What’s Wrong With Being Nice?
I heard them at a conference for missionaries. They were not comfortable with that word because, as they patiently explained it, Jewish people see missionaries as those who are trying to convert them. They chortled on and on about their witness and how they showed love to everyone. Then, positioning the capstone of evidence to validate their ministry, she said for the two of them, We not only count rabbis all over the country as our friends, but every rabbi in our city appreciates and approves of what we are doing.”
The crowd applauded. Usually I don’t applaud for speakers, but even if I were in the habit of doing so, I would not have applauded then. I was downhearted. My discouragement came from Scripture. I remembered the words of Yeshua: “Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! For so did their fathers to the false prophets” (Luke 6:26). At the outset of that couple’s presentation, I had found myself almost enraptured with their enthusiasm, the way they had presented their “witness,” their verve, their attractiveness and their skill as communicators. But their statement about gaining the approval of the rabbis flashed me a red light warning. It embodied one of the greatest fallacies in modern Christendom.
It is not a fallacy of doctrine but an error of approach. The false method works like this: as we go out into the world to proclaim the gospel, we should do so many good things for people and be so nice to them that they will observe the superiority of our way and be ready to discard their traditional religion in order to embrace ours.
This approach does not work because it does not take into account the sinful nature of the human heart. That is not merely a New Testament doctrine. The prophet Jeremiah (17:9) talked about being deceived by one’s own heart. Paul, the greatest evangelist in Bible history, that former rabbi who is the pattern for all modem missionaries, said something very discouraging for evangelists who would rely only on methodologies or personal charm. In 1 Corinthians 2:14 he states that persuasion toward the gospel on a merely human level is virtually impossible because “the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God…because they are spiritually discerned.”
There is much talk in evangelistic circles these days about people being turned on or turned off to the gospel. Yet resistance to the gospel and rejection of the person of Christ is the natural, normal attitude for an ordinary person. We must face the fact that in our natural state we are all turned off to God. Our sin nature keeps us from being “turned on.” By our very character, we humans do not want to know God—at least not the God who will subject us to death at Calvary in order to become his new creation. In our humanity, we don’t want the old things to pass away. We don’t want to become the new people Paul described in 1 Corinthians 5:7.
Another fallacy about communicating the gospel is that somehow we must present ourselves most agreeably to those we want to evangelize. At times evangelism should be done this way, but it’s not an all-time, always thing. Though we ought to build bridges of friendship toward proclaiming the gospel, that will not always work without a direct witness. We must understand that sometimes we may lose some friends when we tell them the most important facts of our lives and theirs.
On one hand, we see the Apostle Paul on Mars Hill pointing to an altar to the unknown god and gently telling the Athenians that he came to tell them about that unknown god. On the other hand, we see Peter before a group of Jews in the Temple where he had gone to worship, saying, “But ye denied the Holy One and the Just, and desired a murderer to be granted unto you; And killed the Prince of life, whom God hath raised from the dead, of which we are witnesses” (Acts 3:14,15).
Such a statement could do only one of two things. It could offend or it could penetrate hardened hearts so that they could see God’s truth. We must recognize that when the Holy Spirit is dealing with a human heart, such a candid approach may be best. The consequence of sin before a holy God is a bitter, deadly serious matter. If we try to sugarcoat the bitter pill, it may be mistaken for candy and its seriousness lost.
Another fallacy maintains that some ways of presentation will automatically cause people to be offended, while others will automatically cause them to be receptive. This notion fails to take into account the personal principles by which a person chooses to be offended or chooses to be open. Whether or not a person is offended is usually more a matter of choice, particularly when the reaction comes as a response to expressed ideas. People do have control over how they let themselves feel about ideas and doctrines.
For example, when my wife became a Christian, I had no previous personal anger against the Christian religion. I just thought it was weird and didn’t want to follow it, and I was uneasy that my wife was so interested in it. When she made a commitment to Christ, I thought it was my duty as a Jew to be angry. At that point I chose to behave in an angry and destructive way, to make life as unpleasant as possible for her, in order to show her my disapproval of the Christian religion. When she was loving and sweet in return, that only served to infuriate me more.
A committed Jew does not mind finding out that Christianity is “nice.” The anger sets in only when that niceness is perceived as seductive or threatening to propel him or a member of his family or close circle of friends toward faith in Christ.
Many Gentile non-Christians also feel this way. To deal with this reaction, a new “religion” has evolved in the Western world, or at least in the English-speaking world. I call it “nice-ism.” Its main tenet is that everyone should be nice to everyone else, and it doesn’t matter what people believe or how they vote or even what they do, as long as they don’t hurt anyone.
The religion of “nice-ism” has very few commandments: 1. Be agreeable; 2. Don’t bother people; 3. Never insist that you’re right; 4. Don’t even say that you are right if it means saying that someone else is wrong. The only real sin against “nice-ism” is doing what really bothers another person.
I would like the luxury of having everyone feel affection toward me, but if I am going to be who I am and do what I think God wants me to do, I cannot afford that luxury. I have found that whether or not most people believe the gospel I’m preaching does not depend on whether or not I’m nice to them. It depends on what God is doing in their hearts when they hear what I have to say.
The missionary who discipled me in the Lord was a strict person. She insisted on doing her duty in a proper manner, no matter how I felt about it. She wanted more of my time and attention than I wanted to give, but she didn’t want it for herself. She wanted my time and attention for God. That caused me to consider her a nuisance at times because I didn’t always want to learn as much as she wanted to teach me. I found myself making excuses and trying to avoid her, but she wouldn’t let me. Nevertheless, I had enough respect for the Lord to know that even though this missionary lady was very demanding of me, she was acting on his behalf for my good. I am alarmed to think how much less my life would have been if I had rejected her teaching merely because I thought she was making a pest of herself.
Sometimes those who place personal acceptance and popularity above other principles do not make the best teachers, and they certainly do not make the best prophets and apostles. Most of us remember one of our schoolteachers who was greatly beloved because he or she didn’t require much work of the students and allowed things in the classroom that other teachers would not. At the time those lenient teachers were well-liked, but perhaps later we felt deficient in the area of knowledge they should have given us had they been more strict.
Niceness sometimes fails as dismally as nastiness when it comes to a personal posture of proclamation. Of course we should not be deliberately offensive, but in evangelism we must not be afraid to announce a disturbing truth when necessary.
The Lord needs people who are willing to preach his gospel, who are willing to say what he has told them must be said. He needs Spirit-led people who are determined to do their duty in an honorable manner whether or not they are approved, appreciated and accepted when they speak the truth.
To add a targum (paraphrased Jewish explanation) to the crucial text of Zechariah 4:6: It is not by the might of man’s acceptability, nor by the power of a persuasive personality, but by God’s Spirit that things will be accomplished for him.
May the Lord give us strength to set aside the device of agreeability by which we seek to influence others, and may he help us always to speak what agrees with his truth. May he empower us to override our need to be liked by the knowledge that we must speak lovingly, tactfully, but truthfully, even if what we say might offend. May he give us the vision of souls perishing without Christ in contrast to the glory of his presence, so that spiritual realities might always be in our sight. May he grant us the faith to set aside our natural inclinations and be sensitive to the leading of the Holy Spirit to make known the name of Jesus among all people!