Every now and again, I see a Christian make the argument that we do not need to be nice if we are Christians. Jesus turned over tables. Paul told his opponents to mutilate themselves. And therefore, boldness without the need for niceness must lead the way.
In isolation, the argument seems to make sense. But once we start to think about what that means and compare it to the total message of Scripture, we soon realize that the argument falls to pieces. And further, the argument (when acted upon) makes Christians unidentifiable to the world. And in a very real sense, harshness (an opposite of niceness) takes the Lord’s name in vain.
Why do I make such a strong and perhaps-unnice-statement? Am I a living contradiction? Well, I admit that I used strong language to make a rhetorical point, which I hope becomes clear later on. For now, let’s talk about being nice.
The Bible uses words like meekness, kindness, gentleness, and other similar terms to communicate an idea like “nice.” For example, Jesus says that The meek will inherit the earth (Matt 5:5). That is, the meek will win it all. Meekness, since it is something of an unfamiliar word to us, requires definition. The word means acting gentle, humbly, considerately, and thus meekly (BDAG, s.v. πραΰς). Jesus is meek (Matt 11:29). So whatever meekness means, it means what Jesus is.
And I would like to draw attention to one surprising passage in the Gospel according to John in which Jesus washes the feet of all the disciples. He washed, Judas’ feet even though he knew what was in Judas’ heart (John 13:11). He loved him to the end. And this provides a vital lesson for the disciples whom Jesus will shortly tell that they will receive another comforter and do greater works than he (John 14:12, 16).
What does this mean? Well, Jesus in the flesh can only affect a few hundred people at a time. But the Holy Spirit by creating a cosmic body of believers can affect many billions of people across time and geography. This is the greater work because the Spirit of Jesus lives and acts within us in a very concrete way.
In what way? The Spirit works through the church to make Jesus present among the world to the point that Jesus can say, “As I have loved you, so you must love one another” (John 13:34; 15:12). The as I have loved you is so vital. He just washed their feet. He will send his Spirit. He will die for even his enemies (John 15:13; Rom 5:10). As I have loved you means at minimum washing the feet of our friends and enemies (Judas!).
And note the result: “By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another” (John 13:35). The mark of recognizable Christianity is love, concretely defined as the Spirit of Comfort working love through the body of Christ. (n.b. This is the precise command that entails abiding in the vine in John 15). As Paul can say, “what matters is faith working through love” (Gal 5:6).
So love for others, concretely defined as service even to our enemies, defines how Jesus lived. He was meek, gentle, lowly, loving. And so should we be.
Does that mean being nice?
If nice means that we never speak boldly, then no. Paul uses exceptional language in Galatians to make an exceptional point (Gal 5:12). But that his mutilation-talk stands out already teaches us a lesson. Shocking language is only shocking because it is rare. Scarcity of harshness is the key, or else it loses its power.
And not just its power, but also the world around us will identify us as harsh. And if harsh, then they will say that Christians are mean, harsh, rude. And if that happens, then the world will now know the church not as Christ would have (due to our love for another) but as Satan would.
At baptism, we receive the name of the triune God (Matt 28:19). Then we call ourselves Christ-ians. Christ people. We take God’s name, Christ’s name to ourselves. So if we act harshly as a habit and not as the shocking exception, then our lives will be characterized not by meekness but by meanness, not by love but by harshness.
And if we bear the name of Christ, then we misuse that name by living not like Christ did through washing the feet and instead living as Satan who deceives the weak.
And so now I hope you see what I was trying to get at. Harshness has its place. But it should not characterize our total life. The world should be able to recognize our love for one another as the sign of our being in Christ. It keeps us in the vine. If we eschew niceness (however we exactly define it) and embrace harshness, we will not be recognized as Christians in the way Christ would have it. The world will see us as harsh and think that of Christ and his body.
And remember, Paul did not say speaking the truth is love (Eph 4:15). Rather, he said speak the truth lovingly (ἀληθεύοντες δὲ ἐν ἀγάπῃ). And love demands the meekness of washing the feet of even our enemies, not slam dunking on them or harshly treating them.
And that means we should be nice. Not every second of the day nor in every circumstance. Harshness has its limited place. But generally speaking, people should see us as kind, gentle, loving, and nice. Be nice, then, for the sake of Christ.