Does Goodness Always Mean Niceness?

 

In the 1986 movie “Top Gun”, Iceman (Val Kilmer)  is threatened by the gifted but reckless fighter pilot Maverick (Tom Cruise). Competitors for the Top Gun trophy, Ice is the cool, methodical one who goes by the book. Mav flies by instinct whose talent is as much art as science. In one scene, Iceman approaches Mav in the locker room and tries to psyche him out with shame, “You know what you’re problem is Mav? You’re…..dangerous.” Maverick interprets “dangerous” as a compliment and gets nose to nose, “That’s right Ice….man, I am……dangerous.” The expression of Iceman is great drama as he snaps his jaw and walks away. To be good, Maverick had to fly in a way that was dangerous.  

We‘ve become skeptical and suspicious of niceness. And for good reason. Too often being nice has been a cover for people wanting something, for abusing someone, or as a substitute for integrity. And we don’t trust it. Furthermore, niceness seems weak. Many men first learned this lesson in high school, that this world requires something for success other than just being nice. Despite our most pious and chivalrous foot forward, the wholesome girl we admired fell for the bad boy. “What did she see in him”? we wondered. Maybe the simplest woman wanted to know she was pursued with a radical desire that bad boys seemed to posses. No, niceness is not a pure synonym for goodness.  

Being good sometimes means having a little edge to our personality. Several years ago the artful Roger Federer, #1 tennis player in the world, was playing a tournament in Miami. John McEnroe commented that Roger had just won the sportsmanship award on tour for the second year in a row. About a minute later, not knowing what McEnroe had said, Roger lost a point and slammed his racquet on the court in a rare display of anger. The message was as clear as it was ironic, dispelling any notion that being good always meant being “nice.”  

 Declawed Christianity

With his followers sporting leather jackets, black concert t-shirts, tattoos and skulls, Satan is billed as the tough guy power in the world- the one you call when you really want something done right and done now. Because of a misconception, Jesus is viewed as some willowy carpenter guy who lived 2000 years ago and walked around with Jesus Freaks in sandals eating bird seed. A good person maybe, but irrelevant. We don’t believe deep down that Christ has enough machismo to kick modern problems in the butt and we’ve subconsciously sold out to the enemy in many chambers of our hearts. By diabolical design, we harbor a secret shame about resurrection power as being able to meet the demands of a fierce world.  

A lot of the lies we believe about the Christian life were laid down in our pain. In our meager attempts at spiritual warfare, we’ve made subconscious agreements with Satan who bullied us into compliance with the oath: “ O.K. I won‘t buck the system again with too much godly living.” We’ve become declawed and made an assumption somewhere deep down that “maybe I’m not nice enough”. We’ve eased up, appeased, become flattery, people pleasy, all because of a distortion of what godliness means. We’ve niced down in our pain in the wrong areas, and given up on changing the world with a vision of the gospel God gave us. We’ve retreated with our tails between our legs and vowed with Satan not to live to our potential or above the level of mediocrity if he’ll just ease up on those assaults. We’ve compromised with the wrong entity.  

We’ve been hoodwinked that niceness is a synonym for goodness and many a church has posed for this portrait. A phlegmatic personality is often confused for temperance and churches elect elders who look mature when really they’re passive, dead, out of touch with their own hearts and lack a holy passion. The church is full of reliable yet cauterized pastors who wear blinders to the deeper thoughts of life that pepper the soul, preferring to spray the audience with second hand points of theology extricated from a commentary. But truth that changes lives is dangerous. Dangerous teaching is the product of a life that grapples with Scripture first hand, gets keen insight, and delivers risky application into the varieties of human suffering. One pastor said, “your teaching will never lack passion if the truths you teach are run through yourself first.”  

