The last time Sharon Hodde Miller wrote in this space, she briefly mentioned the ways “niceness” was blurring her motives. She wondered if she was a nice Christian because of Jesus, or because being nice got her things. Since then, she hasn’t been able to stop thinking about that idea–the false virtue of niceness in our culture, and the bad fruit it bears in our lives. She is also dreaming about what might happen if we cast off the nice girl image to really follow Jesus—the Savior who had courage, conviction, and radical compassion, but was never simply nice. It’s a grace to welcome Sharon back to the farm’s front porch today…
It was a Friday night and a crowd of women streamed into the fellowship hall to find their seat.
The event was being promoted as a “Girls Night Out” featuring artisan coffee, homemade desserts, a pop-up boutique in the lobby, a charismatic emcee, and the most beautiful centerpieces you have ever seen.
I sat near the front and gazed out at the faces coming in. They grinned and hugged and giggled with their friends, ready for an evening to relax. For many of these women, this was a once-a-year treat, and I could hear it in the pitch of their laughter.
Meanwhile, I sat on the front row preparing for the event to begin and taking in this scene, while mentally scrolling through my message on the link between insecurity and narcissism.
And I wondered, “Am I the right speaker for this event?”
About once a month, I am invited to speak at venues like this one. It is an honor and a privilege to encourage women during a rare break from their their daily lives, and I take the responsibility seriously.
But early on, I worried that women didn’t want to hear what I had to say.
In the age of Instagram discipleship, quasi-spiritual self-help, and a culture that values tolerance and positivity as its highest virtues, teachers like myself are confronted with a disconnect between what Scripture says, and what our society seems to want.
Women like myself respond to this tension in different ways, but for years I relied on the power of “niceness.”
I resolved to be unflappably upbeat. Messy but not unhinged. Authentic but cute.
I addressed the hard parts of life without engaging the controversial issues in the world.
My niceness occasionally had an edge in the name of “keeping it real,” but harder topics like sin, repentance, racism, or laying myself down fit less comfortably into this box.
I did this for years, avoiding most of the hard and controversial topics in the world, to focus on more inspirational things.
Christ over nice
This, in my opinion, is one of the biggest challenges facing women’s ministry right now: the tension between niceness and faithfulness.
I will be the first to admit I feel this tension often, and I cave in to it more than I would like to admit, for the simple reason that niceness is rewarding.
When we choose to be nice instead of honest, instead of truthful, instead of brave, it keeps the peace, wins friends, and gains influence, which is why I have all too often backed away from hard conversations or softened my convictions, opting instead for the wide gate of niceness.
But after doing this for years and observing the fruit of this false idol in my life, here is what I have concluded: I cannot follow Jesus and nice.
Because following Jesus means following a man who spoke hard and confusing truths, who was honest with his disciples—even when it hurt—who condemned the hypocrisy of the Pharisees and turned over tables in the temple.
Jesus was a man who went face-to-face with the devil himself and died on a cross rather than succumb to the status quo. Jesus was loving. He was gracious. He was forgiving. He was kind. But he was not nice. He was a man who would leave the ninety-nine sheep to rescue the one, but he was also totally unafraid of offending people.
Jesus understood the difference between graciousness and personal compromise, between speaking truth and needlessly alienating people.
Rather than wear a shiny veneer, He became the embodiment of rugged love.
This, not niceness, is what we are called to.
But it’s not quite as simple as that. We exist in a world that swings between sweetness and outrage, two behaviors that seem to be at odds with one another.
In reality, they are two sides of the same coin: a lack of spiritual formation.
When our civility isn’t rooted in something sturdy and deep, when our good behavior isn’t springing from the core of who we are but is instead merely a mask we put on, it is only a matter of time before the façade crumbles away and our true state is revealed: an entire generation of people who are really good at looking good.
Cultivating a better tree
The solution, then, is not to trade in our appearance of niceness for an appearance of boldness. That is only switching one veneer for another. What we need instead, is to go to the source. We must cultivate the kind of souls that bear a better fruit.
And thankfully, the first step is a simple one: casting out better seed.
These days, when I stand on a stage of any sort, I view my task very simply: to cast out the seed of God’s Word, in all its truth and conviction. If Jesus talks about it, I talk about it, no matter “what people might think.”
And this is what I have learned: all those women bouncing into their Girls Night Out with lattes and lipstick in tow?
They are readier than I thought.
People are hungry for good fruit that satisfies, not the fake fruit, or the bland fruit, or the sugary sweet fruit of niceness.
And they will take this good fruit dolled out to them in heaps.
When we give it to them—not as a tract, not as a judgment, not as a self-help mantra, and not as a watered down spiritual cliché—but in all its breadth and depth and love, the message takes root —
and it bears something infinitely and eternally better than “nice.”
Sharon Hodde Miller leads Bright City Church in Durham, NC with her husband, Ike. She has three young kids, holds a PhD on women and calling, is the author of Free of Me, and loves to travel the country each year speaking and meeting women who are serving their churches and communities!
In her newest book Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked and How God Call Us to More, Sharon takes aim at the “nice Christianity” which looks like the real thing, but has no power or impact.
What happens when we replace courage with compromise? What happens when we replace honesty with likability? What happens when we replace conviction with clichés? What happens when we replace discipleship to Christ with a devotion to nice? We live in a culture that prizes niceness as one of its highest virtues. Niceness keeps the peace, wins friends, gains influence, and serves our reputations well, but it also takes the teeth out of our witness and the power out of our faith. When we choose to be nice instead of faithful, we bear fruits that are bland, bitter, empty, and rotten to the core.
[ Our humble thanks to Baker for their partnership in today’s devotion ]