Against Being Nice

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Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work. (Ephesians 4:15-16)

“You snakes! You brood of vipers! How will you escape being condemned to hell?Therefore I am sending you prophets and sages and teachers. Some of them you will kill and crucify; others you will flog in your synagogues and pursue from town to town.And so upon you will come all the righteous blood that has been shed on earth, from the blood of righteous Abel to the blood of Zechariah son of Berekiah, whom you murdered between the temple and the altar. (Matthew 23:33-35)

“You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.” (John 8:23-24)

Christmas office parties are usually one of the worst events imaginable. You go somewhere you don’t want to go to celebrate with people you either don’t know or don’t want to celebrate with, and then get to witness awkward entertainment, both that prearranged and that which occurs spontaneously after people being, shall we say, “making spirits bright,” emphasis on the spirits.

All of the uncomfortable small talk is mind-numbing, but sometimes even worse are the introductions to someone’s significant other, friend, or whatnot. After all, what do you say to someone you have just met and have little in common with except for attending a party neither one wants to?

That doesn’t mean, of course, that one cannot get on famously with strangers, although the level of one’s eremitic spirit often determines how long the conversations last. But one thing I’ve noticed is that once the conversation ends, as the person is walking away one might make a comment to the one one came with, to the effect of: “They seemed nice.”

Of course, we use this sort of phraseology outside of the purgatorial flames of the obligatory Christmas parties. When a friend talks about someone he or she is interested in, one of the first things tend to be mentioned is that “he or she is so nice!” He’s a nice guy, she’s a nice lady; it’s as if we have determined we can reduce the spectrum on entire person to such a nondescript word that still seems to form the highlight of that person’s impression upon us.

But what exactly do we mean by “nice?” There are no doubt some shades of meaning, but at base it seems to come across as basically meaning that interaction with that person (especially the further they are removed in intimacy) is essentially frictionless. There is little to no discomfort in meeting or hanging out; even things that might seem quirky or odd can be easily smoothed over. After all, as the scriptures surely say, “affability covers over a multitude of sins.”

And naturally, there is nothing especially objectionable about this in and of itself. There are too many encounters with too many people to sketch out more than the briefest outline. So for those who generally get along with us and generate no friction in respect to our own experiences, “nice” will suffice for an epithet (and often even an epitaph).

The difficulty, however, is that we become to accustomed to “nice” that it can begin to loom larger in our minds towards the quality of relationship and deeper things than it ought. We too easily develop a taste for frictionless relationships and words and truths which do not challenge, offend or confront. This can create blind spots in our worldviews, in that that which does not rattle one’s inner apatheia can take on the luster of truth, while that which threatens to poke holes in an otherwise seamless balloon can quickly move from offensive to the dreaded “mean.”

I’ve noticed that this tendency especially infects much of modern western Christianity, in that we too often tend to trade something as rich and deep and profound as “love” for the stale substitute of “being nice.”

The first scripture quoted in the post from Ephesians 4:15-16 is one that is perennially gutted of its force due to niceness. St. Paul speaks of how we should speak the truth in love, which, in the modern vernacular, tends to mean “speak the truth as nicely as you can.”

To be sure, there is nothing objectionable about not coming out of the gate guns blazing or striving to not be intentionally offensive, although in the other passages Jesus seemed to have no difficulty in bringing the invective to bear. If one is to assert that Jesus as being God is “love,” as St. John declares, then one must conclude that there are times when the truth not only means one cannot be “nice,” but also requires it.

In part we suffer from a semantic difficulty that is centuries in the making. In the Ephesians text, the word “love” is the Greek term agape, which can certainly be translated as love but which describes a love which is very different than how we tend to use it.

In the Latin translations agape was usually rendered with the word caritas. Caritas gives the sense of a love that is directed towards the good of the other. It comes from the term carus which has the sense of dearness and costliness. The -itas stem was used to form nouns that indicated a state of being, much like how English uses -ity, -ness and -ship. Thus, it indicates a love that is always looking upon the object of caritas with a costly dearness. Its intent is not its own good, but the good of the other; it is willing to pay whatever price to remain in this state of being and to ensure that the object of its dearness is receiving the good.

