The Cowardice of Christian Niceness

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

“Well, you’re kind of a jerk.”

And he was. If a colleague asked a question about our software, he’d sigh, look at his watch, and then bark, Rude customer-service r2“Don’t you know that by now!” If a client inquired how the software worked, he’d huff, “Didn’t I explain that just last month?”

But he was smart. He dissected software bugs with scalpel-like sharpness. His technical keenness took the edge off his social rudeness. But just barely. His low annual raises reflected the mixed feelings his previous boss had toward him.

When I told him he was “kind of a jerk,” he seemed stunned and simply squeaked, “Really?” Then he read several books on human relationships, and he 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 cured.)

Christian cowardice

You see, 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 was direct. He showed no hint of vague, spineless, “I don’t want to hurt your feelings,” niceness. To the woman caught in adultery, he said she had sinned. Black and white. Clear. Unambiguous.

Jesus also spoke with grace. He said to the same woman, “Neither do I condemn you.”

Grace and Truth

Jesus 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. He sharpens us until we become finely-honed swords ourselves.

But Jesus was full of truth and grace (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.

[Someday I’ll write another article about that other kind of Christian who unceasingly gives unsolicited (usually unhelpful) advice. You mention a lustful thought from seventeen years ago; they tell you to rebuke the devil, join AA, and to drink plenty of prune juice.]

What do most people want?

Everyone you meet deeply desires real friendships with real people. We are unsatisfied by sanctuaries populated with mannequins wearing plastic smiles. We want real heart-connected friendships, not artificial acquaintances. But it means we have to be real.

What does it mean to be real? At least these four elements:

  • Awareness. We are aware of our current emotions—neither controlled by them nor suppressing them—simply aware of them. Are we sad, angry, or fearful?
  • Consciousness. We are 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. Let’s be clear, and real, and honest.

It means we express a kind of authenticness 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 my earlier, “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. We should have the courage to let people see beyond external niceness to our inner-jerk. We’ll have friends who see us to the bottom and loves us to the top. How do we get this boldness?

The greatest offense ever given to anyone in history was given by Jesus. His death says that we are so messed up—we have been such jerks—that a little advice at our annual review cannot fix it.

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

The cure for our cowardice is this: he swallowed agonizing death because of the great joy he had in giving us life. He so deeply wanted a true relationship with us, he became ultimately vulnerable and real, vulnerable to death, and ultimately real to new life.

If we really know this, we can quit hiding behind the fig leaves of cowardly niceness. And if Christians became real, it would be a far better world.

And wouldn’t that be … nice?

Sam

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38 thoughts on “The Cowardice of Christian Niceness

  1. Sam your so true in your words here today. Churches really do want niceness, they want men who are even killed, even tempered after all doen’t scripture say we should be such things. They hold up gentleness as a way to control.

    Though I have grown a long way here it is still an issue for me personally, having been told within the last year my personality was too strong, too intense and as such to be find out this elder instead of welcoming me into his small group kept me at arms length, guess I did not measure up. Thank God for Colissians 1:12-14

    Probably the hardest battle I have had to learn is to go from leading the roughest of the rough, grunts, blue collar get her done type of employees to church people as a parachurch ministry leader.

    Thank for the hard work you put into this post n for the diligence to work to get it out early.

    • Can I point out that this message doesn’t only damage men, but women also? The irony is that we are becoming aware of the issue in relation to men, but women are still expected to be nice / compliant / subdued without question. Just something to think about.

      • Raz,

        EXCELLENT comment. Thanks.

        “Nice” is equally bad and cowardly for women as well as men. We all want to learn gracious truth, and we all want to avoid the current, sappy, Christian misinterpretation of scripture.

        Thanks, and keep on commenting. I love it.

        Sam

    • Hi Pat,
      There are two equal problems, though opposite, the “nice” Christian who no one would think of persecuting because they are too sappy, and the aggressive, belligerent Christian who offends EVERYONE (but because they are jerks, not because of their beliefs).

      May God help us to be neither, but to be graciously bold and humbly confident.

      • I´ll quote you on your last sentence…that´s for sure:)
        This is a very good article, specially for me. I think I am both…jerk and also untruthful at many times (never with my family or friends, but for example with coworkers). And it makes me feel like I am an actor during work hours. Think I have to become more real.
        Niceness is good. But only then, if you feel also nice inside….not on the verge of hitting somebody. If there are problems, they need to be adressed. But how to do them, if the problem is a boss and you are a secretary? There are bound to be problems afterwards…

        • I agree that we need to consider the situations too. We should add “wisdom” to the mix. It’s not smart to tell your boss off. It might be stupid (though “nice” means “stupid” as Cindy points out).

          Sam

  2. The root word for “nice” is ‘ignorant’, as in stupid. Recalling that to mind helps me choose kindness (scriptural) over niceness.

