The Cowardice of Christian Niceness

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Many years ago a young man was transferred to my department. During his first annual review with me, he asked why his raises had been consistently lower than the company average. I answered,

“Well, you’re kind of a jerk.”

And he was. If a colleague asked how the software worked, he’d sigh with feigned Rude customer-service r2patience, look at his watch, and ask, “Don’t you know that by now?” If a client asked how the software worked, he’d huff, “Didn’t I explain that just last month?”

But he was smart. He sliced through client’s problems with scalpel-like sharpness. His technical keenness took the edge off his social rudeness, but just barely. His past annual raises reflected the mixed feelings his previous boss had toward him.

When I told him he is kind of a jerk, he seemed stunned and simply squeaked, “Really?” Then he read, How To Win Friends and Influence People, and began to change. Something really seemed different.

Different enough, that he got a huge raise the following year. He then asked his former boss (a Christian) why the boss hadn’t been honest and direct. The boss admitted, “I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.” My new employee retorted,

Damn it! Your cowardly Christian niceness cost me thousands of dollars. Thanks for nothing.” (Hey, he was a recovering jerk; I never said he was completely cured.)

Christian cowardice     

You see, I think most of us Christians are cowards. I mean nail-biting, knee-knocking, lily-livered, chicken-hearted, spineless, yeller, scaredy cats. If we were angels, we’d be Rubens’ chubby cherubs. If we were spirits, we’d be Casper the friendly ghost.

Nowhere in scripture will you find the command: “Go ye into all the world and be nice.”

Christian niceness is neither Christian nor nice, just like Grape Nuts is neither grape nor nuts. Jesus spoke directly and precisely. There was no vague, spineless, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” niceness. He told the woman caught in adultery that she had sinned. Black and white. Clear. Unambiguous.

And Jesus spoke with grace. He told the same woman, “Neither do I condemn you.”

Grace and Truth

Jesus was full of grace and truth (John 1:14); filled with both, not a compromise of both (like Christian niceness). He was 100% truth at the same time he was 100% grace.

He spoke no namby-pamby niceness. Iron sharpens iron; slugs simply ooze mucus. To be a friend of Jesus means he deals with our reality—no sentimental niceness. But he deals with our reality. We are sharpened; and we become finely-honed swords ourselves.*

[*I am addressing “nice” Christians, not the opposite kind who unceasingly give unsolicited and unhelpful advice. You mention a lustful thought of seventeen years ago; they tell you to rebuke the devil, to repent for all sins, and to drink lots of prune juice.]

What do most people want?

I believe that most Christians—probably all people—long for real heart-connections with real people. We are unsatisfied by sanctuaries populated with mannequins wearing plastic smiles. We want real friendships, not artificial acquaintances.

But what does it mean to be real? I think it involves at least these four elements:

  • Awareness. We become aware of our current emotions—not controlled by them nor suppressing them—simply aware of them. Are we sad, angry, or fearful?
  • Consciousness. We become conscious of our thoughts and beliefs. Do we think our employee is rude, timid, or immature? Let’s be conscious of this belief.
  • Unpresumptuous. Despite our brilliant, perhaps genius-like, discernment, we are occasionally wrong. Let’s take our own beliefs with a grain of salt, and let’s recognize our emotional response may be built on a false presumption.
  • Honest. Let’s express our beliefs—and if appropriate our emotional reaction—precisely and without ambiguity.

It means we can express a kind of authentic-ness with grace. My former employee’s boss could have said, “I’m really a little nervous to say this, I don’t want to hurt your feelings … but it seems to me you are often rude with clients and colleagues. Your career would advance quicker if you weren’t. But perhaps I’m missing something.

Both would have gained a friend. And the employee would have made lots of money. (Alas, you probably noted how my “You’re a jerk” line revealed my own inner-jerk!)

It takes inner strength, a true kind of courage, to be real

If anything, Christians should be the most “real” of all people. Being real means people will see more than external niceness, they’ll also see our inner mess. We really want someone who sees us to the bottom and loves us to the top. And we already have that.

The greatest offense ever given to any human ever was given by Jesus. His death says that we are so messed up and—to be perfectly frank—we have been such jerks, that a little advice at our annual review won’t fix it.

His death is offensive. If we don’t get that offense—really feel it—we miss the heart of the gospel. If we don’t gulp in astonishment and say, “Really?,” we miss the cure.

The cure is this: he swallowed that death out of the great joy he had in giving us life (Heb. 12:2). The measure of his joy is in direct proportion to the agony it overcame.

His joy is the delight of making us whole again; his joy is his making us real again, no longer cowering behind the fearful fig leaves of cowardice. Really real. We can be graciously bold and boldly gracious. Healing for others can overflow from our lives.

