Book Review of Nice: Why We Love To Be Liked and How God Calls Us To More, by Rachel Hodde Miller.
Published by Baker Books, Grand Rapids, MI, 2019.
NICE is a dangerous book. Sharon Hodde Miller will put you back on your heels and make you reconsider some habitual behaviours and some assumptions about Christian character development that we have adopted in a shallow and unthinking manner. She begins with a stark statement: God did not call you to be nice. The rest of the book expounds on this opening sentence.
Miller contends that in our eagerness to be accepted and valued, many of us have been too willing to compromise when we should be courageous, to be silent when we should speak out truth, to be conciliatory when we should be confronting sin and injustice… in short—too willing to be nice. Niceness has become social coinage when we want something—acceptance, inclusion, affirmation, value, status.
It is past time that we started recognizing the sentimentality, inauthenticity, cynicism, cowardice, and self-righteousness that is part and parcel of “being nice” in our society. God did not call us to be nice, and he certainly did not include it in any list of Christian gifts or character marks. Miller deliberately distinguishes and separates niceness from such lists, for niceness has taken on the subtle guise of an idol in our culture.
We need to affirm, without exception, that Christians are called to kindness, gentleness, generosity, love. Miller is not advocating for harshness, meanness, mudslinging, or name-calling that passes itself off as “courageous” or “bold.” She is referring to the price we pay when we step outside the bounds of “pleasant” or “encouraging” to say something “timely” and “true.” Even when we are gentle, careful, and gracious there is a cost to speaking truth that is not “nice.”
Niceness, in and of itself, is not wrong or inherently bad. But like any good or neutral thing, it becomes a broken thing when it is made an ultimate thing. When we turn to niceness for peace in our relationships, promotions in our workplace, preference in our community, or power in our ministry, niceness is no longer a harmless social default but an insidious alternative which undermines Christian character and witness.
Jesus himself was not one that we would ever consider a “nice” person in modern parlance. Neither were Paul nor many heroic biblical characters.
Our civility needs to be rooted in something sturdy and deep. Our goodness and our behaviour should spring from our core, and not be simply a mask that we put on or an alternative mode of interacting that we adopt for the sake of convenience. The solution is not merely an alternative appearance—certainly not an appearance of niceness. We have to go deeper. God must create something entirely new within us.