The Tyranny of Niceness
Today we’re going to talk about the difference between being nice and being good.
I’m here to tell you today that God is good, but God does not particularly care about being nice.
Jesus in the gospels is radiant with goodness, but he is not always nice.
And the surprising thing is that while we too are called to be good, we need to get in touch with the reality that this may sometimes call us to sacrifice being nice.
Why does that thought strike fear into our hearts?
And why is the church the place of ultimate niceness?
I’m going to make the case to you that our Christian community suffers from a toxic epidemic of niceness that limits our ability to be in true, deep, committed relationship with one another.
We need to find a way to break through our niceness façade and actually love one another with integrity and depth.
And if we practice this discipline in our Christian community, we are much more likely to be able to fulfill Jesus’ command to love our enemies.
Let’s start from scratch. Why is being nice the strongest moral imperative at church?
Well, niceness is a sort of social lubricant.
Being polite and pleasant with one another is certainly a lovely thing, and I’m not advocating that we go out and be blunt and rude at every opportunity.
At church, we encounter really deep, important things, in scripture and theology and doctrine, and also in our lives.
We talk about ethics and social responsibility and war and poverty.
And we get married and entrust our children to baptism and have our funerals.
What happens in church is quite literally life and death, and we are scrupulously nice in order to ease and smooth over the emotional intensity of that reality.
But the problem with the tyranny of niceness is that it papers over real problems.
Because people are so well-trained to be nice, they avoid engaging in healthy conflict.
We don’t know how to disagree with one another well, to dig into problems and controversies from a loving, trusting place.
And so we go from zero to sixty in 2.5 seconds.
We live in complete denial about a necessary conflict that we need to deal with, determinedly hanging onto our idolatrous image of being a nice church.
Then when it can’t be swept under the rug for one more second, it goes nuclear, and people are screaming or not talking to each other at all, or most frequently, storming out and never coming back to church.
We’ve all seen it happen, and it is damaging for two reasons.
First, it creates festering wounds of broken relationship that linger in people’s hearts for years.
And second, it prevents the church from tackling the very controversies that could bring us tremendous growth spiritually and even numerically if we had the courage to engage in them.
Driving people away, storming off ourselves, and denying the church the ability to grow in the Holy Spirit–does that sound like loving God and loving our neighbor? No.
And that can be the legacy of the toxic underbelly of a culture of mandatory niceness.
What really drives the niceness norm is fear.
We are afraid that our relationships with one another in the church are not strong enough to bear conflict.
We don’t want people fighting or leaving, and so we avoid speaking our truths, we soft-pedal concerns, and we hide.
And the problem is that we haven’t put in the hard work of Christian community that would build relationships strong enough to withstand conflict.
We’re probably right when we fear conflict-driven catastrophe.
But we don’t have to live like that. God has shown us another way.
What drove me to delve into this topic was first, the misperception that following Jesus’ commands in our gospel story—give to everyone who asks of you, turn the other cheek, love your enemies, etc.—is just about being nice to everyone.
It is not, and we’ll get to that.
But what really jumped out at me was a line from our Leviticus text.
We’re reading lots of Ten Commandments-esqe prescriptions: “You shall not steal, you shall not deal falsely, you shall not profit by the blood of your neighbor,” etc.
Then we come to this line: “You shall not hate in your heart anyone of your kin; you shall reprove your neighbor, or you will incur guilt yourself. You shall not take vengeance or bear a grudge against any of your people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord.”
Did you hear that?
In between “you shall not hate,” and “you shall love your neighbor,” it says, “you shall reprove your neighbor.”
This is fascinating and important.
This is essentially the Old Testament way of rebuking the culture of niceness, and it matters that this is in the context of loving our neighbors.
In other words, sometimes the most loving thing to do is not to be nice.
Think about moments when you’re not worried about being nice. I’ll give you an easy example: when your toddler is about to run out into the street.
You are swift and decisive and very blunt when you grab her hand and tell her not to ever, ever cross the street without holding an adult’s hand. You are not nice.
Have you ever had to confront a loved one about substance abuse? There probably wasn’t much niceness in that conversation.
But what do those two conversations have in common?
Love. Those difficult, painful confrontations were motivated from wanting the best for the other person.
And particularly in that second example, they required risk and vulnerability.
