Monday, June 17, 2019

Anonymous Asks (45)

“Do I have to be nice to everyone?”

It very much depends on what you mean by “nice”. Christians often confuse being nice with being good. But the word “nice” is never used in our English Bibles.*

There are solid reasons for this. “Nice” is an awkward word, very much open to being misinterpreted. I can understand why Bible translators would make an effort to avoid its potential ambiguities. Its original meaning (now obsolete) was “wanton” or “dissolute”. Later, it came to mean “fastidious” or “exacting”. (For example, to make a “nice” distinction was to make a distinction so subtle that a lot of people would fail to grasp it.) All these historic ways of using “nice” are various degrees of negative.

Today, “nice” has come to mean “pleasing”, “agreeable” or “polite”. That is probably the way you are using it. Let’s go with that.

The Polite Christian

If we are talking about politeness, my answer would be a cautious “yes”. As a Christian, it almost never hurts to start a relationship politely, even if it goes sour quickly. The apostle Peter says Christians are to treat even their persecutors with “gentleness and respect”. This is a good default position for believers dealing with the unsaved even when they are doing hurtful things to us, as our purpose here is to win them to Christ. In fact, the Lord set this very example when on the cross. Concerning the soldiers who crucified him, he cried, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.” This was true. They really didn’t. Not completely.

However, the reason I offer this suggestion cautiously is that the same Peter who urges gentleness and respect in one context also speaks of men whose “condemnation from long ago is not idle, and their destruction is not asleep.” He calls these men “bold and willful” blasphemers. He calls them “ignorant” and compares them to “irrational animals” and “creatures of instinct”. He says they have “eyes full of adultery” and “hearts trained in greed”.

In this second case, nobody would call Peter’s language polite. But he is speaking of a completely different group of people than he is in 1 Peter. These are con artists who have wormed their way into churches pretending to be caretakers of God’s people so they can teach Christians falsehood. For their own good and for the good of the churches, they need to be exposed, not coddled. If Peter had spoken politely about these men, he would surely have increased their following and done his fellow Christians a grave disservice.

Because of this, Peter does not mince words. I think he sets us a fine example. We need to be very clear when facing up public, rebellious sin among people who call themselves Christians. Anything less is unfaithfulness.

But would most people call that “nice”? Probably not.

The Pleasing and Agreeable Christian

If we are using the word “nice” in the sense of “pleasing” or “agreeable”, again I would have to qualify my answer. I’ll handle these two words together, because they both refer primarily to how one is received by others, not how you present yourself.

The apostle Paul says, “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God.” That seems pretty clear on the face of it, until you read the book of Acts and realize that Paul spent the better part of most days of his life offending people, especially Jews. His message was not something they wanted to hear, so however carefully he shared the truth of God, significant numbers always took serious offense. Many tried to kill him.

Look, people react the way they react. If you are speaking to someone who is already angry and looking for an excuse to hurt you, even speaking politely will not help endear you to him. He may find your words “disagreeable” and “unpleasing” even if you walk on verbal eggshells around him.

If what’s offensive is your delivery, you are probably doing something wrong. If what’s offensive is the message of the gospel, which is “folly to those who are perishing”, that’s probably an indication you are doing something right. For those who are not socially adept or who are inexperienced with sharing the gospel, the difference is sometimes difficult to spot. The important thing is not to cause unnecessary offense. To the Romans, Paul says, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.”

But sometimes keeping the peace doesn’t depend on you, does it?

Being “Nice”

It’s not enough to take an apostolic proof text about being polite or agreeable and conclude from it that Christians should always adhere to present-day social standards of “niceness” and tolerance. We need to look at what the apostles said and did as they took the gospel into the Gentile world to learn how they lived out what they taught. Only then will we understand when to be gentle and respectful and when not to be; when to worry about giving offense, and when to live with the fact that it is sometimes impossible not to.

So must you be nice to everyone as a Christian? No, definitely not. But if you shoot for doing good to everyone as you have opportunity, I think you’ll be on the right track.

* I’ll stand by that one. There is a single reference to “nice” in the NASB translation of Jeremiah 12:6, but it seems to me a weak way to represent the Hebrew towb in English. No other major translations use the word “nice” at all. The word towb is normally translated “good”, “pleasant”, “agreeable” or “valuable”. In Jeremiah, however, it is used to describe the deceptive language of treacherous men. In their case, being “nice” meant being liars. That’s hardly commendable behavior to urge on the people of God.

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