Please and thank you.
“Turn the other cheek.”
All of these are expressions civility, of manners and of niceness. These relational phrases are necessary for our conversations, marriages, friendships and in business.
What happens, though, when we are captive to nice?
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The tyranny of nice
I was struck by a command from Jesus that He gave His disciples just before He was arrested, tried and crucified:
“But now, whoever has a money-bag should take it, and also a traveling bag. And whoever doesn’t have a sword should sell his robe and buy one.”
Why in the world would Jesus’ disciples need swords? Peter as a fisherman wasn’t a great swordsman. When Jesus was arrested, Peter pulls one out and strikes the servant of the high priest, cutting off his ear. I doubt seriously that Peter was surgically aiming to de-ear the dude.
Jesus had earlier told His disciples:
“Don’t assume that I came to bring peace on the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword.”
Before you get alarmed that I’m advocating a holy war, a Christian jihad, let’s remember that the way of Jesus was one of life, love and truth. Not once did Jesus ever strike someone, kill someone, or use physical violence against someone.
He did, however, demean, belittle, castigate, shame and go toe to toe with the religious leaders and legalists who rejected Him. The list of “woes” he pronounced on the Phariseesin Matthew 23 are enough to curl your toes.
Puritan pastor Richard Sibbes said this about Jesus’ harsh words towards the religious leaders:
We see that our Saviour multiplies woe upon woe when he has to deal with hard hearted hypocrites, for hypocrites need stronger conviction than gross sinners, because their will is bad, and therefore usually their conversion is violent. A hard knot must have an answerable wedge, else, in a cruel pity, we betray their souls. A sharp reproof sometimes is a precious pearl and a sweet balm.(emphasis mine)
If we are to emulate the ministry of Jesus, we must not be held captive to the tyranny of nice.
Be gracious, be firm
I fear that these days too many Christians have drunk deeply of the false doctrine of niceness. The reasoning goes like this, “Jesus was merciful, meek and mild. I should be too.” As we’ve seen above, and are reminded in multiple other places in the gospels, Jesus was also a fierce and focused truth-teller. He didn’t back down, and He spoke truth to His culture, even when it was cloaked in religious robes.
Today’s American church avoids offense at any cost. The seeker-sensitive church growth movement of the 1980s set us up to avoid doing anything that might “turn someone off.” Sermons and ministry methodologies increasingly became… nice. Attractive.
David French nailed it in a 2015 article when he said:
Christians often strive to be seen as the 'nicest' or 'most loving' people in their communities. Especially among Evangelicals, there is a naive belief that if only we were winsome enough, kind enough, and compassionate enough, the culture would welcome us with open arms.
But now our love ... is hate. Christians who've not suffered for their faith often romanticize persecution. They imagine themselves willing to lose their jobs, their liberty, or even their lives for standing up for the Gospel. Yet when the moment comes, at least here in the United States, they often find that they simply can't abide being called 'hateful.' It creates a desperate, panicked response. 'No, you don't understand. I'm not like those people - the religious right.' Thus, at the end of the day, a church that descends from apostles who withstood beatings finds itself unable to withstand tweetings. Social scorn is worse than the lash.
French’s comment about “if only we were winsome enough, kind enough, and compassionate enough, the culture would welcome us with open arms” echoes the point Michael Clary makes:
What I describe with this catchall label of "winsomeness" is the package approach of cultural engagement that seeks above all to minimize offense so as to maximize openness to the gospel. There are biblical imperatives related to winsomeness that we can never abandon.
However, there are other aspects of the biblical vision that seem to get muted or downplayed by the winsome advocates. Too often winsomeness translates into "niceness." This, I believe, is a sentimentalized reduction of the biblical vision.
Also, it sets up leaders and those they lead for naïvete in a world more hostile to Christian moral norms. In our increasingly post-Christian culture, truthful love will be met with hostility and be called unloving, "unwinsome." If we are overly concerned with how we are received by others, then it will be tempting to think, no matter how nice we have been, that we are in the wrong, and thus doubt our convictions. Many will be ill-prepared to say no to things they need to be rejected and opposed."(emphasis mine)
The heresy of niceness is alive and well in American churchianity today. We are urged to sit still and be quiet - to not enter the fray, lest we offend or sacrifice a relationship. We think that being gracious means being silent.
We should rethink that. Or else we may find that in our effort to be nice, we’ve sacrificed being holy.
In another post, I wrote:
Be shrewd not shrill.
These days, everyone seems to be “shrill.” The word means “high-pitched or piercing,” but I mean it in the sense that from social media to academia, from bombastic sound bites to complaining first-world privelegers, there’s a lot of irritating yipping going on. We have owned two chihuahuas (you’d think we would have learned after the first one). Both were incessant yippers when someone knocked on our door. That’s like our culture these days. So much yipping… shrillness.
Today’s churchianity advocates a false theology of “nice.”
Nice is not the goal. Nice presumes not “hurting someone’s feelings.” In these days where we have enshinred feelings as gods, we need to focus on being lovingly truthful instead of being nice.
Jesus instructed His disciples to carry a sword. The apostle Paul instructed the church to understand and recognize that it had “enemies.”
“…many live as enemies of the cross of Christ.”
Be wary of niceness. Civility, kindness, and politeness are all called for and helpful postures for conversation, relationships, and even respectful debates. I am grateful that so many want to preserve and maintain relationships with others. We should be quick to be gracious. However, we cannot deny that we have “enemies.” We must be careful to respond to attacks and even to shrewdly defeat our enemy. It calls for maturity and wisdom to diligently refute falsehood and deception. We live in a culture that demands we speak firmly, lovingly and truthfully. Be gracious, but be firm.
It doesn’t help to further the kingdom of God to abdicate truth and affirm lies or perversions. As you jog naively through the front lines, you’ll get shot. Without a sword for defense, you may get your own head chopped off (unless the enemy is a poor swordsman like Peter).
Here are a couple of good articles about Pharisaism and why Jesus was so sternly opposed to Israel’s religious leaders:
The Making of a Modern Pharisee, by Marshall Segal, Desiring God, May 10, 2017
Some Kindness Stings: Why Love Uses Hard Words, by Jon Bloom, Desiring God, March 25, 2022
The Bruised Reed, by Richard Sibbes (Banner of Truth; 2nd edition, 2021). Sibbes first published the book in 1630. It continues to be powerfully relevant today.
The Supreme Court Ratifies a New Civic Religion That Is Incompatible with Christianity, by David French, National Review, June 26, 2015. Note: David French is not the conservative thinker and clear Christian voice that he used to be. In the past two years, there’s been a definite shift in French’s perspective. What you read prior to 2016 is solid. What he’s written since must be weighed.
Contextualization, by Michael Clary, American Reformer, May 2, 2023
Jesus overturned tables in the temple, and told the most religious people of His day that they were of their father, the Devil. Not very "nice." John, the baptizer, confronted king Herod about his adultery. Not "polite." Paul wished that the Judaizers would emasculate themselves. Just "hateful." We are not to quarrel or strive (2 Tim. 2:24), BUT . . . we ARE to correct (2 Tim. 2:25) and contend (Jude 3). "If they have called the master of the house Beelzebub, how much more will they call those of his household!" (Matt. 10:25). "A disciple is not above his teacher, nor a servant above his master" (Matt. 10:24). "Watch, stand fast in the faith, be brave, be strong. Let all that you do be done with love" (1 Cor. 16:13-14).
Because you’re not nice? :-)