“Everyone sins a little, but most people are good by nature.” 52% of those surveyed last year agreed. This sentiment is not unlike what the Israelites felt about themselves when it came to receiving the gift of the promised land. Moses addresses this question head-on in Deuteronomy 9:6. He confronts the presumptuous idea, ‘we are good therefore, we deserve to receive the gift of the promised land’ (now redefined as the new Heaven and Earth and eternal life, Hebrews 11:13-16). To this Moses responds bluntly: “It’s not because of your righteousness, for you are stubborn people.” He repeats the idea another two times (Deuteronomy 9:7 “Remember and do not forget that you are stubborn;” Deuteronomy 9:13, “I have seen this people and, behold, it is a stubborn people”). Not unrelated of course is the presumption that ‘we’re better than other people’ (see Deuteronomy 9:4-5).
If we are essentially good people, then it’s going to be very hard to accept God’s complete and utter intolerance for sin, whether deemed ‘big’ or ‘small’ by us. In fact, there is perhaps no greater disconnect between what God says and what the Culture around us says than the idea of God’s holiness and His complete intolerance toward sin. Sins are all (small and big) exactly what get us in trouble with Him and condemn us. Exhibit A for Moses in trying to explain this is the sin of idolatry (see the presumption of (in) tolerance.) The building of the golden calf (Deuteronomy 9:9-12; see the story in Exodus 32) is what really set God up against His people (Deuteronomy 9:8). The stubbornness of the people is also conveyed as ‘stiff-neckness’ (same word as stubborn in the original). In fact it can also become a verb : ‘to stubborn,’ as in ‘are you stubborning right now?’ (see Nehemiah 9:16). To add to the problem, the account talks especially how “quickly” the Israelites pivoted toward idolatry with this “metal image” (Deuteronomy 9:12). A good word to describe the people someone shared with me this past Sunday is ‘mercurial.’ We are ‘mercurial’ when it comes to our loyalty to God.
Okay, you may say, this was the way it was in the Old Testament and things have changed now. Not too fast, Paul says. In one of his famous lists, Paul actually unpacks what ‘stiffneckness’ looks like (Titus 3:3-7):
Paul says of himself, along with everyone else, “we ourselves were…
“Foolish” (=sort of ‘dull’ and ‘slow of heart’ i.e. spiritually impaired)
“disobedient” aka rebellious
“led astray” (as in sheep wondering off, see Isaiah 53:6)
“slaves to various passions and pleasures”
Paul might have kept the law externally (Philippians 3:6), but inside the battle against the sins of the flesh was raging (Romans 7:21-25). He was stubborn and stiff necked just like everyone else. So the New Testament doesn’t let up one bit. We’ve not much of a righteousness to stand on, left to ourselves. Why? because we too have this deadly virus called rebellion and stiffneckness. Paul puts it this way in Romans 3:10-12, “no one does good, not even one.” So much for self-righteousness!
But as Paul takes us and himself into this downward spiral and self-realization that we won’t save ourselves based on our perceived righteousness, he also pivots toward the solution:
“But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our savior appeared, he saved us not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal in the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our savior, so that being justified [=declared righteous] by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life” (Titus 3:4-8).
The word ‘goodness’ can also be translated ‘kindness,’ and is the same word used to describe what drives us to repentance in Romans 2:4. It is the same word translated as the ‘easy’ or kind yoke that we take upon ourselves in Jesus( the works of slavery vs. the Sabbath rest). This recalls Hill Song’s lyrics from Mighty to Save: “the kindness of a savior.” What a strategic choice of words Paul uses here! The answer to cure a stubborn person is not more stubbornness heaped on them (what we are tempted to do), but it’s kindness. All of a sudden, the Proverb “a soft answer turns away wrath” is starting to make a little too much sense in our ‘angry’ culture! In fact, the very word “good” in the indictment against humankind in Romans 3:12 is actually the same word for kindness as well. Even though Paul is speaking in spiritual terms and eternal life in Romans 3, nevertheless, what an indictment that resonates in our culture today as well! Kindness is a lost art, it seems both in public political discourse (on the Left and the Right), on our highways, on social media, in our homes, at work, etc. etc. “no one is kind, no, not one.” What a brilliant opportunity to model the heart of the gospel to those around us: “be kind to one another,” what a revolutionary idea!
Some of us know Barry Corey as a friend. He is also the president of Biola University in southern California. Earlier in the year, he did what Barry does routinely and naturally: he practices random acts of kindness. Only this time, he did it with a celebrity and he had no idea about it! You can read the story here. He also knows how to be kind to those who might be labeled as ‘foes.’ In fact, he’s written a whole book about kindness.
Of course our own kindness will not save anyone and give people eternal life, but as we model God’s character to those around us, we leave it to “God our Savior” the Lord Jesus Christ to melt stubborn and stiff necked hearts to repentance and to eternal life.
Questions and reflections for the week:
Have you experienced the kindness of the Savior in your own heart? Perhaps you might have in the past, but it’s seems buried under a mountain of hurt and bitterness. Let the ‘kindness of a savior’ change your heart this week. Maybe even for the first time!
Maybe practicing kindness looks more practical to you. Maybe it’s time to change the way you talk to your spouse, your kids, your co-workers, your employees. Practice the 24-hour rule: no angry response right away on social media, email, etc. Let it cool off. Remember God’s kindness in Christ in your own life and let this be the measure of your own responses to others.
We leave the last words to Paul himself who define in precise terms how we should conduct ourselves as kind people (Titus 3:2):
“speak evil of no one”
“show perfect courtesy toward all people”