What enables people to meaningfully engage conflict is trust.
You will not risk an unpleasant confrontation if you do not trust the other person to still love you when it’s over.
I’m arguing that this level of trust and love is lacking in our overly nice church relationships.
I’m arguing that this level of trust and love is not only possible in Christian community, but that it is transformative.
Because in a healthy relationship, one that can come through a conflict to the other side intact, the trust and vulnerability have to exist on both sides.
In order to go to someone and say, “Hey, I’m really worried when I see you do this,” or, “Hey, I was hurt when I heard you make that comment,” you have to be willing to receive that type of feedback yourself.
Being able to engage in healthy conflict is not just being able to say the hard things to other people.
We have to be able the hear the hard things about ourselves, and know that 1, they are coming from a place of love in the other person, and 2, our relationship will survive the initial anger and defensiveness that will inevitably sweep over us.
What would it be like to love and trust each other to that level of depth at St. Francis?
It would make the concept of being a “church family” real.
I say it all the time in my pre-marital counseling: one of the strongest indicators of whether a marriage will last is if the two people have the commitment to fight well, meaning not hitting below the belt, and the knowledge of how to do it.
The same thing is true about church.
In a strange and counterintuitive way, our ability to disagree in love is a marker of our strength.
Think of our church relationships as both the frontier and the practice field for learning about two other important relationships: with God and with our enemies.
At church, we have the ability to go to our emotional frontiers, to push beyond the limits of our comfort zone of niceness and get into the messy reality of deep, committed relationship.
And this is a safe environment. We can practice the risk and the vulnerability that true intimacy demands.
Then we go to the high stakes: God and our enemies.
What would it be like to give up niceness with God?
What would it be like to give up niceness with our enemies?
Niceness as I’m characterizing it here is different from politeness, which is fine most of the time, and kindness, which is a vital Christian virtue.
The type of niceness I’m talking about here is an obscuration of truth for the sake of smooth social interaction.
It is a false front.
It is saying the nice thing whether you mean it or not.
It is avoiding honesty because it’s easier.
And that is not loving.
So let us ask ourselves: how is our reflexive habit of niceness preventing us from loving?
When are we being nice instead of being good?
How do we find the courage to have the hard conversations with each other?
The reason this is so important is that most people picture loving their enemies as Jesus commands us as speaking pleasantries through gritted teeth.
They think it means disregarding injustice for the sake of avoiding conflict.
Nothing could be further from the truth.
Loving our enemies could mean telling them honestly that we fear they have been seduced by injustice.
And if we want to love our enemies, we first have to learn to love one another, and that’s going to take a lot more than just being nice.
What it comes down to is that the ingredients for loving, healthy relationship apply across the board.
How we relate to our families, to our fellow parishioners, to God, and to our enemies—they’re all related, and they demand a fundamental integrity from us.
Respect, honesty, vulnerability and trust—this is what makes up the integrity of love.
This is what Jesus means in our gospel when he says, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”
He’s not talking about being smooth, pleasant, and nice.
Perfection here means wholeness or completeness.
He’s talking about bringing our whole selves to our relationships, the good, the bad, and the ugly, and receiving that same wholeness in others, the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Only in that place of honesty, of truth, is new growth possible.
And what would it be like to see growth, not just growth between ourselves and each other, ourselves and God, but between ourselves and our enemies?
I’d be willing to risk a lot for the chance of that happening.
I’ve been at St. Francis for almost five months now. And this is such a nice church.
That’s a good thing—I’ve been at some not-nice churches, and that’s no fun.
But the great thing about St. Francis is that I believe you have the potential to be more than a nice church.
You are nice, and that’s great, but more than that, you are good.
I believe that we can be a church that truly loves one another, even when it gets messy, even when it’s hard, even when it hurts.
I know we have what it takes to go deeper, to work through conflict, and to welcome the risk of true spiritual intimacy with one another.
And that has the potential to be transformative, not just for ourselves, but for the community outside these walls.
We have worn our church niceness like armor.
It has kept out conflict and awkwardness and fear.
But it has also kept out vulnerability and intimacy and truth.
Maybe it’s time to take it off.
Ash Wednesday is just around the corner. What would it be like to give up being nice for Lent?
I’ll try it if you will.
We might just end up learning how to love.
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