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 patience, 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.)
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?