If Christians became real, it would be a far better world. And wouldn’t that be … nice?


See also, You Can’t Hurt my Feelings

To read more about grace and moralism ,BookCover_1500x2400see my new book, Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids. Chapters include:

  • Why Do Our Children Leave the Church?
  • Graceless Goodness: The Problem with Moralism
  • The False Gospel of “Just Do It”
  • The Temptations of Christian Publishing
  • The Ugliness of Religious Righteousness
  • The Insidious Danger of “I’d Never Do That”
  • We Read the Bible the Wrong Way
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What do YOU think?

30 thoughts on “The Cowardice of Christian Niceness

  1. It is really true. I live in the belt buckle of the Bible belt. People are so “nice” that it hurts sometimes. Most of them have been raised that to be direct means you’re unkind. Sometimes the opposite is true, and their real hearts end up coming out in gossip, whispers, and explosive anger. Whew, give it to me to my face! As Christians, I am sad to say that we are out of touch with how “real” people do life.

    • Hi Shandee,

      I love your line, “Sometimes the opposite is true.” EXACTLY! When the former boss failed to be direct, he wasn’t even being nice. The employee wasn’t given a chance to change and so the employee paid the price (lower raises) of the boss’s cowardice.

      As I read your response I began to think that cowardice is really a type of self-centeredness. The boss was mostly concerned with his own feelings (he didn’t want to feel bad about making someone else feel bad).

      As you said, “Give it to me in the face.” One of my favorite Proverbs is Proverbs 27:6 “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; plentiful and deceitful are the kisses of an enemy.”



  2. Depending on which dictionary you use, nice came from a Saxon word meaning soft or a Latin word meaning ignorant. Both a reminder that being “nice” is not necessarily a good thing to be.

    • Marion,

      THANK YOU!! That was brilliant. I love it. And it makes me laugh.

      So, “nice” means “soft” or “ignorant.” Not exactly the Lion of Judah, eh?

      You made my day.

  3. When we do not offer truth others desperately need we simply run ahead of the blindfolded moving everything out of their way so nothing gets bumped or damaged when what might be better is to help them remove a tight and old blindfold and help their eyes adjust to seeing. I am exhausted of running ahead and moving “furniture” for people who refuse to see or to live in truth. In my family the kids moved the “furniture” and were expected parents shouldn’t have to see and change. Now I can see it…undoing that pattern will be much harder but I gotta start.

    • Hi David,

      You make a good point. We sometimes go out of our way to smooth a path when we really need others to open their eyes.

      It’s a hard balance. I probably vacillate between being too direct (not enough grace) and too graceful (and not enough truth).

      God, help us all.

  4. Very Timely Brother Sam,

    A dear friend, like a brother to me, has made a mess of his life and is down to his last dollar. He called me last night asking for money to get his commercial drivers license (CDL), which he lost two and a half years ago from a DUI conviction driving a big rig. He has spent jail time and thousands in fines, but is still drinking. I have lovingly encouraged him to find a church home, read the Word, keep Christian fellowship, and take college courses, but he has not changed his formula and is headed for the streets. I was just starting to write him a letter, along with the money to get his CDL and pay his last month’s rent, when I read your blog. Your words encouraged me tell him the truth, though he will not want to hear it. I was blunt, telling him his only choice now is to “Get on your knees, cry, and admit to God you are worthless and unworthy, headed to ruin in this life, going to hell after this life (and that will be very soon ——), tell God you are sorry for running away from Him, admit Jesus is God’s Son, and your salvation, and ask God (in the name of His Son, Jesus) to take over your miserable life because you lost control of it.” I wrote much more, but won’t put it here. So thanks, Sam, for your Words of Godly wisdom. I am mailing the “not-nice” letter, with a check, this morning.

    Your Brother in Christ,

    • Jeff –
      Don’t know you – but if you have the chance, I would encourage (no pun intended) you to speak to you friend face to face. If you value him enough to stick by him in the mess he’s made of himself, you would honor him with your presence.

      • Thanks Lym, point well taken. I have tried, face to face, to encourage him gently, and he immediately gets defensive and lets me know he doesn’t need my advice. His mind is not well from years of drug and alcohol abuse and his family and I are heartbroken over it. He is also currently in Fairbanks and I am Seattle. I’m looking for a miracle and hoing for the best, but expect him to become homeless. Prayer required

    • Hi Jeff,

      I honor your truth (in the letter) along the your check of grace (also in the letter). A really nice balance.

      I think this is an area all believers need to grow in. We need to learn to be real; not falsely “nice” nor falsely “direct” and especially not falsely “perfect.”

