"I met a guy today who said he'd just met you over at the office. He said you were nice," my husband reported to me over dinner that night. We were Seminary students at the time, he full-time and I only part because of my full-time job. I worked over at our school's main office, so one way or the other Tom and I came across many of the same people.
Nice. I was, reportedly, nice. For some reason I didn't like that. What does nice mean? Is nice a credit to the work that God had begun in me, to the character I hoped He was building? I didn't think so. Nice seemed awfully generic. You can be an atheist and be nice, can't you? After being a Christian for so many years, somehow 'nice' just didn't cut it. How about 'kind'? Now that would be a compliment. Or any of the fruits of the spirit. The more I thought about it, the more I realized what I hoped was that when people met me they would be ministered to, and that the fruit of the Holy Spirit would be what struck them about me. That some day, an appropriate epitaph would be that I had been loving or good or kind. What kind of an epitaph is, "She was nice"?
One day, a woman purchased a few items at a store. Apparently one of her items didn't have the proper computer coded sticker and the checker was anxiously trying to determine how to enter it properly. There was a long line, and the woman fidgeted uncomfortably to be the cause of the hold up. She tried to make helpful suggestions to the checker ("The price is right there . . . it's the same as that other one, isn't it?"), but as time passed her discomfort quite apparently increased. Her smile faded and her lips became tight. Sighs escaped her lips at intervals. After a minute she said, "You know what? Just forget it. It doesn't matter, I'll get it some other time."
At no point in time would I have said that this woman wasn't nice. She behaved quite appropriately and never complained or insulted the checker. She didn't do anything wrong and may even have been considerate to have set aside her purchase so that other customers would not be delayed. But was she patient? Was she kind? Was she gentle or loving or self-controlled? Not really. But certainly she was nice. Just nice.
While one can behave somewhat patiently on occasion – usually not by choice – it is another thing altogether to have become patient, to be patient, to have patience be part of who you are. The same is true for any godly characteristic. You can spray on perfume that smells like roses but that don't make you no flower, if you see what I mean. The fruit of the spirit, though, does make you over – not like a TV makeover where they take a dowdy woman and bring her back in an hour all made up with a new tinted hairdo, professionally applied make up and a designer outfit to hide the "trouble spots" – but in time. Like good stock or rich humus, the fruit of the spirit seems to develop as God puts together his plan and lets us steep in it.
Even as God works to develop those fruits in our lives, too often we retard his sanctifying efforts with our hard hearts. We figure our behavior doesn't matter if we have a good enough excuse. Speeding doesn't really matter if you have a legitimate reason to hurry, such as a wife in labor or a plane to catch or if you're running late for a dentist appointment or have a kid to pick up . . . or pretty much anything that causes you to imagine you need to rush. And angry outbursts are understandable when provoked by rude, insensitive or stupid people. Even our penal system will not convict a murderer if it was self-defense. A good excuse is everything.
Like everyone else, we Christians disregard our call to godliness whenever we find it inconvenient. We make excuse, saying, "I would have been gentle, but I had a terrible headache." "I would have shown self-control, but that person was rude!" "I would have been patient, but the system is inefficient." Or, "I would have shown compassion, but I was very busy that day."
I remember one day when I was still serving as a missionary in Mexico. I was seven months pregnant and exhausted after a morning of physical therapy with my 18-month-old son. So when I came out of the public services building and headed for my car, already late for the weekly mission meeting, I had all sorts of excuses when the woman approached me. Carrying a large and clearly disabled child, she had two small children tagging along behind. She asked me if I knew which of buses that stopped across the busy highway went downtown.
I honestly didn't. I hate buses. I get lost very easy and am terrified of missing my stop. If I can't use the mission vehicle, I always used a taxi, even though they cost more. So I apologetically explained that I didn't know, got my son settled in his car seat, and hurried off to the mission meeting.
At the time, the chance incident seemed unimportant. But to this day, I am haunted by my blindness. At the very least, I could have offered her a ride across the highway to the bus stop. But caught up in my own fatigue and hurry, I didn't see what was right in front of me. Sure, I was nice. At least, I wasn't mean. But my niceness was not nice in a Good Samaritan kind of way. It was more nice like a Pharisee.
I'm learning that excuses don't count. If I spend a lifetime imagining I would have demonstrated kindness if only I wasn't too busy, at the end of my days I won't have been a kind person, only a busy one. And what kind of epitaph is "She was busy?" And don't kid yourself -- "She was very busy" isn't much better.
The other day I ran into a store to pick up a thing or two. I needed to ask a store clerk a question, and before I knew it, I found myself listening to this middle-aged woman for nearly forty-five minutes. I'd only expected to be in the store for maybe five minutes, but the errand took me an hour. I decided that the time "wasted" didn't really matter. The woman had needed someone to talk to, and looked like I was what God had provided. I could be very happy with an epitaph like, "She was useful."
Godly people are the ones who have lived out the faith in spite of adversity and trials and minor interruptions in our day. Scripture encourages us to become mature in faith, perfected by practice and diligence so as to realize the full assurance of hope so that you will not become nice, but true imitators of those who through faith and patience inherit the promises of God. Now, wouldn't that be a nice epitaph?