For the past few months a skeptic named "JC" and I have been dialoguing about the truth of the Christian faith. In his original email he proposed several issues related to God and Christ that were genuine stumbling blocks for him. One of these was a practical concern: “Is Christianity good for individuals and the world as a whole? How does that relate to whether it is true or not?” He wrote:
If Christianity is true, then sincere Christians on average should be better people overall than atheists. If atheism is true, it could go either way. I do think it quite fair and reasonable to say that, if people participate in divine grace in a special way that others do not (and this is a special claim that Christianity makes; that more or less, its adherents do in fact do so), then they will be much better people because of it . . . If I could be shown that those who participate in divine grace are on average much better morally than those who do not explicitly do so, then this would help pull me back to faith.
In my response I identified four groups of people within the scope of his questions:
- Morally superior believers
- Morally inferior believers
- Morally superior non-believers
- Morally inferior non-believers
Groups one and four didn’t seem to be a concern for him, since they are what you’d expect if grace really does make us “new creations” (2 Cor. 5:17). But if that’s true, why do so many people who claim to have received God’s grace exhibit mediocre or even scandalous moral lives (group two)? And, if grace is what makes us morally exemplary people, why are there many virtuous non-believers (group three)?
I think the answer to these questions is summarized in this famous principle from St. Thomas Aquinas that grace does not destroy nature, but perfects it.
God’s grace doesn’t transform our souls in an extrinsic way that overpowers or obliterates our natural habits and dispositions. Instead, God’s grace works intrinsically in our souls, elevating us to the supernatural level of God’s adopted children. But though it does this, it does not automatically enable us to act as God’s children.
Instead, grace facilitates the natural desire to do good and avoid evil. The Catechism says, “The moral virtues are acquired by human effort. They are the fruit and seed of morally good acts; they dispose all the powers of the human being for communion with divine love” (1804). This means we have a responsibility not just to say “yes” to God’s initial offer of salvation—we must continually say “yes” by allowing his grace to operate in our souls and by developing natural virtues through which God’s grace can operate.
In order to understand this, consider the part of Mere Christianity where C.S. Lewis talks about a toothpaste company that advertises brighter smiles from its product. Lewis says that the existence of people with bad teeth who use the product does not prove that the company’s claims are fraudulent. Lewis notes he uses “White-smiles” toothpaste himself, but he inherited terrible teeth from his parents. Lewis concludes that the toothpaste company’s claims to clean and whiten teeth would only entail two things:
- Anyone who starts using it will have better teeth;
- Anyone using it has better teeth than he would have if he weren’t using it.
Similarly, Lewis says that God’s grace will have different effects based on the natural temperaments of the people with which it interacts. That means the question is not, “Will grace make Christians as a whole better than non-Christians?” but “Will it make Christians better than they were without it?”
Elsewhere, Lewis writes:
Take the case of a sour old maid, who is a Christian, but cantankerous. On the other hand, take some pleasant and popular fellow, but who has never been to Church. Who knows how much more cantankerous the old maid might be if she were not a Christian and how much more likable the nice fellow might be if he were a Christian? You can’t judge Christianity simply by comparing the product in those two people; you would need to know what kind of raw material Christ was working on in both cases.
So the existence of group two (morally inferior believers) should not surprise us because God’s grace is not a permanent “whitening treatment” for the soul. Grace works intrinsically and perfects us through cooperation with our freely chosen, human efforts. The reason there are often so many self-professed believers with “stained souls” is the same reason there are so many self-professed healthy people with stained teeth: they refuse to align their natural behavior with the substance (be it grace or toothpaste) that leads to their pure and proper end.
Conversely, the existence of people in group three (morally superior, non-believers) should not surprise us because everything we have in our natural dispositions is a gift from God, and God gives these gifts to both believers and nonbelievers. It would be a mistake however, to think that because some people can be virtuous (at least according to human standards) without explicit knowledge of grace, that means grace is unnecessary. Speaking of a non-Christian named Dick with a naturally nice temperament, Lewis says:
[B]ecause that niceness in Dick was merely part of nature, it will all go to pieces in the end. Nature herself will all pass away. Natural causes come together in Dick to make a pleasant psychological pattern, just as they come together in a sunset to make a pleasant pattern of colors. Presently (for that is how nature works) they will fall apart again and the pattern in both cases will disappear. Dick has had the chance to turn (or rather, to allow God to turn) that momentary pattern into the beauty of an eternal spirit: and he has not taken it.
Recall that JC said, “If I could be shown that those who participate in divine grace are on average much better morally than those who do not explicitly do so, then this would help pull me back to faith.”
By definition, people who grow in virtue (especially when it is fueled by grace) will be more moral than if they had not done this. However, the natural disposition to virtuous behavior is a gift that God can give or withhold for any reason he sees fit. Moreover, grace perfects nature; it doesn’t overwhelm or destroy it. That means even people who have the grace of God can choose not to allow it to work in their lives and bear fruit for the kingdom (John 15:5).
Also, people who do say “yes” to God’s grace may still come off as nasty because they are trying to overcome a rough disposition. Lewis says it wouldn’t be surprising that many believers are like this, because often it is those with many failures in their past who turn to God as their only hope of change. When Jesus was criticized for associating with the most immoral in society, he said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17).
Finally, God’s ultimate goal is not to make us people who are “morally superior” according to human standards. He wants to make us his children who will be perfect just as our heavenly father is perfect (Matt. 4:48). This perfection is only reached at the end of a long process that, sadly, many will abandon or never even begin (Matt. 7:13, Matt. 22:14). But that doesn’t mean that other people’s decisions to reject God are evidence to justify our own rejection of him.
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