      Sometimes we are most effective when we admit our faults and are the wounded healers.

      Thanks for a great response.

  5. Good word Brother Sam,
    Now I have a new term for myself when I fail to speak the truth in love, a “congenial coward.” What a huge disservice we do to our brothers when we withhold from them what we see is wrong, and how often have we kicked ourselves for letting something go and having to answer later on – “Hey, buddy – why didn’t you let me know??”
    Wouldn’t you tell a brother when he’s got a low tire not to get on the freeway? So why not tell him that his attitude/actions are likely to hurt his career/marriage/relationships.
    Thanks for the reminder not to be a coward – we all need to hear it now and then.

    • Lyman,

      Next time you see me and my fly is down, I give your permission to tell me so (Especially if I’m on the way to the podium to speak!).

      I love your examples.

  6. I get what you’re saying here, and I agree. But I do wonder how you fit in the “love is kind” concept from 1 Corinthians 13. Is being direct always the kind thing to do? Or does it depend on the circumstances? Just curious what you think.

    • Hi Rachelle,

      You always seem to ask such great, insightful, thought-provoking questions. I love ’em.

      As you allude, we need wisdom. Sometimes we need to earn the right to speak into someone’s life–earn the right by listening to them, hearing what they have to say, understanding the circumstances, etc. Their lives may be filled with people telling what they should do–and they may know it perfectly–and what they need is quiet time with a friend.

      When Jesus says, “do unto others as we would have them do unto us,” let’s take it seriously. If I’m exhausted, and been beaten down by insults and directions, the truest kind thing I’d want … is probably not another lesson.

      I might want and need that truth from someone, but I’ll receive it better from someone who listened to me before demanding I listen to them.

      In the end, kindness usually involves speaking the truth, but not always immediately. Even Jesus, whose death on the cross is a great offense; even Jesus came, “at the right time” (Gal. 4:4).

      Rachelle, thank you again for your thoughtful, challenging questions.

  7. I’ll admit it. I’m a scaredy-cat. But I’m a recovering scaredy-cat.

    I’ve learned that delivering a hard word without resentment or judgment is an act of love.

    When I was being abused by a co-worker over a period of several months, I found that the downside to not expressing those honest thoughts and feelings in some righteous, productive way was that they festered and created unrighteous, counter-productive garbage. Something had to be done.

    But I also tend to be scrupulous. So when the recognition of the need to act collided with the fear of doing harm (complicated by the fear of being harmed), I got a long discernment period. Really long.

    I didn’t have to be silent while I was figuring it out, though. I could share my thoughts and feelings with a few trustworthy people who loved me, respected my inner process and shared my concern that my enemy be loved.

    In the end, I figured out that my silence enabled my co-worker’s destructive coping mechanisms to continue to work for her— and that that wasn’t good for her. Having exhausted all direct approaches, I understood that reporting her would actually love her, and I was finally able to act.

    I feared the consequences, but I can testify that a clear conscience can look fear in the eye.

    It turned out that a complaint in writing is a powerful thing. My co-worker is definitely not a new person (yet), but she controls her behavior at work. And I know that hard checks like that are the stuff from which a spiritual awakening can eventually spring.

    • I love the way you begin (and end of course, and the middle, but maybe I’m being too nice…). You say, “I’ve learned that delivering a hard word without resentment or judgment is an act of love.”

      See, I think that is the reality that Christian Niceness misses; in the end Christian Niceness isn’t even nice (at lead not truly kind). Hard words–hopefully delivered with grace–are acts of love.

      Of course I don’t mean we go around speaking our mind without thinking or without grace, like a walking, talking bullhorn.

      But perfect loves casts out fear (as you allude in your story); and our cowardly niceness is just that, fear. Not love.


    • Hi Bob,

      That was just a joke (apparently not a good one). It was an expression of the opposite kind of Christian (opposite to the “nice” Christian). These are the people who have an opinion about everything–even when they know few of the facts–and they bully us with their wisdom, even though some of it is as helpful as that line, “drink lots of prune juice.”

      I once spoke somewhere. In the middle of my talk, I took just a few minutes to illustrate a point by describing a tension my wife and I had over 18 years ago. Afterward, an absolute stranger came up to me and began a ten minute lecture on how to bring healing to my marriage; he told me things to say and he told me my wife is probably OCD. (NOTHING could be further from the truth!)

      The man was not speaking out of love or understanding; he hadn’t even earned the right to speak into my life. He barely knew the skeleton of the story.

      But alas, some Christians are like that; not the “nice” Christians but the “Listen to all my wisdom kind,” the kind that are too impatient to learn the facts and earn the right to speak.

