Christianity and Being Nice

One of the pitfalls that seems to show up in Evangelical culture fairly regularly is the equation of Christianity with being nice.  I’m not sure where exactly the relationship started, but I can hear in my head moms saying, “Now, be nice…” potentially in a slightly menacing voice, and it wouldn’t surprise me if it were connected to that.

Related to the matter of being nice is the matter of not hurting other people.  They’re often very close to the same thing in people’s minds.  Several years ago, I came to realize that I spent a significant amount of energy being certain that I didn’t hurt anybody.  In fact, I realized that my heart believed very deeply that the worst sin that one could commit was to hurt someone else, and so I was terrified of doing things that might make someone upset.  Having talked to various others, I know that I was not alone in that belief, even if it isn’t voiced often.

I’ve grown a bit since then, but I still am pretty scared sometimes of doing something that might hurt someone.  What if they get upset?  What if I hurt their feelings?  What if they get angry and come after me?  What if they yell at me?  It’s unclear where the original belief came from, but I suspect there are many possibilities from angry parents and friends to guilting and manipulative grandmothers.  One way or another, the result is that many Christians go out of their way to be nice so as not to hurt people.  I’ve seen entire organizations that live by this ideal.

The trouble is … well, actually, there are lots of troubles with this.  One first trouble is that in order to be nice, sometimes you have to pretend that things are okay when they aren’t.  Pretend is fine when you’re on stage or when you’re four years old.  When you’re pretending at age 35, then it has become something more.  It’s a form of hiding, a means of staying in darkness (c.f., John 3:19-21).  It’s also a means of cutting off part of yourself from view of others, and likely even from yourself.  This rings faintly of double-mindedness, which James warned against (see James 1:8).  You could even go so far as to say it’s deceit, a form of lying.

Another problem is that if we’re to be Christians, then we are to imitate Christ, and Jesus wasn’t “nice” in this sense.  Jesus was scathing to the Pharisees in numerous places.  He chided his disciples all the time.  He was not afraid to tell people that they were wrong, even sometimes those who came to Him for help (c.f., Mark 7:27).  He seemed to specifically aim at offending people in John 6, scaring off those who weren’t committed to the truth.

He did not fear hurting people’s feelings.  Rather, he knew that hurting people’s feelings sometimes was necessary to lead them towards greater truth and even greater love.  When people did not know or were hiding from the truth, He brought it into the open, like with the woman at the well in John 4.  Offensive?  Perhaps.  But once in the open, it could be dealt with, and it could demonstrated that there is nothing that can separate us from His love.  So long as it remains in the dark, then we are the ones who separate ourselves.

So part of my journey towards maturity has been learning that being nice isn’t always Christian.  It’s sometimes driven by fear rather than by real care or an intention to do the right thing, though those might be the facades we put up.  I have offended and hurt people along the way, but I have hoped that when I have done so, it opens a chance for truth and for tighter relationship rather than damage.  But that is their choice.

There is without question a place for being nice in Christianity.  How good and nice was Jesus to the children when they were brought to Him?  But there is a place where we must grow to be able to be nice when called for and to not be so “nice” when circumstances call for that, too.  We must be able to choose what is best for the moment or we are slaves to something other than God.  And that… well, that’s not nice at all.

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