Note from the moderator: This article is reminiscent of an article that was first published on our website a year or so ago. It was entitled “A Different Jesus”. For those of you who are interested in reading that article, it is still available on our website at www.sharingtheway.com under the “Article Archives” section.
-by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre.
Sometimes love is sharp, hard-edged, confusing, and seemingly unfair.
Some time ago I read the synoptic Gospels with a group of
literature students, only a few of whom professed to be
"reasonably familiar" with the material in those books. We made
our way through the Nativity stories, the Sermon on the Mount,
the miracles, and the teachings. We struggled through some of
Jesus’ "hard sayings" and disconcerting acts, such as withering
the fig tree and casting demons into swine. ("They were innocent
swine!" someone protested. "They belonged to some innocent pig
farmer!") I was glad for the chance to retrieve some of the shock
value of stories so often flattened in an effort to make them palatable.
As the unit on the Gospels drew to a close, I asked the professing
Christians, "How has this reading of these accounts of Jesus’ life
and ministry changed your understanding of him?" A hand went
up in the back row. "I don’t know exactly how to put this," the
young woman mused, "but this isn’t the Jesus I grew up with. He
doesn’t seem very … nice." She was thinking, no doubt, about
the embarrassments of the pigs and the fig tree, or perhaps his
"Who is my mother?" or his calling Peter Satan. Careful
explanations notwithstanding, what remained troubling to her
was Jesus’ rudeness.
I thought a minute. Which is to say, I prayed for an appropriate
response to what I believe was innocent, if amusing, distress.
"Nice," I told her, "is not the point." Nice isn’t the same as holy.
"God is love" doesn’t mean "God is nice." Sometimes God isn’t
nice at all—not by our standards.
Indeed, as Christians we might strive less for niceness and more
for loving rightly. One of my husband’s finer moments in parenting
came one day when, after he had uttered an unwelcome word of
correction to a disgruntled child, he leaned down, looked her in
the eye, and said, "Honey, this is what love looks like." Love, in
that case, must have seemed to her a far cry from nice.
Many unresolved conflicts in churches may, in fact, come from
trying so hard to be nice. In our efforts to make each other feel
good, we may neglect the harder business of learning, deeply and
specifically, what love might look like. Love involves us in the
"scandal of particularity." It seeks to discern what the moment
calls for at a level much deeper than social sensitivities.
Sometimes it is sharp, hard-edged, confusing, apparently unfair.
What love demands, parents realize, may differ markedly from
one child to the next.
And we all have some idea of the costs incurred when parents try
too hard to be "nice" to misbehaving offspring. In church
communities as in families, too much niceness may mask conflict
that needs to be healthily aired, carefully mediated, patiently
negotiated. It’s a rare congregation that knows how to tolerate
deep differences and stay in conversation about them without
retreating to safer ground where everyone can be nice.
But love is not always and not only nice. Love is patient, and
patience is not the same as passivity. Love is kind, and being
kind is not the same as placating. One reason to reread Paul’s
epistles is to learn something about love from a man who gave up
a great deal, including the cheap grace of congeniality, for the
sake of the gospel.
Paul was not out to "win friends and influence people," though he
had both deep friendships and profound influence. He also had
disputes with Peter, argued and admonished erring churches and
named their sins without an excess of tact. The energy of his love
went far beyond mere diplomacy and took a kind of courage that’s
hard to develop when niceness offers so much safety, affirmation,
and good feeling all around.
My prescription for too much niceness, besides a long look at the
New Testament, is to read a few of Flannery O’Connor’s vigorous,
hilarious, acerbic stories. Her nice Christian ladies are hard to
forget or forgive. They have fashioned Jesus in their own image: a
Jesus who thoroughly approves their tastes, judgments, and
social biases. O’Connor implies there will be no room for their like
in the kingdom of heaven. They will have to be purged of their
niceness. Insisting that sentimentality was a close kin to
obscenity, she used her fiction to expose the sin of self-satisfied
niceness in images that recall whited sepulchers.
We are called to be "tenderhearted, forgiving one another," to
empathize with one another’s pain, to imagine one another’s point
of view, to reckon with our own limitations, to pray for the grace of
the healing word, and to not sidestep the arduous business of
acknowledging hurt, anger, or confusion and seeking authentic reconciliation.
That task demands a great deal more than niceness. It demands
that we be tough-minded as well as tenderhearted, that we
sometimes be "in each other’s faces," as well as cherished in
each other’s hearts. It may even demand that we be downright
eccentric, at least if we are to believe O’Connor’s word on the
subject: "You shall know the truth," she warned, "and the truth
shall make you odd."
-Published by Christianity Today, November 13, 2000.
~SOURCE: Walk Worthy [Marc White].
Please feel free to reproduce, reprint and/or forward as desired. Altering or editing is strictly prohibited.
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