I have a confession to make — I don’t think that I am a very nice person.
You may wonder how I can claim the name of Christ if I’m not caring or kind, but I didn’t say I wasn’t. I said I’m not nice. By this, I mean that I don’t always have a customer-service-ready smile like many happy churchgoers do. I’m more of the quiet, contemplative type who doesn’t really talk to people until they initiate a conversation. If I were a flight attendant, I would probably get fired before the end of my first shift because I don’t know how to be cheery all the time. I also don’t say things simply because I’m expected to. For instance, when a friend of mine invited me to her bridal gown fitting, I didn’t gush about how great her dress was, because I didn’t like it at all. A nicer person might have obliged her just to be polite. Instead, I told her that the silhouette and cut complimented her figure. I am aware that I sometimes come across as unpleasant when I strive for sincerity. This is something I am working on, but do I desire to be more ‘nice’? No, not really.
If you grew up in the evangelical community in the 1990’s, you are most likely well acquainted with the WWJD philosophy. An acronym for ‘What would Jesus do?’, these four letters were printed on accessories (most famously bracelets), and were meant to be worn as a daily reminder to pursue Christlikeness. The problem herein was determining what exactly Jesus would do in particular situations. We know that the greatest commandment is to love God, and that the second is to love our neighbour. Since love is often seen as just another sappy emotion and being nice is synonymous with pleasantry, many Christians mistakenly conflate the two. As long as you were polite, agreeable and didn’t start a fight, you were following the principle of WWJD and the Bible at the same time—or so we were told.
Our misplaced importance on niceness is rooted in the sin of moralism. Most of us know what legalism is and acknowledge its wickedness. Legalism is the errant belief that our righteousness is earned through following a set of rules rather than in the finished work of Jesus on the cross. In this view, the Christian life is reduced to a laundry list of dos and don’ts. Similarly, moralism perverts the true gospel by elevating good morals above Christ’s sacrifice. Moralists tend to judge the veracity of someone’s conversion by how conservative their lifestyle and scruples are. Sadly, not all of these supposedly characteristically Christian traits are based on Scripture.
The desire for a quixotic utopia populated by well-mannered people belongs to fallen man and not God. Telling Christians they have to be cordial at all times without exception is problematic for many reasons. This is not merely an issue of semantics, but one that deals with the character of God, the fruit of the Spirit, and the gospel itself.
1. Jesus was shrewd, not nice, and He wants us to be the same.
If we consider the totality of Jesus’ life on Earth, it would be fair to say that He wasn’t always pleasant to be around. Jesus flipped tables in the temple and caused quite a ruckus. He called His adversaries snakes and vipers (Matthew 23:33). He rebuked one of His own disciples by referring to him as Satan (Matthew 16: 23). He even used an unsavoury metaphor about a dog when speaking to a Gentile woman (Matthew 15:26). Needless to say, Jesus would be considered quite rude by today’s standards.
Although I had been meditating on this for quite some time, it was on May 2, 2020 that the truth about the church’s false religion of “Niceanity” came full circle. It was the day that I decided to finally start reading a book that had been sitting on my bookshelf for nearly two years. I bought “Shrewd” by Rick Lawrence only because it was discounted down to a dollar during a Black Friday sale over at Christianbook.com. My purchase of this book was no mere coincidence, as God used it to really open my eyes to some unpopular truths about Christ.
The book focuses on what Lawrence refers to as ‘Jesus’ least known parable’. The tale of the shrewd manager (Luke 16: 1 – 8) is hard to stomach, since a sleazy, slime-ball of a man is commended for what seems to be irresponsible behaviour (a full explanation of the metaphor is beyond the scope of this post). Interestingly, Jesus’ admonition to his disciples, after sending them out two by two to preach the gospel was to, “Be as shrewd as snakes but as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). Lawrence notes that the word Jesus used for snake is the same one used for Satan and the word used for dove is the same used in reference to the Holy Spirit. In other words, we are to be as smart as Satan, but empowered by the Holy Spirit and not our flesh in these actions. This counsel flies in the face of common artistic depictions of Christ as a peaceful, tranquil man who wouldn’t harm a fly. Of this, Lawrence says:
“We expect our Christianity – and our Messiah, for that matter – to conform to the sort of good guy/bad guys template that Christian culture has worked so hard to ingrain in us. We have, as Tozer observes, taken the Jesus of the Bible and bent Him into a ‘very well-behaved God.’”
