on Spurning the Idol of Niceness
Contemporary Christians have an idol, and like all idols, it’s sneaky. It masquerades as virtue, leading well-intentioned Christians to forsake their God-given duty. It goes by many names, but I call it the idol of niceness. You may also call it agreeableness, winsomeness, or something similar. Whatever you call it, niceness is not the same as kindness.
Kindness is a biblically mandated fruit of the Spirit. Kindness is vital to the Christian walk and should be pursued wholeheartedly by all believers. The Greek word used by the Apostle Paul in Galatians for “kindness” is chréstotés. It doesn’t have a perfect English translation. It doesn’t simply refer to benevolence but includes moral uprightness, righteous acts toward others, and excellence in character. Chréstotés meets the needs—the true needs, not the perceived needs—of others in a God-honoring way and does so while avoiding harshness. It’s a richer concept than simply “being nice.”
Niceness, on the other hand, carries with it for most English-speaking people connotations regarding avoiding conflict, being friendly in conversation and action, and staying out of someone else’s way. Essentially, niceness is nothing more than being polite or having manners.
Though it is understandable to get the two confused (especially if your conception of “niceness” is a mixture of kindness, gentleness, and humility—all Christian virtues), it is also extremely dangerous. And while it may be tempting to place the success of this idol at the feet of the evangelical “winsome” movement in America, it’s not that simple. Christians in the West—evangelical, Catholic, and Orthodox—all fall into this trap. To be “winsome” is not always to be God-honoring.
Christians in the West, and especially in America, have the benefit of being born into a culture saturated with Christianity inherited from ages past. Adult Christians today are living in societies that are running on the fumes of Christendom, and they have a sense that the “Christian establishment” has been running the show since long before they arrived. Many Christians feel some level of guilt about being a member of the perceived majority group, and so seek to be as meek and unimposing as possible toward the growing secular establishment—seeing themselves as simply accommodating an unfortunate minority.
To borrow Aaron Renn’s helpful framework as outlined in an article in the February 2022 First Things, perhaps they’re acting as if we are still in the pre-1994 “Positive World”—where Christianity was generally viewed as compatible with good citizenship—or, more likely, they may feel guilty that the Positive World existed for so long.
This guilt has infected so much of contemporary Christianity that professing Christians are tempted to embrace secular critical theory in one form or another and to believe the lie that they must atone for their ancestors’ wrongs—whether racial or religious. They believe that the majority is always the aggressor and that Christianity is responsible for a great number of historical injustices.
Christians who believe this narrative would do well to expand their vision, both globally and temporally, and consider the intense persecution that the Christian faith has faced since its inception. They would also do well to remember that a Christian majority is a good thing. A Christian moral foundation for a society should not be a fount of guilt but of gratitude. Christian societies are the only ones that can possibly operate on true kindness, compassion, and charity. This is impossible in Renn’s “Negative World,” where “Christian morality is expressly repudiated and seen as a threat to the public good.”
Zephram Foster is a writer and musician from Tahlequah, Oklahoma. He works in higher education and in youth ministry in a Reformed Baptist Church. He writes songs, blogs, and hosts a film podcast called Not Qualified. He has been published in American Reformer, the Theopholis Institute, and elsewhere. His various outlets can be found at www.zeffoster.com.
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