To say someone is a nice guy may be a compliment; but it may not be. More information is required. It may mean a man has boundary problems, has been immasculated emotionally, is complaint, passionless, dominated by fear or is passive aggressive. A man may appear to be a good candidate for eldership because he is easy going, when really he lacks passion, and discernment and insight. And people can be  benevolent, contribute to the community, pleasant to everyone and still hold an inner defiance towards God. The alignment of the heart and not the flatteries of the tongue determine if a person is truly good. Niceness is too simple a characterization.  

One pastor of a church that has gone soft said recently, “Christianity is too mean today- with our picket lines and demonstrations”. On the contrary; we’re too nice. We’re compliant in the essentials and rigid in the nonessentials. The culture war is being lost because the church is afraid of conflict, the passivity of which characterized Christianity in Nazi Germany in the 1930’s. If we spent more time battling real issues in the heart, Satan would be more threatened by our worship gatherings. Insecure about the nature of conflict with the world, churches are trying appease with the world when they should be stirring a holy discontent with it. We don’t apologize for that. If society has lost it’s way, it’s because the church has loved the wrong things. Love is not at odds with the flaming fire of God’s holiness, and though frightening to be around, it is good. The weight of holiness is intolerable and attractive at the same time.  

 Misappropriated Masculinity                                   

There is so much schlocky thinking pervading the Christian culture about godliness, like always say “yes”, never be negative, be a “good boy”, avoid conflict. Somewhere tameness became the hallmark of Christian maturity. Though church involvement is important, godliness has become tantamount to sitting in the pew like an altar boy looking humble, whatever that means. As someone has said the church may be masculine on the outside but has gone feminine on the inside. With the sissification of our culture and the “dumb dad” motif on TV sitcoms, the highest goal of Christianity has come to be reflected in the bumper sticker, “Just Be Nice.” We have rebelled against the nature of masculinity even if it appears unrefined, casual, and contemporary.  

John Eldredge stuck the landing: “Christianity, as it currently exists, has done some terrible things to men. When all is said and done, I think most men in the church believe that God put them on earth to be a good boy. The problem with men, we are told, is that they don’t know how to keep their promises, be spiritual leaders, talk to their wives, or raise their children. But, if they try real hard they can reach the lofty summit of becoming…a nice guy. That’s what the world hold up as models of Christian maturity: Really Nice Guys.”  

Because of a system wide assault on masculinity, men have stopped living from their hearts. They’re told they’re not the gender that are the experts in love, that they’re emotionally primitive and have a one tracked mind. If they do become skilled in some area, they are left alone with scarcely a women to appreciate it. The godly persistence of masculinity is something the post modern world has rebelled against. As one man calls it, “the westward expansion against the masculine soul”. The truth is men see things women don‘t, protect in ways women can’t and are in tune with things women aren’t. One lady said her husband knows exactly how many blinks are on the crosswalk at each stop light before it turns green, just to have an awareness of his schedule to work; she can’t understand why he is in tune with things like that. The technical mind is an advanced mind and more often than not a male mind. What is blamed on testosterone could be masculine intelligence. Male competitiveness stems from an instinct to discern and defend against evil, to advance a position and survive in a never ending process of diligence, often requiring complicated decisions in nanoseconds. Fighting evil in all it’s subtleties, and being deemed the spiritual leader of the home, is not for the simple minded. This part of the masculine soul is being deadened.  

Does a man who comes to Christ have to stop fighting evil in a way that is masculine to him? Masculinity superintended with the Spirit can discern the subtleties of evil in ways only it can. Not having time to explain himself, a missionary in Africa yelled at his son who was playing in a tree to “come down immediately”. The child’s decision in the next few seconds would determine his fate. Would he rebel at the harsh but immediate tone of his father and stay in the tree, or would he trust in the heart of his father and get down? The child didn’t know there was a deadly Green Mamba slithering towards him through the leaves that his father saw from another perspective. Fortunately the son listened. The forcefulness of the father’s tone had nothing to do with a power trip or being nice. It was about bigger issues of discernment and urgency in matters of life and death. Can a man be allowed to lead and discern the forces of evil that seek to break up his home in a way that only he sees?  

