When Jesus set the parameters for a blessed life, they must have landed with surprise on the ears of his hillside congregation. The Beatitudes are even more counter-cultural today, for the 21st-century church conveys blessings of a different sort:
- Blessed are those who keep up appearances;
- Blessed are you when you look good and say good things–preferably in fewer than 280 characters;
- Blessed is she who plays it safe and offends no one with her strong words or deeply held convictions.
Sharon Hodde Miller has put her finger on our need to be liked and has then given her readers tools for smashing the idol of niceness. The truth of Nice, her latest book, is that God has called us to so much more than a life of safe answers and artificial sweetness. The power of God in us enables believing women to embody true kindness, honesty, courage, and joy. We are called and we are empowered by His Spirit to speak words of truth without veering into outrage and to cultivate true fruits of righteousness in our relationships, workplace, ministry, and community.
The Idol of Niceness
Without advocating for rudeness or a shrill voice, Miller uncovers the ugly roots of niceness:
…we make ourselves pleasant, agreeable, acceptable, or likable in order to get something. We use niceness to achieve belonging or avoid conflict, but we also use it to amass influence and power. We use niceness to succeed in the workplace or to manage the way people perceive us. (23)
Oddly, “nice” first showed up in the dictionary in a 1604-edition to describe that which was “slow and laysie.” By the early 1800’s, it had come into its present connotation for pleasing behavior. Sadly, we’re prone, particularly in the church, to value niceness over other qualities and to excuse just about any lack of virtue in those who possess the false virtue of niceness.
According to Phil Ryken, president of Wheaton College, niceness is “easy to fake,” and as we craft and curate our images on social media, we are continually challenged to check our motivation and to stay grounded in authenticity.
The False Virtue of Niceness
Notorious child-molester Dr. Larry Nassar was a “nice” guy. For decades, his upstanding reputation caused coaches and parents to doubt young female gymnasts who accused Nassar of inappropriate behavior in the examining room. When we put our faith in niceness, we become blinded to truth. In Matthew 7, Jesus calls his followers to a sharp discernment that distinguishes between the sheep and the wolves that come our way, and good listening and continual character development are our strongest tools in preventing blind spots and uncovering our biases.
Miller warns readers against false virtues that are the fruit of empty niceness:
- Fake courage
C.S. Lewis’s Screwtape aimed to confuse courage with “feeling brave” in the mind of his patient.
“Brave” has become a juicy commodity for Christian writers and speakers, so we’re continually reinforced in patting ourselves on the back for courage that is more about platform than about the uncomfortable disruption we see in the lives of Old Testament heroes like Jeremiah and his fellow prophets with their gritty messages calling for repentance and warning of judgment.
- Fake righteousness
Self-righteousness puts on a good show, but the “niceness” evaporates when grace for the “undeserving” walks into the room–or when a truly brave soul dares to take on the Pharisee with constructive criticism.
Our Greatest Obstacle to Spiritual Growth
Every spiritual discipline and every positive example of Christ in the New Testament, all given for our growth, cuts across our standard of what the “nice” Christian should do or be. With our addiction to success, it’s hard to make room for teaching that looks like death or loss, but (returning to Matthew 7 and the Sermon on the Mount) Jesus is all about pruning, cutting back, and burning the dead wood.
As we abandon our middle school efforts to enter the “inner ring,” as we conform to Christ and understand that we don’t need to become someone else in order to come to Christ, the masks come off. The example of the apostle Peter during Jesus’s trials and later in the early church reveals that most of us want acceptance far more than we want Christ.
As our roots go deep into disciplines of worship, study, obedience, and hope, we begin to see that we are being held in relationship with Christ the True Vine, and this is where true virtue lives. Nice is our call to close the gap between who we are and who we are called to be; to be who we say we are; and to begin the slow work that produces the fruit of righteousness, the only fruit that lasts for eternity.
Many thanks to Baker Books for providing a copy of this book to facilitate my review, which, of course, is offered freely and with honesty.
Grace and peace to you,
I also read, reviewed, and enjoyed Sharon’s first book, Free of Me: Why Life Is Better When It’s Not about You, which is an invitation to throw off the burden of self-focus and to find worth and belonging within the larger context of an obedient following that is all about Christ, His purposes, and His glory.
I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees. If you should decide to purchase Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked and How God Calls Us to More simply click on the title within the text, and you’ll be taken directly to Amazon. If you decide to buy, I’ll make a small commission at no extra cost to you.
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