Christian love’s bastard child

Smiley face

Smile!

If you follow the conversations and events of our day, it’s clear that our contemporary culture values agreeableness over truth. Christians have fallen for this as well because the greatest Christian virtue is love, and love is patient, kind, etc. In other words, love comes off as pretty agreeable. It’s not going to interrupt. It’s not going to correct and chastise. It’s definitely not going to judge. It’s going to calm the mood and make nice.

I think that is the key word, nice. Many Christians think they’re being loving when they’re being nice and decry perceived lapses of niceness as unloving. Maybe so, but these are not the same thing even if they look and smell alike to many people. Niceness is the bastard child of Christian love, the illegitimate offspring of Christianity and the cult of agreeableness.

Playing nice or showing love?

Look at the etymology of the word. “Nice” basically means to be ignorant, to not know. It means to be polite by looking away, by playing dumb, by pretending things are not amiss. It’s the virtue of those who never “judge.” It’s also a lousy substitute for love.

A man blows his top and yells at his wife. The nice thing to do is to feign not seeing. The loving thing involves letting him know he’s out of line. A woman says she’s finally made peace with a besetting sin; she’s finally being true to herself. The nice thing to do is validate and affirm. The loving thing to do encourage her to resume the battle and help her shoulder her difficult cross. Niceness enables the addict. Love stages the intervention. Niceness holds its tongue. Love sometimes raises its voice — not always, but definitely sometimes. It has too.

The obvious fact is that these virtues bear only shallow similarities, which is how a loving Christ can be both gentle on the one hand and fierce on the other. And if you’ve read the Gospels you know he can be fierce. Being fierce isn’t nice. But sometimes it is loving.

Heaping bogus burdens

When Jesus commands us not to judge, remember the context. The Pharisees are legalists who parse every action in relation to their precious accretions to, and self-beneficial interpretations of, the law of Moses. They pile up burdens on men’s backs, says Jesus, and drag them down by the weight without lifting a finger to help.

The Sermon on the Mount is Jesus laying down a new law, one that contradicts the false law of the Pharisees. Jesus is not saying it’s wrong to have an opinion and voice it. After all, what dominates Jesus’ exchanges with the Pharisees except pointing out their errors? He’s saying that we cannot condemn our brothers as the Pharisees do, which is to say unjustly, unfairly, and unrighteously.

It’s entirely possible to love someone while criticizing and even accusing them. Jesus did it. Paul did, too. Paul loved his churches like a father. On occasion he spoke to them like badly behaving children. It wasn’t exactly nice, but neither was it judgmental and unloving. Nonetheless, based on our popular conceptions of what’s judgmental and what’s loving, about a third of the New Testament should be returned to the editor.

What’s really at stake here?

Christians face a culture that is fundamentally against them — a materialistic, mendacious, and murderous culture that rewards selfish aggrandizement, affirms self-serving delusions, and defends the marginalization and destruction of human life when it threatens our self-interest. To defend its corrupt prerogatives, it insists on tolerance and agreeableness. But call it out for what it is and see just how tolerant and agreeable it really is.

It is regrettably easy for Christians to be co-opted by this culture and simultaneously think they’re acting as paragons of Christian virtue. They do so unknowingly, uncritically, but they do so nonetheless. The result? Delusion spreads. Error goes unchallenged. And truth takes a drubbing. All the while, we think we’re doing the right thing.

This aspect of our culture is as insidious as its elevation of constant agreeableness is insipid. We can play nice and let it ride. Or we can be loving and oppose it.

About Joel J. Miller

I'm the author of Lifted by Angels, a look at angels through the eyes of the early church. Click here for more about me or subscribe to my RSS here.

