Shouldn’t Christians be nice??? If I answer “no,” someone will retort, “So you’re saying Christians should be mean?” But if I simply answer “yes,” I have not been faithful to what the Scriptures teach. Like the question from two weeks ago (“Shouldn’t Church Be Fun?”), this week’s question implies and reflects common cultural Christian assumptions. Few people would ever ask such a question, yet most assume Christians must be “nice” people.
What does the Bible say? I had never searched for “nice” in the Bible before writing this post. (Click here to see results from my only fruitful search.) “Nice” appears only once in a single translation – Jer. 12:6, NASB – and not in a particularly “nice” context.
In everyday language, “nice” – like “fun” – has become a catch-all term describing a vague, emotional response to another person, event, or object. Nice – in the sense of “being nice” – is inherently subjective, meaning different things to different people: “enjoyable, agreeable, pleasant, good, lovely, fine, amusing, polite, courteous, charming, virtuous, genteel, seemly, acceptable, attractive, appealing.” Who (or what) is nice for one person might not be nice for someone else.
Children illustrate this well. When pleased with another’s demeanor, words, or actions, a child will say, “[He or she] is nice / was nice to me!” When angry or frustrated, a child will say, “You’re not being nice!” The child’s statement about the other person (“nice” / “not nice”) does not necessarily convey a well-rounded, truthful evaluation. Rather, the child’s statement most often reflects his or her emotional response to the other person’s demeanor, words, or actions. Similarly, a child saying, “You’re being mean!” does not necessarily indicate another person is being cruel or malicious. (Parents, how many times have you been called “not nice” or “mean” when lovingly correcting your children?!?!) Unless this emotionally fueled judgment of others is not corrected in children, they will continue to evaluate others in this manner throughout their lives.
Even adults, when asked for their opinions of others, frequently express emotional responses and assume others think the same way they do – “I express my opinions [feelings] about others; don’t they do the same?” Such opinions (feelings) are not grounded in factual evidence or rational assessment, but upon emotional inclinations. In other words, the way many people view themselves and others, even as adults, is determined by vague, emotional reactions. For Christians, this means their benchmark for godliness shifts away from the unchanging standards of God’s word and fluctuates according to the emotional responses of those around them (including themselves). They reach the conclusion, “If others do not think [i.e. feel] that I am a nice person, I am not being a good Christian.”
You might be thinking, “Ok, I understand most of what you have written to this point, but shouldn’t Christians still be nice in most circumstances?” The lingering problem, even with this question, is that the final judgment about whether a person is nice ultimately depends upon judgments of others. Because there is no clear, biblical standard for “nice,” a person who seeks to be nice will have no way to hold himself or herself accountable under God’s perfect law. He or she will constantly adjust behavior to meet the approval of others. More alarmingly, this pattern will lead believers to conclude that someone who is “not nice” is a great sinner. Over time, the cultural Christian virtue, “being nice,” and its opposing vice, “being mean,” will replace the true standards of God’s word, reshaping believers into those who desire to please men rather than to obey God.
Why, then, is “being nice” so often linked to being a Christian? I believe there are two main reasons. (1) It is tied to the cultural Christian virtue of “God and country.” A “nice Christian” is an upstanding citizen in the community. He or she is courteous, friendly, charming, well-respected, and morally virtuous. “[This person] never gets into any trouble. [He or she] is a nice Christian.” (2) It is tied to the cultural Christian virtue of “loving” all people (another topic for another post!). A “nice Christian” is tolerant, accepting, sympathetic, warm, and avoids conflict at all costs. “[This person] gets along with everyone. [He or she] is a nice Christian.” Though other factors have contributed to the ideal of the “nice Christian,” these two cultural values have engrained in believers’ minds the unbiblical idea that a nice person is a good Christian.
Think again about the Bible – were its great figures “nice” people? Sometimes yes; sometimes no. Consider how Moses confronted Pharoah. Did Moses show deference, respect, courtesy, grace, and humility? Yes, in those respects he was very nice. Did Moses avoid conflict at all costs, fret about how Pharaoh and the Egyptians would perceive him after the plagues, or soften God’s words to make them more palatable? No, in those respects he was certainly not nice.
Consider Elijah. In 1 Kings 17:1, he burst onto the scene out of nowhere and said to King Ahab, “As the Lord, the God of Israel, lives, before whom I stand, there shall be neither dew nor rain these years, except by my word.” Based on Elijah’s first appearance, who would label him as a “nice” man? Certainly not Ahab! What about their next conversation (1 Kings 18:17-18)? “When Ahab saw Elijah, Ahab said to him, ‘Is it you, you troubler of Israel?’ And he answered, ‘I have not troubled Israel, but you have, and your father’s house, because you have abandoned the commandments of the Lord and followed the Baals.’” Elijah’s reputation in Israel was not that of a “nice” man, and Ahab’s description of Elijah was anything but “nice” (as was Elijah’s decription of Ahab)!
Continue to do the same with other figures in Scripture. Look at the true substance of their words and determine how many of them would be labeled “nice” according to cultural Christian standards. At times, the label fits well enough; at other times, it does not fit at all.
Finally, consider the Lord Jesus Christ. Was he “being nice” when he said to Peter, “Get behind me Satan!” (Matt. 16:23)? Was he “being nice” when he pronounced the seven woes upon the scribes and Pharisees (Matt. 23)? Was he “being nice” when he said to an aspiring disciple, “Follow me, and leave the dead to bury their own dead” (Matt. 8:23)? In all those instances, was he loving, compassionate, humble, merciful, sympathetic, full of grace of truth? Yes, perfectly so! But would others have thought he was “being nice?”
Do you now see the problems with the cultural Christian assumption that believers must be nice people? God has called his people to exhibit many Christian virtues, to reflect his own character, but that does not mean believers must merely be “nice” people. By no means am I implying that Christians can justify “being mean” – malicious, cruel, uncaring, condescending, unmerciful, or unloving! All those things are contrary to God’s character and, therefore, sinful. But simply “being nice” and “not being mean” fall far short of God’s standards for his people.
Brothers and sisters, I urge you to rethink your emphasis on the cultural Christian virtue “being nice.” Not only is that virtue largely unbiblical, but in a culture that equates “being nice” with unqualified acceptance and tolerance, is that really the reputation we should desire? Rather, let us strive to be kind, compassionate, forthright, truthful, humble, gracious, gentle, joyful, peaceable, and patient with one another. When those characteristics define us, we will possess a reputation far better than being a “fun church with nice people.” We will be known as a faithful church with Christlike members. May that be our goal!
Note: This post is part of a series that challenges common cultural Christian assumptions about the Church and Christian living. Next week, I will seek to answer the question, “Shouldn’t Christians Hate the Sin but Love the Sinner?”