We tend to think of shrewdness as an act of cunning or deception because we fail to see our Saviour as shrewd. Many times, Jesus asked those He healed to not tell anyone. He would often wait for the right moment to publicly display His glory before others. Jesus preached in parables rather than directly revealing truth. As much as we may cringe at even the cacophony of the word ‘shrewd,’ it is an attribute of Christ. If we pick and choose what we want to believe about Jesus while eschewing the parts that make us uneasy, we are not worshiping the Living God, but an idol of our making. Jesus wasn’t always nice, and Jesus was shrewd. He was also loving, compassionate, kind, and holy. These are not mutually exclusive traits, and as Lawrence shows, Scripture affirms this:
“It’s nice that we call Jesus the Alpha and the Omega…But He is also the ‘Proskomma’ and the ‘Skandalon’, the Greek words translated ‘rock of offense’ and ‘stone of stumbling’ (1 Peter 2:8).”
This is an aspect of Christ’s life that some have wrestled to come to terms with. It’s hard to square these incidences with our image of a loving Saviour. It is imperative for our spiritual health that we abandon the “nice guy” caricature of Christ that we have fashioned for ourselves and cling to Whom He has revealed Himself to be. Yes, God is love (1 John 4:8), but God is also jealous (Exodus 20:5). God has wrath (Romans 1:18). God will enact justice again the wicked and those who are unrepentant (Isaiah 13:11). Although these aren’t amiable qualities, they happen to describe the God we serve. Therefore, our goal shouldn’t be to assimilate to society’s ideals of what it means to be nice, but to be conformed to the image of Christ (Romans 8:29).
2. Niceness usurps true Christian love.
You may wonder why this is a problem that needs to be addressed. What do we have to lose by being nice and polite? While there is nothing morally amiss in the pursuit of these ends, the zeal for them causes us to lose sight of what it means to live by the Spirit. At some point in the past 2000 years, the church adopted being nice and polite as godly values in favour of true brotherly love as Jesus commanded us to exhibit:
“By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”– John 13:35 (NIV)
I think the most misunderstood word in the world is “love” and Christians are perhaps the worst perpetrators of its misuse. We say that we love family and friends, but also say that we also love ice cream, snow days, and high heels. People fall “in” and “out” of love faster than the seasons change. We love celebrities we’ve never met, the countries we live in, and our careers. Somewhere in the mix, we also claim to love God. If we don’t know what love means, then how can we love and worship a God who embodies it? How can we love our neighbours as ourselves? This is not our own doing, but that of the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit lives within each believer and bears witness to our justification (Romans 8:6). The nine fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5: 22 – 23 are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Alas, love, kindness, goodness and gentleness are often equated with being nice and polite. I found it quite fascinating that the Bible Hub lexicon lists the origin of the word used for “gentle” as uncertain. Therefore, we will focus on the other three relevant fruit.
The word love that is listed in the fruit of the spirit is defined as, “actively doing what the Lord prefers, with Him (by His power and direction).” This decimates the false, insidious narrative that love is a warm emotion. The love of God cannot be separated from the will of God, the power of God, the guidance of God, or His holiness. Likewise, goodness refers to what, “originates from God and is empowered by Him in their life, through faith.” Walking in love and pursuing good doesn’t mean doing what we think is the best for others. Rather, it means doing what God wants us to do.
All throughout the Old Testament, God enacted harsh judgements, gave horrifying prophecies, and fatal punishments for those who willfully disobeyed Him. This isn’t nice, and doesn’t sound loving by our standards, but who asked us? Even in allegedly loving others and reflecting on God’s actions, we can become self-absorbed and capitulated by our own moral compass. We need to let go of the idea that love is rooted in emotion and our own perceptions. Love isn’t and never was about us, nor can we manufacture it.
