Naughty or Nice? That's a Tough One
Words by Kathryn O'Brien
The lights are up. The halls are decked. Starbucks’ Peppermint Mocha is back. And once last week I ate fudge for dinner. All this can mean only one thing, the holidays are here! And with them comes the quintessential question of the season . . . Have you been good this year?
I wouldn’t go betting the mortgage or anything, but odds are I made the Nice List. I mean, basically I’m a good person. I think. Most of the time. Let’s look at the evidence.
I always put my shopping cart back where it belongs when I’m done loading the car. That’s nice. Unless of course I’m in a hurry, then I leave it wherever I want. Hmm. Kind of naughty. I slow down to let people into my lane on the freeway. Definitely nice. Except for when I’m PMSing. Then I speed up and imagine running them off the road. Hmm. Naughty. I say sorry to my husband. That’s so nice. But to be totally honest, I don’t always mean it. Back to naughty. I hold doors open for people. I give to needy causes. I throw away my own trash at the movies. Nice, nice, nice. Unless of course I forget. Or I’m tired. Or I just don’t feel like it. Darn. Naughty again. I can be patient, kind, humble and forgiving. Whoa. Nailed the nice. Except for when I’m none of those things and I show my selfish, prideful, stubborn side. Back to the Naughty List.
Sorry, Santa, but your lists confuse me. Here’s why . . .
The Nice List says I should get toys and presents and everything I want out of life. These toys are otherwise known as “answered prayers.” If I’m good, then I deserve nothing less than health and happiness for myself and, while I’m at it, everyone I love. My heart’s desires, my dreams and wishes, that’s the pay-off, my reward for making it onto the Nice List. I’ve been good for You, Lord, haven’t I? But wait. It doesn’t work that way. Sometimes, for whatever divine, mysterious, magnificent, baffling reason, God with supreme insight allows some prayers to go unanswered. Or tells me to wait. Or says simply, No. The truth is, on any given day, whether it’s December or June, snowmen or sandcastles, and whether I’m naughty or nice, God is sovereign and his will, his reasons and his ways are worthy of my trust. “For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways” (Isa. 55:9).
The Naughty List says if I’ve been bad, I have to pay for it. When I fall short, when I fail or falter, Santa really only has one option: coal in my stocking. This coal is otherwise known as “consequences.” If that’s the way it works, then when I disappoint the Lord, he must be mad at me. Up there, seated on that throne, ready, willing, and more than able to send bad things my way, lighting bolts and all. But wait. That’s not the way it works. Knowing Jesus means I don’t have to pay because he already did. In fact, contrary to my potential for understanding, some of my greatest blessings have come after I’ve failed the Lord miserably. How often in life have I deserved a swift smack or a heavy dose of discipline, and instead been wholly forgiven, flooded by the gift of grace? “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love” (Ps. 103:8).
The Nice List says I can do it on my own. Believing I have the power to get myself on the Good List makes life pretty much all about me. If I can just behave, gain control of my words and thoughts and emotions and actions long enough, I must have the ability to win God’s approval. If I work hard enough, struggle long enough, strive constantly enough, I can ultimately be good enough. But exactly how good is good enough? And precisely how long do I have to keep all this goodness up? The truth is that anything truly good in the world, all of the gifts and blessings, have nothing to do with me and who I am, and everything to do with him and who he is. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not from your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works” (Eph. 2:8–9).
The Naughty list says I should just give up. Since I’ve shot for the stars, given it my all, tried my best and just can’t seem to hang on the Nice List, I must be a flop, a total failure. I might as well just forget it and stop trying. How could a perfect God want anything to do with me? I dismiss the fact that when I’ve blown it the worst, God longs for me the most. Believing in the Naughty List makes me forget his kindness. It makes me disregard his mercy. If this is true, those second and third (and millionth) chances that come every morning don’t mean a thing. But as sure as the rising sun each new day, is the opportunity to try again. To do it better this time. It’s the ultimate reset button in life and it’s ours every day. How amazing is that? “Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning” (Lam. 3:22–23 NIV).
So nothing against you, Santa. Just your Lists. They don’t make much sense to me. However, there is a list that matters; it’s a list that I could never be good enough to get on and never bad enough to get kicked off (Rev. 3:5, 20:12). All it takes is a simple faith in the one who came to this world as a baby and died on a cross as Savior. Being on this list gives me peace and joy while I’m here, and hope of a home in heaven when my time on this earth is through . . . even if I don’t put my shopping cart back where it belongs.