Of Virtues True And False: Niceness v Christian Virtue

Traditionally in Christian ethics there was said to have been seven virtues, the three theological virtues (faith, hope, and love from 1 Cor 13) and four cardinal virtues (prudence, justice, fortitude, temperance). Our word virtue is derived from Latin words for strength. The Christian virtues were said to be graces wrought by the Spirit. In medieval theology (and Romanist today), the Christian life was said to be a pilgrimage in which the Christian the accumulates virtues by grace and cooperation with grace.

The Reformation rejected the doctrine of progressive justification by grace and cooperation with grace but we have not utterly rejected the idea of virtue. The virtue or power of faith, in the act of justification, is not faith itself but Christ, the object of faith. The Spirit, however, who works new life in the spiritually dead, also works in those whom he has made alive, to whom he has given faith, whom he has united to Christ through faith. We can speak of the virtues of love and hope (and prudence, justice, fortitude, humility and the like) that flow from faith, as Ursinus says. The Christian life is a journey. Sanctification is progressive. It is the dying of the old man and the making alive of the new. It is growing gradually into conformity into the image of Christ.

These virtues, however, are not those that dominate much contemporary Christian thinking about the Christian life. Arguably the highest virtue of our time is the virtue of niceness. The essence of niceness is getting along, being agreeable, being thought by others to be a good fellow. If you doubt the power of niceness, consider this sentence: “She is not a very nice person.” Should this judgment be uttered, should it find acceptance, one’s future in that circles is in great doubt. We have all said it. We have all thought it. We know how devastating this judgment is and yet just try to define “nice” or “niceness.” As Justice Potter Stewart on obscenity, we know niceness when we see it.

If we compare niceness with the traditional virtues, however, we get a clearer picture. Niceness isn’t trust, fidelity, love, hope, prudence, temperance or any of the other virtues. It is something else. If it isn’t these virtues, which we say we value, why is it so powerful? Why is it so often confused with Christian virtue? The answer to those questions would take more time and space than a post affords but it worth considering, if only briefly. What if niceness is powerful because it is essential to success in our culture? In recent years we’ve heard a great deal about “idols of the heart.” They certainly exist and the human heart is certainly an idol factory but we haven’t heard much about the temptation to of going along to get along.

Think of it this way. Ask yourself whether the great figures of redemptive history and Scripture would pass the “niceness” test in our culture? The Lord closed the ark door (and presumably Noah agreed). Abraham carried Isaac up the mount. Moses killed a man. David was a man of blood. The prophets were hated and killed. Paul spoke up to Peter and was the subject of relentless criticism both outside and inside the church. Where there is smoke, there is fire. Right? Were any of them nice by our standards? Yet, these are the figures held up as models of faith and piety in Scripture. Our Lord himself would hardly pass the niceness test, after all, he threw the money changers out of the temple. He called the pharisees names. Was he nice? “Esau have I hated.” Is that nice?

In sanctification the Holy Spirit is creating fruit in us and he is producing in us virtues but niceness isn’t one of them. That niceness is so powerful among us and the virtues are so remote from our thinking says something about us.

12 comments

  1. Isn’t “going along to get along” merely the idol of the fear of man?
    We tend to waver on the truth out of concern for what others will say or what they will think of us.

    • loving post. I find I give in to the false god of nice more then I probably know. Then I pat my self on the back for being so loving and forbearing when in fact I probably just wanted to yes man them till they shut up. It is just the fear of man under the guise of love. How do I grow in true virtue Christlikeness and not the mere counterfeit “nice”? I know it can only be by The enabling of The Holy Spirit according to His Word but man I’m so self deceived I honestly believe when I’m just being nice I’m being loving. Clearly It can only be by His Grace. Thank you. Keep up the godly work.

  2. I’m tempted to reply, “Nice post!” But I’ll refrain.

    It’s for no small reason that the words of Rodney King have become a widely used metaphor for the today’s ethos. “Can’t we all just get along?!”

  3. Can you explain the difference between being nice and being kind (which love is)?

    Also Romans 12:18 comes to mind. Doesn’t being nice play a part with being at peace with all?

    Btw, Genesis 7:16 implies that God shut the door of the Arc.

    • John,

      Fair point re the ark but then was God “nice.”

      It all comes down to definitions. Was it “nice,” as we the word to close the ark, to exclude, to reprobate?

      Kindness and gentleness are something else, aren’t they? They are other-centered. Ultimately, “nice” isn’t about others as it is about self.

    • Also, isn’t the issue that “being nice”, which is a fine enough thing in itself, has been elevated to become something which defines how people should act when others are watching. It’s walks with its companions – “tolerance”, “acceptance”, and “non-judgmental” as part of the the secular second table. Also, being nice seems to be more a “correct” attitude to display than a moral virtue to practice.

      Years ago when I disciplined my children they viewed me, at times, as not being nice. Yet, that discipline which caused discomfort and even pain, fit the definition of ‘kindness’ and ‘love’ since the discipline given was with a view to forming in them a better moral character. And that was a good given to them. Love desires good (as God defines) for another. Love is many things, but I don’t know that Scripture ever defines it as “being nice.”

  4. While I agree with the substance of the post, I would encourage us to not allow our criticism of “niceness” to become an opportunity for the flesh. It is easy to think we are avoiding the excesses of the spirit of the age (niceness) and find ourselves excusing our enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, dissensions, divisions, and things like these. The right response to the niceness of our culture is not to be the opposite of nice, but to grow in the fruit of the Spirit.

  5. I largely agree with what Dr. Clark has said here, and to be honest, the point he makes is personally convicting. My personality and my Southern upbringing and culture both make me particularly susceptible to the sin of “niceness”(niceness defined by Dr. Clark above). However, I also think that Stuart’s caution about not falling off the other side of the horse on this issue is commendable as well. Just as I can point to examples of my shameful “niceness” (pray for me, brothers), I can point to examples of those who have used anti-“niceness” arguments, which are Biblically sound and correct in and of themselves, as an excuse for slander, gossip, intemperance, and just plain rudeness.

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