on being nice

Recently I watched a Chinese soap opera portraying a spoiled little imperial prince. He treated all the servants like dirt and had no respect for his elders’ authority. I was thinking how different he is from kids in our era, who are expected to be nice and multicultural and polite. But then I thought it must’ve been because these princes were raised for a specific purpose: their education consisted in how to rule the kingdom and stay alive. Their education had nothing to do with getting along with other people. They literally had no reason to be nice.

Which made me think back to my niceness vs kindness debate, which I’ve briefly touched on before. Why are we nice? Is niceness for its own sake worth it? Often we are nice because, let’s face it, you won’t get far in life if everyone hates you.

What if we had no reason to be nice? Satan tried a similar experiment on Job. Take away a good man’s reasons to be happy, he reasoned, and you will see just how good he actually is. (except the joke was on him in that case)

But there is a twisted logic to it. It’s something I am living through right now. I’ve been a nice guy most of my life but I am reaching a place in my life and my relationships where my confidence and authority are making niceness sometimes unnecessary. Now that being nice and charming and saying nice things doesn’t necessarily gain me anything, it’s not always a priority.

Take a weakling, convince him that he is actually a strong man and his character will be tested. Tell a sighing, mooning lover that his beloved does not in fact reciprocate, and his character will be tested. Relieve the smiling church leader of his responsibilities and his character will be tested.

And very often our characters will be tested. As nice guys mature and get jobs and families, responsibilities and commitments, authority and confidence, they will find niceness taking less and less priority in their lives. Niceness for its own sake is, I find, based on little more than conditioning and necessity. Remove those and you will end up with something rather bleak.

What does this mean for the Christian? Two things: firstly, and tangentially, I am glad that our saviour, brother and role model Jesus did not practice niceness for its own sake. Rather it was loving kindness that drove him. How nice was he to condemn the Pharisees for their viper-like spiritual hypocrisy? How nice was he to rebuke Peter for his satanic words? How nice was he to call out the Samaritan woman on her dysfunctional, sinful love life? How nice was he to tell his followers “remove the plank from your own eye so that you can point out the sin in your brothers’ lives?” Niceness often had no place in his words. Rather he was driven by a dogged, loving kindness which always reached out to the lost. This kindness had a quality of confidence, even fierceness, about it. This is food for thought, I believe, for bland, nice guys such as myself formerly.

The second point is this: we may have no reason to be nice, but because of Jesus we have every reason, always, to be kind. My condition may change, so that I have no reason to be nice, or on the obverse I may lose everything — but the most basic, fundamental thing in my life will not change, which is my place with Jesus. This was given to me through that terrible contract signed in his blood, and so my place with Jesus can never be changed, never be revoked or broken. Jesus’ love for his disciples and those he came across was never broken. His love for his Father and his Father’s purpose was never broken, such that even as he dangled on the cross, forsaken by God, he did not call the angels to his rescue nor jump down from the cross. So we, with this assurance of fierce, dogged, loving kindness, can confidently practice loving kindness too. Because Jesus did, and still does.

So yes, life will often go about in a way that makes niceness inconvenient or meaningless. And I’ve found that sometimes I have no reason to be nice if there is nothing to gain. But loving kindness, now there is no good reason to not practice that, because it is not a goal in and of itself, but because it points to someone who is our goal and our home.

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