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. 16 And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good. 17 As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. 18 For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. 19 For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do – this I keep on doing. 20 Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. 21 So I find this law at work: although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. (Romans 7:16-21)
In short, Christian living is a continuum. The motion never stops and the direction never changes.
Everyone has ups and downs.
There will be forward and backward steps but God never stops working and He is the primary mover.
Again, Paul adds to this conversation:
We are God’s handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do. (Ephesians 2:10)
I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. Philippians 1:6
We should hold Christians responsible for bad behavior but not be surprised when they act out.