Every culture or era has its own way of defining issues that invoke shame and guilt. These are connected, but different. Guilt is a feeling associated with things done or not done. Shame has a much deeper and wider impact. It is, in a sense, a deep embarrassment about who we are. It is an almost visceral contempt for some act or behavior that leaves you feeling disgust, contempt, or humiliation…at yourself.
In 2 Timothy 1:8, the Apostle Paul tells the young Timothy, not to be ashamed of the testimony of Jesus. The apostle understood the pressure against telling others about Jesus, the cultural dynamics that militate against boldness, and the real dangers and threats from militant traditional Jewish audiences or hostile Roman Imperial authorities. The dangers were many, and as we know from the history of the early church, they were real.
One danger, however, that I’m fairly sure they did not face was the pressure to be “nice.” What do I mean? In our time, we have lived through the expansion of the market, the explosion of media influence, and what Philip Rieff of Chicago University calls “the triumph of the therapeutic.” We are immersed in values and visions of the good life, which we inculcate with almost every breath that we breathe. It is a cultural moment where looking good and feeling good are paramount, and anything that threatens, disturbs, or challenges the cultural value-setters is ruled out of court.
I am not suggesting that following these values is a conscious choice for many, but I would propose it is the default setting of most lives in our comfort-driven, convenience-laden moment. Our internal radar system is fixed on the maximization of pleasure and the minimization of pain. We simply “know” that certain things, difficult things, and yes, even some good things, are just too much to ask in our context.
For instance, “Go ye into all the world and preach the gospel…” Well, maybe for some people. “Be prepared to give an answer for the hope that is in you…” But they may think I’m a fanatic, or worse, some kind of religious nut. Anyway, the doors of the church are open and we have a special speaker on Sunday. They can come if they want to (or not). I can’t jeopardize my status, my peace, my equilibrium, and thereby risk becoming not “nice.”
I must confess it is hard for me to envision the apostle Paul worrying excessively about not being “nice.” It is equally difficult if I consider others who risked reputation or safety to speak of the God they found. They were not rude, belligerent, ugly, or unnecessarily aggressive. They were clear, confident, compassionate, and courageous. At stake were some key issues for all of the above, the importance of truth, and the necessity of obedience. The Christian story is not advice, a set of ideas, or a moral exhortation for those who happen to like such things.
Perhaps you’ve never reflected on whether your sincere desire to be “nice” undermines any expression of belief or disbelief. If you are effectively stopped by an internal dialogue that insists the need to be nice trumps all other goods or needs, perhaps it is time to seek afresh, resist that voice, break the hold of bad ideas, and step out in faith and obedience and do or say what is needed.
There are worse things in life, after all, than not being nice! Perhaps being without Jesus is one of them?
Stuart McAllister is vice president of training and special projects at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Atlanta, Georgia.