Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Jesus Is Not Nice

Jesus isn’t nice. Isn’t nice?

This seems not only insulting, but untrue as well. Isn’t being nice a Christian imperative? Wouldn’t more niceness fix the nasty turn our society has taken these days? Especially in this election cycle? Those of us born in the 50’s were often told as children, play nicebe nice; and the ever popular if you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all. When I was growing up, being nice meant being courteous to those around you—not being rude or obnoxious. It meant being kind. But kind and nice are not synonyms.

If you think I'm splitting hairs, consider it this way. Kindness is others-focused. Niceness is ultimately self-focused. To be nice is to conform to the opinions and behaviors of those around you in order to gain their acceptance or approval. Being nice is a means of not rocking the boat, or stirring the pot, or making a fuss, which little girls especially were warned against as not ladylike. Niceness is a means of going along to get along, which might seem like a means of maintaining a certain level of civility in public discourse. But not in today’s world in which we’re being forced into a false, politically-correct civility. Today disagreement means disagreeable; unity means uniform and harmony means homogeneous. So niceness has become a tyrant, demanding that we all believe the same things and say the same things or be considered not only rude but hateful. Our world has somehow become a place in which disagreeing with someone is to cause them harm.

And the kicker is, we often attempt to behave ‘nicely,’ because we believe Jesus would want us to—to be peacemakers and all that. But Jesus didn’t always play well with others; He said what needed saying. He was not concerned with His reputation. He wasn't politically correct. He wasn’t worried about what others thought of him. He wasn’t trying to make every group of people His buddies. His self-esteem wasn’t chained to being the most likeable guy in the room. In every situation with each person He said or did what was needed, because of love. That is kindness—being more concerned with what is best for the other person, even if it causes an uproar.

Niceness seeks to keep the peace, but it’s only, ever, an artificial peace. To keep it, I must always agree with everyone else. And it doesn’t work. No matter how hard I monitor my speech, I will inevitably encounter a situation in which I will be forced to say what I really think and that’s the end of my carefully structured public image as a ‘nice person’. And why have we decided that peace is the ultimate goal anyway? Jesus told us, "If you belonged to the world, it would love you as its own. As it is you do not belong to the world, but I have chosen you out of the world. That is why the world hates you." (John 15:19). If I'm hated for being a jerk, I am getting what I deserve, but if I'm hated for being kind as Jesus was kind, I am getting what I should expect as His disciple. . 

Jesus isn’t nice, He’s kind. Jesus criticized the Pharisees not because He hated them, but to provoke them to repentance (resulting in their good). He told the Samaritan woman to her face that He knew she was sleeping around—not nice—to bring the message of His coming kingdom to an entire village. He insulted another woman, saying that she was no better than a dog, not because He had a nasty streak, but to provoke her to faith and heal her daughter. He identified Peter with Satan, not to put him down, but to raise him up to be a leading disciple.

So are we supposed to stomp around pointing the finger at everyone, shouting the devil down and exposing everyone’s sins? Of course not! Jesus wasn’t scoring points or winning arguments. He caused momentary pain designed to lead to restoration and wholeness. He knew very well that everything He said would not be accepted and approved. He knew some would hate Him for what He believed and taught. And He willingly accepted the consequences of his interactions with others. That is kindness, and it will cost us just as it did Jesus. Niceness will not, cannot, protect us from dislike, criticism or persecution. Responding to others with kindness, regardless of the cost, will place us squarely in the tradition of our rabbi Jesus.*

The world doesn’t need us all to be nicer, it needs the kindness of Christ. Kindness that gives into each situation what is needed, regardless of personal cost. The world is dying of thirst. Kindness offers water at the risk of being condemned for claiming ours is the only clean source. Niceness would have us pretend to be thirsty too—at least in the public square. If we truly carry within us the well of Living Water, how can we keep silent while the world burns?

I can see how far I have to go. As old as I am, I still find myself doing the self-protection shuffle at times when I want to be liked (or left alone). When niceness demands, “Agree or shut up,” I am having to decide all over again whether I want to be liked and admired, or serve as Christ did, laying down my life for the people I encounter. I must confess that true kindness often eludes me. I am busy; I am distracted; I am focused on retaining the comforts of my own life. But if I avoid true kindness so I can continue my way, undisturbed, then I am not loving people as Jesus commands. 

I think I would amend what our mothers told us as children. How about —If you don't have anything nice to say, don't remain silent—say something kind instead.

*And lest we think that being forced to play nice is something that happens only when Christians are hanging out with unbelievers, consider that niceness can also be the buffer we place between ourselves and others in order to avoid intimacy. We might ‘make nice’ to keep the conversation at the surface, in order to minimize the possibility that we might have to shoulder someone’s burden or confess a weakness of our own. Selah :)

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