Sure men can be boisterous, annoying, even chauvenistic, but we have rebelled against the discernment that only masculinity can bring. Even though Adam gets the dubious distinction of being credited with the sin nature, it was Eve who rebelled first out of deception.  Adam’s sin was willful, but he was not deceived. The world needs real men, if not for their physical strength, then their discernment and judgment. Because of an anit-establishment mentality and gender confusion that has pervaded our culture for the last 40 years, we don’t like to hear that man came before woman. But it’s the created order and reflects the authority of the cosmos.  Paul said, “for man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake” I Corinthians 11:9.

Sometimes being a man, leading, and fighting evil can be so intense that it tips over into irascibility, goodness being misinterpreted as meanness. Reflecting on the war years, Winston Churchill’s secretary wrote of her boss: “There is no doubt he was a very hard task master. He drove us. And he rarely gave praise. But he had subtle ways of showing his approval, and we would not have it otherwise. He worked so hard himself and was so absolutely dedicated to the task at hand that he expected the same from others….And in time we who worked for him realized that…we had the rare privilege of getting to know the beauty of his dynamic, but gentle character.” Though imperfect at times, Churchill is hailed as a paragon of character, statesmanship and fidelity. And his fierceness against the evils of Nazi Germany was actually goodness for the free world.  

Niceness is fine as far as it goes, but it’s not what has changed the world. For good and sometimes bad, the contours of history have been shaped by men. It wasn’t niceness that allowed Columbus to brave the elements and forge on to discover a new world. It wasn’t niceness that motivated Thomas Edison to rebuild his workshop after a devastating fire and eventually discover the light bulb and telegraph. It wasn’t niceness that inspired George Washington and the Continental Army to persevere 8 long years against the lustful tyranny of British rule in the American Revolution. It wasn’t niceness that drove Paul to battle himself and traverse over 75,000 miles in 4 missionaries journeys over rough terrain and stormy seas to share the gospel to a barbaric empire. It wasn’t niceness that kept Martin Luther to his convictions upon threat of death against the heresies and abuses of the Catholic Church. It wasn’t niceness that lead Galileo to trust his observations that the world was round in the face of execution. These men had a steely grit and a rugged determination to fulfill their mission and do what was right and good no matter the opposition.  

And it wasn’t niceness that brought the Savior toe to toe with Satan and his guarded secret of sin in the human heart. He did battle with tameness and hesitancy and faced a violent death by crucifixion. Though many interpret his death as stupidity and failure, Jesus actually outsmarted the world in dying for sin voluntarily. Atoning for sin was a seriously courageous affair and not exactly “nice.” As one man said, Christ didn’t die to make bad men good. He died to make dead men alive.  

If goodness is not niceness per se, what is it? Many men have done some adventurous things, know the intricacies of battle in fascinating arenas of business or the outdoors. But fierceness today seems to be merely outward: growing a gotee, getting an ear ring, wearing expedition clothes, or contorting facial muscles to get character lines as though we’re veterans of 17 journeys to the Congo. These can evidence some aspects of character. But godliness is an internal battle. It is warfare with oneself, a ruthless battle with self control against the impulses of sin in the heart. It is pouring ruthless contempt on pride with a distrust against native thoughts and expressions of the flesh. This is what is meant by being a member of the VOFW, a veteran of many foreign wars and invasions in the heart. Over time a pattern of victory emerges, expressed in gentleness, grace, and holiness. Niceness alone doesn’t get that job done.  