However, in the modern world we tend to think of “love” far more in the sense of amor or affectus, both of which speak to affection as it relates to the appetites. Love in and of itself is an appetite, in which the subject desires to obtain the object of its affection, as it sees that object as good. It is easy to think that saying “I love you” to one’s spouse and then declaring that “I love chocolate!” indicates a bastardization of the term love, but both flow (in some respects) from the appetites, in that each “love” in the pursuit of a good.

Caritas, however, speaks to a higher love that is not exhausted by the appetites but rather transcends them. It desires not the object for the sating of the appetite’s desire, but rather for the sake of the object itself. Because of this, the good of the object of caritas is the ultimate concern of caritas. In this respect, caritas is of a supernatural origin in that it describes in as least inadequate a way as possible the love that God has for his creation, and we as God’s creation can participate in that caritas to the extent our nature and God’s grace allows.

Thus, for St. Paul to speak the truth in love has nothing to do with speaking nicely or with sufficient nuance or any of the like. Instead, to speak the truth in love means to speak the truth to others in a manner that is aimed towards their good.

We perhaps seemingly incongruously see this in Jesus’ encounter with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Much of this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel is dedicated to what one might call Jesus’ epic rant against the spiritual leaders of the Jewish people of his day. His issue with them is not actually in what they teach, as he says to his disciples that they occupy Moses’ seat and thus must be obeyed. He is not even terribly concerned with the specific rituals, as on at least one occasion he has his disciples fish for money to pay the temple tax.

Jesus’ issue is rather with their hypocrisy, in that they load up the burdens of their interpretation of the law onto the people, but don’t do anything to help them. In other words, they declare that this is the way to be pleasing to God, but then they don’t do anything to assist, thus underscoring their hypocrisy. After all, if they truly cared about the people and truly thought these things would bring them closer to God, shouldn’t their faith in that cause them to do everything they can to help the people draw closer to God? Instead, they have used the law- something that was meant by God to be a means by which his will was revealed- to effectively shut people out from drawing closer to God, thus effectively inverting the purpose of the law.

Ultimately, they don’t care about God or the people or the Law; they only care about themselves.

Jesus minces no words here, and for his trouble was ultimately crucified. He naturally offended them greatly (as his disciples reminded him), and seemed to eschew all nuance in speaking the truth to them. I’ve always wondered why Jesus went into epic rant mode; wouldn’t something far more nuanced worked here, since John the Baptizer’s similarly rant-ish approach didn’t seem especially effective?

But the more I ponder Jesus’ approach here, the more I realize he is right. After all, these are the sophisticates of their society. They know the law inside and out, as well as the various interpretations and such that surround it. But as Jesus points out- as perhaps only a blunt approach could do- they have nuanced themselves out of the kingdom of God. Their sophistication has caused them to miss the most important parts of the Law, and trying to nuance his way to that point is a failed strategy. Only blunt force trauma can succeed here, for they have to be awakened to the fact that they are deep in their sins. This is why Jesus pleads with them to believe:

“You are from below; I am from above. You are of this world; I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins.” (John 8:23-24)

This is certainly not a comfortable truth to be confronted with, and as we know from the Gospel accounts, stubbornness and hardheartedness runs deep, resulting in Jesus’ early demise. However, as was see in the Acts of the Apostles, not all the Pharisees ignored Jesus’ pleading, as there were at lest some who became believers and received the Holy Spirit.

An encounter with the truth is rarely a pleasant one. It confronts us deep within our hearts and souls, and forces us to come to grips with how far we diverge from it. Often we want to shut it out and ignore it altogether, or perhaps build a bulwark of rationalizations to avoid the implications.

Or sometimes like the Pharisees we can nuance ourselves completely out it.