      So, sorry for the confusing joke. It was meant to illustrate the un-helpfulness of certain Christian advice givers.

    • Hi Doc,

      Yeah, that’s a good observation. It certainly doesn’t come from spiritual insight and boldness.

  8. “If Christians became real, it would be a far better world. And wouldn’t that be … nice” – YES, it would be nice. I love this article and wholeheartedly agree. Great Work!

  9. Thanks Sam. I cringe at the word ‘nice’ now. My greatest fear is to be known as a nice guy. I’ll take bold ad courageous over nice any day.

  10. Hey, Sam, I ran across this quote last week here at work, thought you might like it: “Politeness is the poison of collaboration.” (Edwin Land). Not only does being too nice not help others mature as God intends, but it can also hinder us simply moving forward positively in work, projects, really anything. We definitely wrestle with that at my workplace.

    Nice blog, jerk.

    • Oh Brooks,

      I love it. And I love you seeing into my deepest inner being and fearlessly confronting it. Of course…I’ve been told…that it takes one to know one…though I was a little afraid to say it cuz I might hurt your feelings…but…

      Okay, Marion Schleusener (second comment-er above) pointed out that nice means either soft or ignorant. I looked the word up on an online etymology site, and this is what it said about “nice.”

      nice (adj.)

      Late 13c., “foolish, stupid, senseless,” from Old French nice (12c.) “careless, clumsy; weak; poor, needy; simple, stupid, silly, foolish,” from Latin nescius “ignorant, unaware,” literally “not-knowing,” from ne- “not” (see un-) + stem of scire “to know” (see science).

      “The sense development has been extraordinary, even for an adj.” [Weekley] — from “timid” (pre-1300); to “fussy, fastidious” (late 14c.); to “dainty, delicate” (c.1400); to “precise, careful” (1500s, preserved in such terms as a ‘nice distinction’ and ‘nice and early’); to “agreeable” (1769).

      By 1926, it was pronounced “too great a favorite… people have charmed out of it all its individuality and converted it into a mere diffuser of vague and mild agreeableness.” [Fowler]

      So, being nice comes from foolish, ignorant, fussy, dainty, careful, to vague and mild agreeableness. Yuck. Talk about lukewarm soda pop. On the other hand, it does seem to describe the version of person lots of people think Christians are to be.

      Just not the biblical version.

      • You just made it more clear to me what we are talking about here, Doc. Equating tolerance to niceness puts it into perspective for me. Tolerating homosexuality because we want to be “nice”, for example, falls outside what the Bible says.

        Thanks Doc!


  11. Oh Joseph,

    You just opened a can of worms; it’s complicated, sensitive, and definitely not nice.

    I love it.

    First, I have to ask what ecumenical living means. Years ago I knew two “ecumenical” ministries. The first was a predominantly protestant campus ministry but had Catholic students as well. It called itself ecumenical, but it tried to convert the Catholics, and occasionally celebrated when a Catholic became protestant.

    The second group was a predominantly Catholic prayer group but had protestants members as well. It also covertly encouraged the minority members to convert (to Catholicism), and when a protestant converted, they too occasionally had parties.

    I think neither group demonstrates true ecumenical living. Rather they were “tolerance” groups; they tolerated the poor, weaker, half cousin who they secretly hoped they would see the light. I’m not saying what they did was wrong (I’m not saying it was right either); I’m just saying it wasn’t ecumenical living. (And both were a bit deceptive.)

    I also know many groups that are simply doctrinal jellyfish, that is spineless. They say, “Doctrine, shmoctrine, all that matters is love.” They say, “Jesus loves me this I know, and everything else is rubbish.” (Then they sting anyone outside their group who disagrees with THAT doctrine of “no doctrine”!) That too–a complete lack of any thoughtful doctrine–is not ecumenical living.

    True ecumenical living is very hard and very rare. I don’t see it much.

    True ecumenical living is not the false niceness of pretending ecumenism while secretly trying to convert, nor is it the cowardly niceness of having no doctrines at all and therefore no conflict.

    True ecumenical living requires a set of agreed upon doctrines (like the Apostles or Nicene Creed) and then for each member to truly believe their own denominational beliefs and yet still love and support each other. It isn’t a watering down of beliefs–that’s just spineless doctrinal jellyfish-ism.

    But also–and this is probably the hardest part to actually live–it isn’t trying to convert each other. Rather, it is saying, “We believe in the missional importance of loving each other even as we disagree on important issues; we believe it so much, we aren’t going to proselytize each other.”