Being dangerous is not going around showing everybody how tough we are and picking fights. That is not what godliness is. A man who loves violence is a mass of misappropriated masculinity. He has been too nice in not forcefully removing indulgent thoughts of bitterness and revenge. A hairpin trigger against every sleight is a counterfeit to character, resentment an inferior form of righteous indignation. Habitual, impulsive, sinful responses to the frustrations of life is not strength. In ways not otherwise possible, a violent man can become a gentleman through a proportionate radical worship of the Lord.  A gentleman is a decent man, but not because he is weak man. He is gentle out of abundance, able to stoop because he is higher. Just as Churchill’s secretary said, underneath all of the grit was a “gentle character.” True niceness has been battle tested and the memories of courage and victory against overwhelming odds act as unending pools of confidence by which we continually draw upon. Past victories act as safe places of esteem that nobody can touch. We knows we did it and have what it takes. Gentleness goes beyond passivity. A good man is not one who has never been in the arena, but has been there, has won, and doesn’t need to win every conflict. We’ve misidentified the journey and the product of true goodness.  

 The Surprising Interactions of Jesus

To be sure, Jesus’ heart was good, tender, gentle and nice but even Jesus did some things that could be considered quirky and “mean” to his own people. A few thoughts on church and spiritual warfare in our minds. We may need a gritty resolve to the people of God as we do in resisting the cultural assaults from the world system. It takes a while to learn this because it feels mean to firm. But sometimes we have to strap on our armour as we enter the door of a church as much as we do a bar. It’s been said for years how we need to be more real at church and drop our guards. But not at all costs. Dropping our guards witht he wrong people can do more damage. Church is a haven for unhealthy people and that’s why many of them are there, as a last resort. It’s the best place to address issues, but that doesn’t mean no boundaries. For some reason there is a subtle message that serving has come to mean enabling the sins of others. 

As for our own selves, Satan loves church and sometimes we have to battle our own thoughts and insecurities to get what we need, the process akin to getting psyched up for battle. This doesnn’t feel good and has nothing to do with niceness. As Jesus “despised the shame” by going to the cross, we need to despise the shame of a divorce, singleness, or other afflictions as we go to church.

Let’s see how “nice” Jesus was in issues that matter. On two occasions, one at the beginning of his ministry and one at the end, Jesus, in a fit of righteous indignation, walks into the temple courtyard and flips over the tables of the dishonest money changers. (Careful: it may be a misinterpretation of the text to go and overturn the muffin tables at the next ladies bake sale.) The displays of irritability act as bookends on his public ministry. His desire for pure worship was greater than the stigma of instability small minded people would put on him. Jesus shows it’s possible to be angry and not sin. He was a man of peace, but never out of weakness, insecurity, or low self-esteem. Meekness is not weakness. It’s strength under control. If there is no superior power, from what is there to restrain? If there is no stature, from what is there to stoop? Jesus was the perfect man, but he showed it’s possible to have a little fire in the belly and still have a good heart.  

On one occasion, Jesus was invited to have lunch at the home of a Pharisee. Instead of feeling ingratiated like we would at finally arriving at a place of recognition in this world, Jesus sensed something foul and stayed with truth. He used the occasion to call out the sins of pride, greed, and hypocrisy of the leadership that affected the whole nation. Talk about being undiplomatic. This prompted one of the lawyers to reply, “Teacher, when you say these things, You insult us also” (Luke 11:45). To which Jesus replied with another pointed condemnation right in his face! Going to lunch with the leaders of a false system, built on the shifting values of a phony world had nothing to do with who Jesus was. He was bigger than that. Jesus had nothing to do with selfish ambition and was only concerned with what pleased the father. With such important spiritual ramifications, when is niceness the highest virtue?

Coming down from the Mount of Transfiguration, Jesus was probably a little tired as much from the high of seeing the Father as from pulling an all nighter. He was approached by a man whose son was experiencing seizures from a demonic encounter, and the disciples were powerless to help. Jesus replied in an annoyed tone: “You faithless and corrupt people! How long must I be with you and put up with you?” Lest anybody think he was heartless, he turns to the man and sighs, “Bring your son here” and heals him (Luke 9:41 NLT). Being subject to a mood swing after an emotionally draining affair, or being a little short with thick people apparently wasn’t sin.  

