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To be Nice or Loving?

“And he said to them, ‘What have I done now? Compared with you? Are not the gleanings of Ephriam better than the vintage of Abiezer? Into your hands God has given the princes of Midian  and Oreb and Ze’eb. What am I able to do compared to you?’ Then their spirit withered from being against him when he said these words.”

(Judges 8:2-3)

I have been told that discernment and timing are the key to negotiations. Sometimes one speaks softly and sometimes one speaks with an uncompromising authority. My grandfather spent many years negotiating with unions on behalf of King Instruments in the mid-Twentieth Century. One story he told was of a very tense negotiation over the fact that several of the parts King was using on their instruments were made overseas and the Union officials wanted them to be manufactured in America. The two men were at an impasse until my grandfather pulled out a cigarette and asked the Union negotiator for a light. The Union man pulled out the official Union lighter and handed it to my grandfather, who looked at it and slammed it back down on the table — the Union’s lighter had been made overseas. My grandfather had won the negotiation right then and there in that simple action.

Gideon was in a similar situation. The men of Ephriam complained. They were not excited about confronting the Midianites when things looked dark but now the Midianites were on the run and Ephriam wanted to share in more of the glory. They had effectively accused Gideon of hogging the spotlight.

Gideon’s response is masterful. He essentially says, “Oh my, but you did so much more than I could have done — your successes are much more glorious than mine. You captured these princes, but what has little old Gideon done?” One might accuse Gideon of a little flattery here, but if it is flattery, it is flattery joined with a touch of sarcasm. For what has Gideon done in compared to Ephriam? Gideon was God’s chosen servant in overthrowing not only the Midianites but also the idolatry in the land of Israel which had brought on the Midianite invasion in the first place. Surely the vintage of Gideon’s father is much better than the gleanings that the Ephriamites have been left. And all of this was God’s choosing.

It seems that the jab is not lost on the men of Ephriam. Most of our English translations speak of the anger of Ephriam abating as a result of Gideon’s statement. Literally the text reads that their “spirit withered” from being against him. The implication of the text is not so much that Gideon flattered these men, but that he spoke words that had an edge to them and put these men in their place — much as my grandfather had put the Union negotiator in his place. It is sure that these Ephriamites returned to their task humbled before Gideon’s words.

Unlike my grandfather, I do not enjoy confrontation and would make a lousy negotiator in high-stakes settings. We all have different gifts. At the same time, as we read the Bible, over and over there are times when God’s people are called to be confrontational and I have found, in cases where such is necessary, the Holy Spirit gives us the strength and the words to use.

One of my fears is that Christians have been taught in church and in society that we are not to be confrontational and we have confused non-confrontation with love. Non-confrontation may prove to be “nice” but it is certainly not loving. Further, most people who know me well, know that I do not much like the word “nice” when applied to Christians. Nice has its origins in the Latin word niscere, which means “unknowledgeable.” In Middle English it was used the way we would use the word, “stupid,” and Christians should be neither stupid nor unknowledgeable.

Unlike being nice, love is confrontational. Love confronts those things that bring harm to the one who is the object of one’s love. If a child is threatened, a loving parent becomes a fierce adversary of the one who is threatening to bring harm. That is just what love does. And love confronts sin because sin harms the person who is sinning and harms the relationships one has with others. It may be “nice” to let someone go about their way doing whatever they please, but it is not love. And Christians are called to be known by their love (John 13:34-35). Gideon’s response to the men of Ephriam was not nice by any stretch of the imagination, but it was loving because it shut their mouths to their sin…and isn’t that better?

No Nice Christians!

I don’t want any nice Christians in our church!  In fact, I don’t want to see nice Christians anywhere in the world!  Okay, now that I have your attention, let me explain what I mean.  The English word, “nice,” comes from the Latin word “nescire.”  Nescire has as its root word, “scio,” which is the verb, “to know.”  The “ne” prefix negates the term.  Thus, the term “nescire” means “to not know” or “to be ignorant.”  When the term originally came into Middle English, it meant the equivalent of “stupid.”  Over time, the usage of the term changed from being stupid to being unthreatening (someone who knows nothing is not a threat!) to being pleasant to be around.  Slowly, the term continued to change in its usage to the way we use the term today (pleasant or agreeable).

Thus, at least in the original sense of the word, I don’t want to see nice Christians in my congregation or even in the world.  I want Christians to know what they believe and why they believe what they believe.  I want them to be strong enough in what they do know to stand against those who would challenge their beliefs.  In fact, I would argue that part of the reason the American church is in the mess that it is in is because of nice Christians—at least in the original sense of the term.

God speaks of this very thing through the prophet Hosea.  In the fourth chapter of Hosea, God begins by lamenting that there is no knowledge of God in the land (Hosea 4:1) and as a result, the people’s lives are filled by swearing, lying, adultery, and bloodshed (Hosea 4:2).  And when we get to verse six of the same chapter, God makes a devastating statement: “My people are ruined because they are without knowledge.”  In other words, the knowledge of God (understanding that true knowledge comes through a relationship with God—Proverbs 1:7) is what keeps us healthy and whole as God’s people—it prevents us from utter ruin.

But look at what else Hosea records in this verse: “Because you have rejected knowledge, so I reject you from being a priest to me; and because you have forgotten the law of your God, I will also forget your children.” This is covenantal language, as when God makes his promises to his people, he consistently makes them with their posterity (Genesis 12:7; 17:19; Deuteronomy 12:28; Acts 2:39), thus the threat of discipline is not only pronounced against God’s people, but also against the generations that will follow them.  In addition, Jesus uses similar language in Matthew 10:32-33, where he says that those who confess him, he will confess before his Father and those who deny him, he too will deny—all connected to the lack of knowledge of Him.

Now, it is fair to say that as Christians, we ought to be pleasant people to be around, but pleasant should not be our goal—loving should.  So nice really should not be something that we strive for as an attribute even in the modern usage of the term.  More importantly, though, we should strive to be knowledgeable in the things of God.  To cite the old King James language, “study to show yourselves approved” (2 Timothy 2:15) because the Scriptures are profitable to prepare you for every good work (2 Timothy 3:16-17).  Strive never to be nice—be loving, but also be knowledgeable in the Truth so that you will always be prepared to make a reasoned defense of the hope you have within you (1 Peter 3:15).