  3. Yep, good word! Recently I noticed that the word “nice” isn’t even in the Bible. So why did I grow up with the very strong message that my number 1 job in life was to be nice?? I have regretted it many times as an adult – nice is rarely helpful or honest. Let’s banish niceness for honesty seasoned with love. Thanks Sam!

      • True, it is very hard, and it may have also bad consequences for the one, who is being honest…
        But being honest and being a jerk…the line is soooooooooooooo thin. Fact is, if truth is unpleasant (it mostly is), its gonna hurt for the other person…and they usually make it painful for you too afterwards…

        • The line IS thin, absolutely.

          But we can discern better when we examine our hearts. Are we just venting to feel good about ourselves, or are we genuinely caring?

          Great comments Chris, thanks.

  4. Here is an added tidbit a friend reminds me about often.

    Read the following passage of scripture from Revelation 21, NIV & notice who is placed first on the list of the ones who WILL NOT inherit the Kingdom.

    6 He said to me: “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the Beginning and the End. To him who is thirsty I will give to drink without cost from the spring of the water of life.7 He who overcomes will inherit all this, and I will be his God and he will be my son. 8 But the COWARDLY, the unbelieving, the vile, the murderers, the sexually immoral, those who practice magic arts, the idolaters and all liars – their place will be in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death.”

    Seems to add an exclamation point to your statement of truth Sam. Good words of life as evident in the “recovering jerk’s” response to being told. Life was withheld from him & this should never happen. More people would be drawn to Christ in my opinion if we could learn this lesson…there is life in telling and knowing the truth. It might be messy many times, but we should never withhold life. Looking at it from this perspective of withholding life should encourage us to overcome this overwhelming compulsion to withhold truth from someone. God does not take being cowardly lightly.

    • Terrific point and great supporting passage.
      Courage, like all things of value, is something we grow in. If we want the courage to withstand a brutal persecution, let’s start with practicing the courage of being real with our friends.

  5. Hi Sam I like the direction you are going here. God clearly dealt with me on my belief that being nice was love and my avoidance of truth and clarity was love. No it is not! Jesus – with his clear direct open confrontation – was the standard that I looked to to learn that nice does NOT equal love.
    In time I came to learn that my whole life and personality involved sacrificing the authentic me in order to please others. That needed to die.
    Forty years I have been discovering my true self and the ability to move on and express my passions, get angry (and speak the truth) and gain some backbone.
    My amen to your message of being nice or even trying to be a ‘good Christian.’ Only God is good and any goodness in me is Him growing in me. It does not help from to try and push that process along by suppressing my heart passions and true identity. I can turn my carnal nature over to him and let his character form in me while I learn to be authentic.

    • I love how you are connecting being nice with being a people pleaser. Great point.
      And it ultimately means we are being nice for our own sake not out of love for our friends.
      God help us!

  6. You’re singing the song of my heart with this one. Nice is just a lie we tell to feel better about ourselves. Thanks for the article and knowing that i’m not the only one.

    Aaron M.

  7. Fantastic article, and perfect timing for me. I was just trying to express these thoughts to someone last night. And I disagree that your “you’re a jerk” statement expressed your inner-jerk. Truth can hurt. So be it. I’d rather be right than comfortable.

    • Hey DM,

      Aw shucks. You’re being too nice. Oops! No. Anything but that.

      Yeah, I know the young man appreciated the directness, but there have been other times–MANY other times–when my directness was more “jerk” than gracious truth. It’s hard to learn to do it right. It’s so easy to fall into cowardly niceness or self-venting jerk-ness.

      Gracious truth is something that doesn’t come naturally. It comes from a super-naturally changed heart.

      Thanks for your comments.

  8. Christian author John Eldredge wrote in his the book, Wild at Heart, that Christianity as we practice it is doing terrible things to our children. When all is said and done, most children reach their graduation day thinking that God has put them on earth to be good boys and girls. They may have some growing pains, some difficulties now and then, but if they listen closely and go to Sunday School they may, just may, have a chance at becoming . . . a nice person.

    I think we have forgotten what the Yerang Mission and the North Korean pastors know: that the church is supposed to be an expeditionary outpost in unfriendly territory. There are battles to be fought, campaigns to be waged, souls to be won for Christ, and most importantly, truths to be told to a world that does not want to hear them and will try to shred the men and women who tell them.

    In other words, the world is today exactly as it was when Jesus walked in Judea. Jesus certainly understood this and never shrank from his mission despite it.

    Jesus was a tough guy, but we have tamed him, domesticated him, dressed him in a Bill Blass suit and shampooed his hair.

    • HI Donald,

      Great comment. Love you connecting us be “nice” Christians to our perversion of who Jesus was (and is). Yes indeed, we’ve domesticated him.

      But, last I heard, he is not one to be domesticated, so even there … our hope is in Him!

      Thanks for a great comment.

      • Thanks – that was actually an excerpt from a sermon I preached in 2006. Might want to drag it out again!

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