Jesus didn’t have a perfect record of smooth interactions everywhere he went and he didn’t feel false guilt about it. Sometimes he had power struggles, personality conflicts, and collisions with darkness without apology. Jesus constantly battled the shame tactic of “not playing well with others.” We recall easily that he was the most humble and loving man who ever lived; we forget his righteousness seemed to stir things up wherever he went. On occasion he was controversial and his ministry was marred by conflict. Being labeled “crazy”, “demon possessed”, and a “blasphemer” didn’t occur by going around by just being nice. His presence was so substantive that it was an invasion to a frail, corrupt, status quo world. There are times being a Christian will label you a trouble maker no matter how humble your approach.  

Jesus struck a balance in having a tough skin while maintaining an a pure heart. He taught his followers: “Behold I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves; therefore be shrewd as serpents, and innocent as doves” (Matt.10:16). We have the innocent as doves thing down, but the ‘shrewd as serpents’ thing?  We’re confused us because of a false idea of niceness. On another occasion, knowing the culture was rejecting his offer for the kingdom, Jesus counseled his followers to carry a couple of short swords as measures of protection against a cruel world (Luke 22:36). Jesus was a realist. A lot of people don’t know that and flies in the face of being vulnerable, ignorant, and nice. 

In his parable of the dishonest manager, Jesus tells of the steward of a rich man who squandered his possessions in poor dealings and was going to be fired. The manager thinks quick and takes initiative in recovering some of the man’s money by settling with creditors, with the hope of a job offer somewhere else for his creative diligence. Jesus emphasized one thing about the world system that he liked: “people of the world are more shrewd in dealing with their own kind than are the people of the light” (Luke 16:8). The dishonest money manager wasn’t praised for his dishonesty. Jesus was making a point to be voracious for the future of your soul at all costs, even if it went against the rigid paradigm of “niceness” and passivity. 

There were occasions when Jesus actually called people, “a brood of vipers,” “white-washed tombs”, and “hypocrites”. These words actually came from the mouth of Jesus, words that sound awfully close to bordering on slander. But apparently they weren’t sin. With such big issues as governmental and religious leaders blocking the righteousness of God, he could risk false guilt by having an edge on his attitude knowing the Father wouldn’t condemn him.  

True Perceptions of Godliness

God is not just a cosmic teddy bear we can squeeze when life hurts. He is the Commander in Chief of the universe who directs us to get in line with higher realities. The Christian life is a safe refuge, a shelter in the time of storm. But it’s not just that. It is an advancing life in tempestuous arenas of evil, cruelty, and deception. Who says the holy life is for altar boys? There are times we’re so frail and disillusioned with the deceptions of the world that we create mini Bible study environments everywhere we go: we only feel comfortable working in a “Christian” company, or listening to modern Christian songs (regardless of the theology), talking about Bible verses in every conversation, or playing Bible trivia at parties. But eventually after our seasons of frailty and recovery, we go off and do battle again as part of the normal cycle as “when kings go off to war”, which is anything but nice and pretty.  

Can we be heroic for kingdom interests and still live in a real world? Truth by definition is relevant. And truth is often marred my conflict, especially in a morally decadent culture gone soft. It’s an interesting connection how violence, the imposter to strength, is always just under the surface of the morally indulgent. Even David said “I have kept from the paths of the violent” Psalm 17:4. Is there room for a David like mentality in the modern church? Though he was soft and goughy before the Lord, David was a man’s man, gifted leader, brave warrior, skilled writer and never lost a military battle. Perhaps melting in God’s presence regularly is the secret to not only discerning evil, but also getting the strength to stand against it. Laid out before the holiness of God is not for the faint of heart. David proves we can have a fire in the belly for the Lord, and still be sensitive. Maybe fierceness is risking the appearance of being a goody two shoes in standing for values that are lasting?  