The truth, as much as it can hurt, is, as Jesus says, that which sets us free. Whether we ignore the truth or are ignorant of it, it always is the true north of our good, and thus there is actually a duty for the Christian to speak the truth in love. That can involve various means and methods, certainly, but what it fundamentally means is that we must correct and even sometimes rebuke one another so that we can more fully align ourselves with the truth. To speak the truth is actually the loving thing to do; to water it down with niceness may seem loving, but mistakes the subjective experience for the objective reality.

Rarely do we come to this realization of our divergence from the truth on our own. Either we must be confronted by someone who loves us enough to tell us the truth, or the Holy Spirit or the Scriptures must bring that conviction to bear in our lives. In fact, one of the purposes that Jesus declares of the Holy Spirit is that he will both lead believers into truth, but also convict the world of sin. When we ask for the Holy Spirit to come, we might want to be careful what we ask for, for in that encounter our sins and failings will be revealed.

When it comes to sin, we all tend to have those blind spots that we cannot (or will not) see, those dark corners in our hearts that we try to keep out of sight and out of mind. These are not always easily revealed; we can know the truth but then easily rationalize why obvious deviations from the truth ultimately aren’t so bad. Sometimes we must be awakened, and often it is the most painful process in the world.

In the book of Hebrews, we are told that

The word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart. Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrews 4:11-13)

The purpose of God’s word is thus to get deep down into our very being, to lay bare our pretensions and prevarications, to sift through our motivations and get at what we really love and believe, to give us the choice to remain hard-hearted or to submit to God’s will and repent.

I’ve always found the metaphor of dividing “joints and marrow” intriguing, as I think I know exactly what that feels like. Too many times in my life I’ve had to undergo bone marrow biopsies, which essentially is a nurse practitioner or doctor taking a large (yeah, very large!) bore needle, shoving it into one’s hip and then extracting a sample of marrow to analyze. Needless to say, it is a wholly uncomfortable experience.

The interesting thing is that before the procedure the nurse injects quite a bit of anesthetic to dull the sharpness of the pain. The pain of the injection is no cake walk either, as it burns through one’s body until the feeling largely subsides.

Amusingly enough, at one of them they had a tv playing some soothing nature videos with tranquil music. Yeah, it didn’t help!

Of course, the object of the anesthetic is that one won’t feel the sharpness of the procedure; instead, the always noted “pressure” is all that one should experience. In experience, however, “pressure” as the only sensation is a bald-faced lie. Yes, there is tremendous pressure; it’s quite an unnerving feeling, for it seems that as far as the needle goes in, it still has further to go, the pressure increasing each time.

But the reality is that there is always pain, sometimes worse than others. At times it can be quite unbearable, for the procedure doesn’t always work as planned, and the sample can take some time to procure. The piercing of the needle combined with the constant pressure is a feeling that is hard to describe except by repeated moans, grimaces and hoping beyond hope that it quickly ends.

Sometimes no matter how much anesthetic is used, there is always going to be pain.

The corollary to speaking the truth in love is hopefully obvious. There are always myriad ways to speak the truth, but sometimes no matter how nuanced the words or how couched the language, the truth will always bring discomfort, and sometimes great pain. It’s something we can’t avoid unless we become completely dead to the truth, which is always a dangerous place to be. In fact, one might say that unless one is once in awhile confronted by uncomfortable or painful truths, then one might be, as Jesus warned, dead in one’s sins.

But love must sometimes inflict pain so as to bring about the other’s good. The nurse practitioner doesn’t extract bone marrow maliciously or to intentionally cause pain; she does it so as to bring about good for the patient. In a similar manner, we must never speak the truth so as to intentionally wound or inflict pain, but rather so that the one to whom we speak truth can be restored to wholeness. If this is not why we speak the truth, then caritas has eluded us.

At the end of the day, the most important people in our lives are usually those who care enough about us to tell us when we need to make a change, who love us enough to bring some discomfort in our lives so that we can attain a greater good or avoid an evil. Those are the people we remember as the ones who truly loved us, while those who are merely “nice” tend to quickly fade from memory, as they are a dime-a-dozen.

The final word goes to the writer of Proverbs, who profoundly recognized that

Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses. (Proverbs 27:6)

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Jason Watson

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