“It never works to provide for yourself what it took the Messiah to come and provide for you.”– Paul David Trip
3. Speaking the truth in love is not about being nice.
The mistaken application of Christian love rears its ugly head far too often. When a believer harshly rebukes another for errant doctrine or sin, they are reprimanded by the ‘Politeness Police’ for being unloving. This is often due to a misunderstanding of what it means to speak in love as described in Ephesians 4.
“So Christ himself gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip his people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”– Ephesians 4: 11 – 16 (NIV)
When read in context, the verse about speaking truth in love has very little to do with being mindful of others’ feelings. The verse is an encouragement to speak gospel truths to quell apostasy and encourage unity in the local body. The gospel message asserts that the gate is narrow, and not all who proclaim Christ’s name will find refuge in heaven with Him. Divisions among believers should be about matters of unrepentant sin (1 Corinthians 5:13), and primary issues of theology, not political beliefs or opinions on social issues. Blasphemous teachings cannot be overlooked for the sake of being nice. Christlikeness, not niceness, is the goal of the church.
4. Christian unity is not rooted in being nice.
The church is dangerously inclined to the misguided thinking that all controversy must be avoided for the sake of unity. They politely decline to call out false teaching and precariously toe the line with those spreading it. Christian unity is not an end in and of itself. The body of Christ cannot be properly built on a foundation that is not centered on His truth or His Spirit (Ephesians 4:3), and the Spirit does not lead us to conversion through a perverted gospel.
Our unity as believers does not lie in the fuzzy feelings of acceptance from others. The gospel message we believe in and being temples of the Spirit are what unify us. The truth we need to speak is that those who do not believe in Christ as Saviour and Lord will perish. Speaking truth in this way may seem unkind, but that is because we look at kindness through our own lens and not God’s. The fruit of the spirit defined as kindness in a spiritual sense, “describes what God defines is kind – and therefore also eternally useful.” Kindness must be looked at from God’s perspective, and to Him, it refers to what has value in eternity. This is the soul, and not the temporal body or earthly life. Being kind would mean sharing the good news of salvation with others. Even by our standards, can we find one who is kinder than a God who sent His only begotten Son to die for unworthy sinners? If we are to speak the truth in love and kindness, we must point others back to the reality of sin and hell.
That being said, preaching fire and brimstone at others without compassion or true concern for them is also sin (1 Corinthians 13:1). Our motives must be examined first. If your desire to tell others that their beliefs are wrong is rooted in your desire to be right, then this isn’t love. Correcting others should come from the desire to do God’s good and perfect will.
It’s not polite to tell people that their current religious affiliation and/or carnal proclivities don’t align with God’s will and that a refusal to repent will result in eternal punishment. It may even be seen as unfeeling. Yet, this was the message God had for Sodom and Gomorrah, Nineveh, as well as the nations of Israel and Judah countless times. If loving requires actively pursue God’s will, then some will be offended. If the cost for redeeming souls are hurt sentiments, then so be it. Facts don’t change because people’s feelings won’t.
5. Niceness isn’t an objective trait.
The notion that Christians should be nice at all times is one that sits well with us because we would prefer for others to be sensitive to our egos and emotions. If we pursued loving our neighbours as ourselves based on our definition of nice, we would be using our flesh, not the Father’s will, as a barometer. Unfortunately, this is how we are often taught to treat others — based on man-made standards that were passed onto us. Further complicating things is the fact that what is considered nice differs from culture to culture and even between individuals in the same society. If my yardstick for loving my neighbour is what I would prefer to have done to me, then plenty of people would be offended by my efforts to show love, because I prefer a blunt approach that others may consider abrasive. Fortunately, God saves us from this conundrum. Neighborly love doesn’t begin with us considering our preferences, but by determining what God’s will is.
Biblical Christianity and church culture often don’t match up quite well, and this is just another example. This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t be nice, but to highlight the difference between having manners and exhibiting Christlike character. One is taught by society, whereas the other is only possible through the indwelling of God’s Spirit.