God is in the business of taming savage hearts to be clean sharp instruments in a corrupt world. If true godliness is always counter-cultural, then how is that tameness? The world likes to pigeon hole religiosity as niceness, but true a understanding of Scripture portrays a man of God as dangerous to systems cemented in status quo. Grace is threatening to a flimsy world. If our efforts are a little rogue for kingdom interests, we should take comfort in the fact that even Jesus didn‘t always “play well with others.” It wasn‘t the warm fuzzies of the gospel that got Christ killed. In fact it may not be possible to get anything accomplished without first angering the statue quo. Risking a person’s anger may be the first step towards change. We may have to take a chance at being labeled “proud” or “angry” by a world that misunderstands if we’re going to get something done.  

The world marginalizes true goodness as being wimpy and irrelevant perhaps because it’s really weighty, intrusive, even oppressive. If Jesus was so inconsequential, effeminate, and impotent, why did Satan target Him so much and why was he killed? Like the sun peering through the clouds on a dark day, His authority and judgment occasionally slipped through his interactions as a precursor of things to come. But we shouldn’t be mistaken. When Christ returns again, it’s no more Mr. Nice guy. Eldredge has rightly observed, “the next time Jesus comes he will be mounted on a steed of war, his robe dipped in blood.”  

Godliness ultimately results in a refined character. But a man who desires God’s heart is by definition good and nice even if his approach is gruff and extreme in attitude. The abrasions by which a good man leaves on the world are minor compared to the thorns that have pierced his heart. And yet when a man enters ministry, he has been trained by the thorns, been strengthened by them. A public resolve comes from private suffering. His ministry often stems out of his wounds, the pain of which is anything but nice. As Tozer said, “If God wants to use a man greatly, he must hurt him deeply”. It’s always pain before pleasure. If we see a true man of God, we know that at some point his exposure to the holiness of God was anything but comfortable, nice, and easy. The Christian life leads one to that sacred place of suffering in his own heart. As a` Kempis said, “A man must strive long and mightily within himself, before he can learn to fully master himself.” So how is godliness merely niceness?  

The prophets of the O.T. strove long and mightily within themselves before going public. They are an intriguing bunch because their quirky personalities are as memorable as their bold attitudes. Many of them would often come out of the woodwork, say their peace against the compromised leadership of the nation, and disappear in anonymity, avoiding any praise and admiration. They were good even though dangerous. The Old Testament was like the untamed old west where being a man of principle was anything but nice and easy. The prophets often risked their lives speaking truth to power. On one occasion, in 795 B.C. king Amaziah successfully defeated the heartless Edomites. But he became intrigued with the powerless gods of the people he just defeated and worshipped them! So God sent an unnamed prophet to confront him. In the midst of his rebuke, the king interrupted and said, “Have we appointed you a royal counselor? Stop! Why should you be struck down?” Not backing down an inch, the prophet replied, “I know that God has planned to destroy you, because you have done this, and have not listened to my counsel.” That’s the last we hear of this prophet. (II Chronicles 25:14).

Backing up a few years, Amaziah’s father Joash fell away from the Lord, letting temple worship decline and be replaced by Canaanite fertility rites. Zechariah, the son of a well respected prophet was sent to tell the people they had forsaken God. This enraged the people and the king and they stoned him to death, his blood splattering the temple courtyard! (II Chronicles 24:17-22). So godliness means niceness?  Violence is never very far in a morally decadent culture when truth is spoken. The prophets were the authentic believers and the entitled priests in the leadership of cultural, mainstream Judaism were the phony lightweights.  

Goodness will be misinterpreted in a warped culture. Just like the prophets, Christians can be quirky, weird, have chemical imbalances, and sometimes be hard to be around. But they’re hearts are good. There is a place for winsomeness and gentleness because “when a man’s ways are pleasing to the Lord, he makes even his enemies be at peace with him” (Proverbs 16:7). But having a little grit and fire under the belly towards evil in a stubborn world is also biblical at times. To be sure, goodness is godliness but not with the religious stereotypes once thought.  

Copyright 2010 by Scott Chandler. All Rights Reserved.

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About Scott Chandler

As a trained academician, Scott speaks to the issues of our culture with an emphasis on apologetics.
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