This article was published in the latest edition of Evangelicals Now here
HAS BEING ‘NICE’ TRUMPED BEING CHRISTLIKE?
It may not be one of Jordan Peterson’s 12 Rules for Life, but I would suggest that it is fast becoming one of the unwritten rules for Christian commentators – ‘be nice’. Or expressed in its negative form ‘that’s not nice’. ‘If you can’t say something nice, say nothing’. Sometimes other words are used which express the same idea – ‘winsome’ or ‘gracious’. The latter certainly has a biblical precedent, but I wonder if it should be confused with ‘niceness’?
There is a strong case for being nice – not least because its opposite is perceived as nasty. According to the OED ‘nice’ = ‘pleasant, agreeable or attractive’. Surely that is what we want to be as we seek to adorn the Gospel? I’ve come across some ‘nasty’ preachers in my time and it certainly doesn’t incline me to listen to them.However, it is when niceness means you can never say anything which would ‘hurt’ someone’s feeling, that it becomes not just bland, but also anti-Christian.
There are Christians who, every time you challenge ‘robustly’ a position immediately state ‘that’s not nice and you won’t win people for Jesus like that’. When you are accused of being not nice there really is no response except perhaps to point out that it’s not nice to make it! The problem here is that so many Christians get confused between the fruit of the Spirit and niceness. Surely Elijah mocking the prophets of Baal, Paul telling the Galatian circumcisers to go the whole way and emasculate themselves, and Jesus telling the Pharisees they were of their father the devil, were not exactly ‘nice’? The irony for me is that those who complain that being robust in this way is not Christlike, end up condemning Christ for not being like himself!
My wife and I were recently struck reading through the Gospel of Luke by the impact of what was probably Jesus’s first sermon (Luke 4:14-30). Going into the synagogue in Nazareth Jesus was handed the scroll of the prophet Isaiah and read from Isaiah 61. The bit about being sent to proclaim good news to the poor, the prisoners, the oppressed and the blind. So far so good. Who would not, whether in 1st century Nazareth, or 21st century Newcastle, nod in approval at such words?! Jesus told his hearers that this Scripture was fulfilled that day in their hearing. The people all spoke well of him and were amazed at his gracious words – what a model for today’s preachers!
But then it got complicated. In response to their statement ‘isn’t this Joseph’s son’ Jesus, wasn’t exactly nice. In fact, he told them that they would never accept what he had said and stated that they were like the Israelites in the time of Elijah and Elisha. Elijah was not sent to an Israelite widow but to the widow of Zarephath, and the only person cleansed of leprosy was not any of the many Israelite lepers, but Naaman the Syrian. When Jesus pointed this out, his audience forget his gracious words and were so angry they tried to throw him of a cliff! I suspect that in today’s world, various Christian advisors would advise him to tone down the rhetoric and encourage him to be more Christlike!
This is not to argue that rudeness, abusiveness and abrasiveness are ‘qualities’ to be condoned, far less cultivated. But we have to beware of allowing ourselves to be intimidated by the post-modern touchy-feely mantra of you can say whatever you want, just don’t hurt by feelings, or appear to be not nice. This is using nice in the sense of the original Latin nescius ‘ignorant’. Christians far too often come across as stupid and coy even though we think we are coming across as pleasant and agreeable. We need to stand up to the verbal bullies, speak up for Christ and his honour and be prepared to always give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behaviour in Christ may be ashamed of their slander (1 Peter 3:15-16). It is possible to respect people, to be gentle and to be robust.
Another danger is that we as Christians sometimes adopt the approach that if you are not nice to me then you have committed the unforgiveable sin. I have come across people who, although often robust in their own words, find it easy to be offended and difficult to forgive. It is ironic that it has taken a non-Christian such as Douglas Murray to point out in his ‘The Madness of Crowds’ that modern society does not do forgiveness. It appears that the Church doesn’t do it all that well either. Perhaps we could be both more robust and more forgiving when people get it wrong? There’s a radical Christlike idea!