There have been times in my life where all I needed was a good kick-in-the-pants, someone to “smack some sense” into me, and a serious conversation where someone isn’t afraid to tell me the truth. Maybe it’s a friend who’s willing to look me in the eye and without hesitation ask, “What in the world are you thinking?!?” I’ve never liked it, but I’ve needed it. It hurts, but it heals. Speaking honestly, I haven’t and never will grow out of this need.
Parents who truly love and care for their kids say what needs to be said in the moments those things need to be said. My parents were quite good at it. Twenty-twenty hindsight sheds light on the fact that difficult hard-to-swallow things which were said and done in a moment that seemed so unkind, were actually the best things that could have been said. One can imagine my six-year-old self saying or thinking, “My parents are mean!”
I’ve often thought that life would be so much more easy and tolerable if I just had my way. Things would get dicey when someone older and wiser would step in to set me straight. One such person was the Dean of Students at my college. Seeing that I worked under his supervision as a Resident Hall Director, you would have thought that confrontations and corrections from him would be unnecessary, perhaps because I was old enough, wise enough, and responsible enough to keep my human depravity in check. But I vividly remember the time, one week before graduation, when my foolish antics resulted in some property destruction on campus. Knowing it was me, Dean Cunningham chose not to smile and look the other way. He knew that “boys will be boys,” but he also knew he had been entrusted with a responsibility to challenge a young man who was acting like a boy to straighten up. His phone call to me was direct and to the point. I answered with a hearty “hello!” not knowing who was on the other end of the line. All I heard was this: “Mr. Mueller. Do you want to graduate? If so, you know what to do.” Click. Guilty as charged. I got right to work.
In today’s world, we all expect the people who love us to nicely and quietly affirm our every belief and behavior, patting us on the back while reciting that famous line from the old Fleetwood Mac song over and over again: “You can go your own way!” Sadly, this cultural expectation has resulted in a steady slide of Christian parents, pastors, and youth workers assuming a posture of niceness that actually pushes our young charges onto the wide road that leads to destruction.
I recently read a good and challenging article from one of our youth ministry peers, Zephram Foster. His article, “Losing Winsome: Zephram Foster On Spurning the Idol of Niceness,” appeared in Touchstone Magazine (which I highly recommend). Foster contends that “contemporary Christians have an idol, and like all idols, it’s sneaky.” He says this idol takes on the form of a virtue, but in the end it leads us to forsake our God-given duty. Foster calls it “the idol of niceness.” He says that it is also known as “agreeableness, winsomeness, or something similar.”
How does “niceness” manifest itself in our parenting and youth ministry world today?
Let’s consider a commonly-occurring case study so many of us encounter in this world where personal preference and self-sovereignty are leading many kids to determine their own beliefs and behaviors regarding sex and gender. A kid comes to you and says, “I’m same-sex attracted.” Or, perhaps they tell you, “I’m transgender. I was born in the wrong body.” Or maybe they show up one night to let you know that they are changing their pronouns and you are fully expected to comply. “Niceness,” Foster writes, “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.” In other words, the responsive mantra of niceness is this: “You can go your own way! . . . and I’m all for it!” Youth workers and parents are especially vulnerable to serving the idol of niceness because we don’t want to be disliked, cancelled, challenged, or accused of being on the wrong side of history.”
So what’s the alternative? Foster makes a great case for us to be kind rather than nice. He writes, “Kindness is 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 chrestotes. 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. Chrestotes meets the needs of others in a God-honoring way and does so while avoiding harshness.”
Two thoughts come to mind as I read this contrast between biblical kindness and cultural niceness.
First, is that Jesus Christ, the God-man who we are called to follow as we deny ourselves, embodies this kind of kindness. We shouldn’t be surprised. He balanced truth and love in all his interactions. Think about his interaction with the woman caught in adultery (John 8:1-11). In his kindness he told her that he would not condemn her. Then, in kindness he called her sin “sin,” and instructed her to “go and sin no more.” Kindness is all about showing truth and grace rightly balanced, all for the good of the other. Foster also reminds us that Jesus was always kind because he was morally perfect. But at times he was not always nice. He flipped tables and chased people with a whip. Foster writes, “The ‘kind’ thing for Jesus to do in these situations was not ‘nice.’ Being kind – upholding moral-uprightness and seeking the true good of others – meant being ‘mean’ and ‘impolite.’ It necessitated avoiding watery ‘winsomeness’ and pursuing a true, robust ‘winsomeness’ that wins by displaying truth, power, and righteousness rather than by simply avoiding conflict and keeping one’s elbows off the cultural table.” I can’t help but think about Nathan confronting David about his sin: “You are the man!” (2 Samuel 12). Was Nathan being kind, or was he being nice? Imagine how the story might have swung and ended if Nathan has chosen the latter path.
Second, I can’t help but read and re-read Galatians 5:16-25 to see how kindness as a fruit of the Spirit (v. 22) should never be twisted in ways that would affirm the “works of the flesh” listed in the verses prior. Still, there’s a trend in the church. . . and dare I say the youth ministry world. . . to “nicely” affirm the choices our kids make to live into the various works of the flesh. If that’s what we’re doing, we’re getting something we must get right, horribly wrong. Sadly, misleading children away from the Gospel in this manner is what warrants that millstone (Matthew 18).
Let’s hold tightly to the truths of the Gospel and what Scripture calls us to in terms of discipleship. Let’s choose kindness over niceness as we’ve come to understand them here. Sometimes the kindest thing to do is to say, “I love you enough tell you the truth. . . ” Obedience is always risky in our broken world. But being risky for the sake of following Jesus is always right.