  • Robert Wolgemuth

    Joel: Rejecting the fear of being considered “nice” by this comment, thank you for your post. It’s terrific. Well done. (Now I need to go find someone’s butt to kick so I can even this out.) Grateful.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Just make sure you plant the boot in love :)

  • Robert Wolgemuth

    Joel: Rejecting the fear of being considered “nice” by this comment, thank you for your post. It’s terrific. Well done. (Now I need to go find someone’s butt to kick so I can even this out.) Grateful.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Just make sure you plant the boot in love :)

  • Brenda

    Amen! I have grown weary of both niceties and its bland fruit. Delusion is spreading and it will take brave, bold love to awaken truth. Thank you so much for this.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      It’s crucial that we start making stands where and when we can. Too much at stake not to.

  • http://sheliamullican.com Shelia

    Niceness very nearly cost us a marriage. Mike and I did not want to say anything that would hurt the other’s feelings. As a result, many hurts went unacknowledged; many wrongs uncorrected. Resentments grew until they were able to masquerade convincingly as hate.

    Speaking the truth in love keeps relationships honest and clean. And, it calls forth the best in the other person. I have been the grateful recipient of hard truths. (Not always grateful in the moment, I should probably say.) I would live a life that is true, though costly.

    Thank you for this.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Thanks, Shelia. A humbling reminder about how this can play out behind doors instead of the public square.

  • http://sheliamullican.com Shelia

    Niceness very nearly cost us a marriage. Mike and I did not want to say anything that would hurt the other’s feelings. As a result, many hurts went unacknowledged; many wrongs uncorrected. Resentments grew until they were able to masquerade convincingly as hate.

    Speaking the truth in love keeps relationships honest and clean. And, it calls forth the best in the other person. I have been the grateful recipient of hard truths. (Not always grateful in the moment, I should probably say.) I would live a life that is true, though costly.

    Thank you for this.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      Thanks, Shelia. A humbling reminder about how this can play out behind doors instead of the public square.

  • Paul

    Paul instructed Timothy to exhort and rebuke with all longsuffering, and to publicly rebuke elders who sin. However, this must be qualified by further instructions of scripture. Such verses as “in meekness instructing those who oppose themselves”; “a soft answer turneth away wrath”; “when a man’s ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be a peace with him”; and other exhortations for pastors to lead with gentleness, kindness, patience and meekness. If we are not watchful of our spirit, we will use the ministry and truth as a “cloak of maliciousness”, and thereby damage precious souls. We are told to restore a brother who has a fault in a spirit of meekness because we too are subject to error and sin. Much downright meaness, pride and arrogance are manifested by Christians who rebuke and correct others in the name of Christ. We need to be sure of “what Spirit we are of” in our actions and words.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      No doubt you are right about that. I’ve funked it bad here before and even recently crossed the line. Pride and arrogance are as problematic as acquiescence, if not worse.

      Let’s add a third category of response: the clumsy. A Christian may oppose and resist cultural pressures in a clumsy, uneasy, even unattractive manner. It doesn’t mean his prideful or hateful necessarily, even if it looks so from the outside. He may be getting his feet in a particular argument.

      We are often unaware of how our culture affects our thinking. I’ve written about that here and here. As a person wakes up to certain realities he’s bound to have the sort of clumsiness that someone has when the wake up from a night’s sleep.

      It takes time to process and formulate (particularly graciously) a response to what we’re seeing and feeling sometimes. And sometimes it takes the jarring back and forth that happens when partially unformulated responses are verbalized to get our thoughts in order and nailed down. That’s just part of the process.

      We speak as fools most of the time we speak. But we may feel very intuitively and correctly that something is amiss and the situation may require a response even if it’s ill-formed and ungainly.