    Ecumenism requires strong beliefs on every side, otherwise there is not miracle in the love for each other. But it also requires an equally strong commitment to support each other to disagree (and not to convert); otherwise it’s just another false bait and switch, loving the “poor second cousin who really doesn’t know very much, but we love him anyway. Poor thing.”

    It’s hard to do, and I almost never see it. Even among groups who claim ecumenical living.

    Thanks for the FANTASTIC question!

  12. A short reply to a complex question: In my opinion, committed ecumenical living requires a deft, Spirit-led confluence of confidence and humility. As a believer with a set of (I hope) well considered beliefs, I should be able to understand what it is that I actually believe. That is confidence and, as far as I can tell, it is probably the lesser of my two proposed attributes.

    Humility goes beyond confidence, and says at least five things: First, and most broadly, that I do not know everything. There are areas of doctrine and biblical interpretation which remain a mystery (OK, that’s circular, since that’s essentially doctrine again).

    Second, and relatedly, I and my tradition could be wrong about some of the “peculiar” doctrines that we hold. In fact, it is probable that both Catholics and protestants will find theological correction in the full light of God’s kingdom.

    Third, I and my tradition are not sufficient for understanding everything about Christian truth. As a protestant, I cannot say that the Church was fine until Constantine and then resurrected at the Reformation, however much I might believe that there were serious flaws in Christianity along the way. Consequently, I learn from, and need, my brothers and sisters from different Christian backgrounds.

    Four, if I am to live a life of strong ecumenism, I will seek commonality of truth with my fellow-believers. Conversely, I will, in environments where I am living ecumenically, forgo insisting, and even expressing, beliefs that divide, and have divided, Christians for centuries. (As an aside, I think we need to recognize that we are unlikely to “find truth” that has eluded prior generations; in fact, it may be that the Lord himself hides such revelation from us so that we are forced to eschew triumphalism and other forms of pride.)

    Five, perhaps equally important will be a life of worship, practical service, sharing of resources, and the other signs of unity that the early Church demonstrated to the world.

    OK, there is obviously much more that could be said. In the end, I believe that all Christians are all called to ecumenism, some in one way, and some in others. All are crucial in building up the body and displaying signs of the perfect unity that will be a mark of the age to come.

    Thanks for opening a much-needed dialogue.

    • Lovely! Thanks, Paul. Spoken like one who’s lived it!

      May I add Humility 5a, or perhaps 6: Actively trusting the presence of the Holy Spirit at work in the other traditions. Relating across denominational lines with confidence that God is on the other side enables a person to perceive and benefit from the charisms God invested there.

      I think true ecumenism of the heart includes a sense of placement–that one has a vocation in a particular place in the Body—and that, logically, others do, too. Believing this has enabled me to simultaneously experience deep affection for my own church and real enjoyment of others’. It has also enabled me to rejoice in the decisions of friends who have changed denominations. People flourish in a good fit, and the Kingdom flourishes when they do.

      I’m not sure what all this has to do with the “niceness” topic, but at this point, I could observe that it’s possible to converse trustingly about the very things that have divided us not only without offense but with mutual benefit. That’s pretty nice, when it happens. And it’s the polar opposite of fear of conflict.

  13. I agree with a lot of whats been said here. You also talked about ecumenical living in the context of discussing our differences. True ecumenism should not mean ignoring all our differences. I think peaceful and friendly discussion is essential to true ecumenism, but only if certain core attitudes are present. For example, if theological discussion is primarily aimed at convincing others, that is not ecumenical, nor is it really seeking truth. Ecumenical discussion can only be done well if it’s aim is not to give but rather to receive. If you want to learn about my tradition and beliefs to understand them, and not to discredit them: that is ecumenical discussion. If I talk Theology with you to try to win you to my beliefs, that is not true ecumenism.

    Because helpful and up building discussion is hard, it often is left out. In fact there are some people who are probably unable to have a theological discussion without getting angry, hurt, or offended. Not everyone is able to talk about their differences in a healthy way. And if a person can’t, then I think they probably shouldn’t if they are seeking to live a truly ecumenical life. But if you can be humble enough to inquire honestly, openly, and without a primary desire to convince/convert, then you can probably participate in a healthy discussion of theological differences. Now you just need to find someone else who can also approach the area in a healthy way.

    As a side comment, I don’t mind if (as in Sam’s Response) there is some element of celebration when a person becomes Catholic after being protestant, or becomes protestant after becoming Catholic IF the celebration can go both ways. When a community rejoices more that someone has joined the the major tradition than if someone left the major tradition, that isn’t ecumenism. It’s ok to rejoice that person has found a better fitting Church home, but if we claim to be ecumenical, it means that we rejoices JUST AS MUCH if someone converts away.