6. Niceness is not an indicator of Christian faith.
Where legalism and moralism truly fail is their inability to transform the inner man. The truth is, the unregenerate heart is capable of being nice all on its own without Christ. Even if there was a scriptural command to be polite, this doesn’t negate the fact that you can follow the letter of the law and still be eternally lost. We are not saved by our obedience —obedience is a sign of our salvation. There is no outward standard or benchmark we can use to determine if another individual is truly saved. What makes a person Christian is not in how they treat others but in the finished work of Jesus on the cross. Salvation is in the soul and is merely expressed in outward actions that can easily be imitated. The Pharisees were good at following rules, but rejected God to His face.
There’s also the reality that plenty merely act nice in a superficial sense, but don’t genuinely like or respect the people they interact with. Is your waitress truly glad to see you, or is she polite because she wants a tip? Each of us has found ourselves in a situation where we faced the choice between expressing or suppressing our true feelings at the cost of offending another. We should not strive for congeniality to avoid being seen as unkind. This is not only a form of (albeit well intended) deception, but it is also rooted in pride. Seeking to bolster your own image at the cost of sincerity and honesty is unbiblical. In doing this, we elevate our desires ahead of what may be necessary for our neighbour. Of course, this depends on the situation at hand. Christians need to exercise shrewdness in sharing difficult truths, and this should follow asking God to give you the necessary words. This practice has universal applications, and as scripture states:
“An honest answer is like a kiss on the lips.”– Proverbs 24:26 (NIV)
Succinctly put, intrinsic politeness devalues the priceless virtue of true brotherly love. The fruit of the Spirit is God’s work and not a badge of honour we work to gain through our own moralistic effort like we can with the world’s notion of niceness. In exchanging God’s way for our meritorious efforts, we denounce Christ as King, nullify His sacrifice, and become the gods of our own life.
7. Niceness for niceness’ sake is sin.
None of this is my way of advocating for an obfuscation of social mores and etiquette. In our day to day interactions with others, we should be polite, especially in these trying times when essential workers are stretched to their limits of patience and exhaustion. However, we should not puff up by thinking we’ve accomplished some spiritual feat after treating our fellow man with respect and decency. Everyone is an Image bearer, so I don’t see how a Christian could justify being rude to someone in the name of Christ’s love. Jesus commented on the importance of language:
“But I tell you that everyone will have to give account on the day of judgment for every empty word they have spoken.”– Matthew 12:36 (NIV)
The word translated careless is from the Greek root word érgon, which can mean, “to work, accomplish” or “a work or worker who accomplishes something.” It can also mean, “a deed (action) that carries out (completes) an inner desire (intention, purpose).” In choosing our words and actions, we must consider our intent and their consequences. Spouting Bible passages is not always the appropriate response. For example, when someone grieves a lost loved one that wasn’t a believer, it would be both rude and unloving to talk about how that person might be in hell. Yes, God wants us to preach the gospel, but what purpose does stating the person’s eternal destination serve now that they are dead? Our words must accomplish something. The loving (and nice) thing would be to offer words of comfort, but not because this feels loving to us. Every action needs to come from the heart of love, and that means doing things because God commands us to (Romans 12:15), since He is the standard.
Earlier, we looked at a verse about speaking the truth in love. Later in that chapter, more is said about speech.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with whom you were sealed for the day of redemption. Get rid of all bitterness, rage and anger, brawling and slander, along with every form of malice. Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.”– Ephesians 4: 29 – 32 (NIV)
While these verses are not speaking to politeness, there is no reason to conclude that they can exempt you from it, either. This passage encourages us to renounce bitterness, anger, gossip and malice. No one can claim to be pursuing God’s will while also engaging in this behaviour. Paul encourages believers to use words for building up others for their benefit.
In closing, don’t be nice to for the sake of being nice or to meet an arbitrary standard of congeniality. Your only motivation in being nice should be for the sake of others and out of a desire to pursue God’s will.
“Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”– Proverbs 16:24 (NIV)
- Lexicon: https://biblehub.com/lexicon/
- Lawrence, Rick. “Shrewd.” David C Cook, (2012).
- New International Version (NIV) Holy Bible, New International Version®, NIV® Copyright ©1973, 1978, 1984, 2011 by Biblica, Inc.® Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.
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