  • Paul

    Paul instructed Timothy to exhort and rebuke with all longsuffering, and to publicly rebuke elders who sin. However, this must be qualified by further instructions of scripture. Such verses as “in meekness instructing those who oppose themselves”; “a soft answer turneth away wrath”; “when a man’s ways please the Lord, he maketh even his enemies to be a peace with him”; and other exhortations for pastors to lead with gentleness, kindness, patience and meekness. If we are not watchful of our spirit, we will use the ministry and truth as a “cloak of maliciousness”, and thereby damage precious souls. We are told to restore a brother who has a fault in a spirit of meekness because we too are subject to error and sin. Much downright meaness, pride and arrogance are manifested by Christians who rebuke and correct others in the name of Christ. We need to be sure of “what Spirit we are of” in our actions and words.

    • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

      No doubt you are right about that. I’ve funked it bad here before and even recently crossed the line. Pride and arrogance are as problematic as acquiescence, if not worse.

      Let’s add a third category of response: the clumsy. A Christian may oppose and resist cultural pressures in a clumsy, uneasy, even unattractive manner. It doesn’t mean his prideful or hateful necessarily, even if it looks so from the outside. He may be getting his feet in a particular argument.

      We are often unaware of how our culture affects our thinking. I’ve written about that here and here. As a person wakes up to certain realities he’s bound to have the sort of clumsiness that someone has when the wake up from a night’s sleep.

      It takes time to process and formulate (particularly graciously) a response to what we’re seeing and feeling sometimes. And sometimes it takes the jarring back and forth that happens when partially unformulated responses are verbalized to get our thoughts in order and nailed down. That’s just part of the process.

      We speak as fools most of the time we speak. But we may feel very intuitively and correctly that something is amiss and the situation may require a response even if it’s ill-formed and ungainly.

  • http://brooks-joe.com immaccon

    As a Christian, what makes your faith different than that of a Muslim, a Hindu, or even the “non-faith” of an atheist? Are we able to properly explain our faith to each other, let alone someone who is desperately in need of the healing power of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ? The Four Pillars of the Kingdom is an attempt to help us do just that by laying the groundwork, in an accessible manner, of what it means to be a Christian. The pillar of belief: why do we believe as we do? The pillar of knowledge: how we obtain our knowledge through scripture, prayer and even praise. The pillar of life: what is the proper Christian life and how our actions represent Christ to the rest of the world. And the pillar of love: how all love comes from God and should flow from us to those around us. The Four Pillars of the Kingdom will challenge your relationship with Jesus but, in doing so; make it stronger and closer than you ever thought possible
    .
    Available now on Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats.

    http://bit.ly/joesbookshelf

  • http://brooks-joe.com immaccon

    As a Christian, what makes your faith different than that of a Muslim, a Hindu, or even the “non-faith” of an atheist? Are we able to properly explain our faith to each other, let alone someone who is desperately in need of the healing power of the forgiveness of Jesus Christ? The Four Pillars of the Kingdom is an attempt to help us do just that by laying the groundwork, in an accessible manner, of what it means to be a Christian. The pillar of belief: why do we believe as we do? The pillar of knowledge: how we obtain our knowledge through scripture, prayer and even praise. The pillar of life: what is the proper Christian life and how our actions represent Christ to the rest of the world. And the pillar of love: how all love comes from God and should flow from us to those around us. The Four Pillars of the Kingdom will challenge your relationship with Jesus but, in doing so; make it stronger and closer than you ever thought possible
    .
    Available now on Amazon in Kindle and paperback formats.

    http://bit.ly/joesbookshelf

  • http://gailbhyatt.wordpress.com/ Gail Hyatt

    As I read this post I realized that this is a hard one for me. Because I tend to be a peacemaker I too often opt for “nice.” Thanks for the challenge.

  • http://gailbhyatt.wordpress.com/ Gail Hyatt

    As I read this post I realized that this is a hard one for me. Because I tend to be a peacemaker I too often opt for “nice.” Thanks for the challenge.

  • http://www.dahlfred.com Karl Dahlfred

    Great post here. You’re spot on. Thanks for writing. Posting to FB and Twitter now.

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  • http://joeljmiller.com Joel J. Miller

    It’s crucial that we start making stands where and when we can. Too much at stake not to.


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