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, “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.)
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?