I thought I had taught a great lesson. I had brought scripture to life, provided thoughtful application points, and used some great illustrations from my own life. I, along with my youth volunteers, sat in small groups and tried to drill deeper, to make sure the kids understood what they heard. As my group talked, I asked them a simple question, one that get asked all the time: “So how do you think Jesus wants you to live tomorrow when you’re at school, home, and with your friends?” There was a moment of silence and then one middle schooler spoke up and said, “I think he wants me to be nice to others.”
Now, if you’re a youth pastor like I am, you’ve heard this kind of answer more than you care to. But this particular time, when I heard my student say “I think he wants me to be nice to others,” I nearly lost my mind. I couldn’t believe that this was the take-away after we spent time in the Sermon on the Mount, talking about how when Jesus said “love your enemies,” it was something he’d personally live out while suffering on the cross.
This answer is no surprise and the research shows it. One of the most significant discoveries from Christian Smith’s study of American teenage spirituality in his book Soul Searching is that teens are described as “incredibly inarticulate” about their faith. When teens use phrases like “to feel happy” compared to theological terms like “sin”, “righteousness”, “salvation” and “trinity” at a rate of 12 to 1, “being nice” fits in just fine.
But that moment was a turning point for me. I couldn’t take it anymore. I rallied our group of 30+ middle schoolers back together and we literally had a come to Jesus moment. I broke some cardinal youth ministry rules and asked everyone, “How many of you after tonight’s lesson and discussion think Jesus mainly wants you to be nice to people?” It was a trick question…and I didn’t even wait for their answer.
My response went something like this, and it has become a staple in my teaching with young people:
Jesus didn’t die so you could be a nice person.
1) “Nice” is literally the least you can do for someone. Synonyms for the word nice are: cordial, ducky, swell, amiable, courteous, polite and unpresumptuous. These are not words that are used to describe anyone who was “dead in their transgressions and made alive together in Christ” (Eph 2:5). When people say whatever they want to whomever they want on social media, being nice feels like nothing more than passive indifference. Being nice involves minimal effort and thought.
2) Being nice is what the world expects you to be. Jesus tells his audience that even tax collectors love those who love them. Jesus consistently raises the bar. He doesn’t say “be nice to everyone,” He says “love your enemies.” Living in a country where we are regarded as a world power, we have little concrete sense of our enemies because they are distant and we are removed from them. The Jews would have been looking at Roman soldiers in their midst who had conquered them and unjustly jailed them and would seek to do them harm on a daily basis. They knew all too well who their enemies were.
Similarly, teenagers are very aware of who has power in their schools and communities and who doesn’t. They are very aware of who is for them and who is against them. And Jesus says to our teens, “Don’t just be nice to people, love those who are against you.” Love those who swear at you, bully you, and call you names at school. Love those who totally disagree with you and think less of you because of it. Love those who want to do you harm.
Jesus taught his followers to live in a way that didn’t maintain the status quo. He taught his followers in a way that turned the tables or flipped the world on its head. His way is the way of the upside down kingdom. Nice is just business as usual.
3) Being nice is not living a new life. Perhaps if Jesus had come to earth and said, “Here’s the deal. Your sin…it’s not good. I’m going to do you a solid and give you a 50% reduction on your sin penalty. In return for this sweet deal, I only ask that you be nice to other people.” That’s about the only scenario where I can imagine that Jesus only wants us to be nice.
But that’s not how it went. Jesus gave us a model for living. He wasn’t just nice to the man they called Legion and cast out three of the multitude of demons possessing him. He wasn’t just nice to the paralytic who was lowered through the ceiling on a mat, only healing his legs and not his sins. He wasn’t just nice to the unnamed woman who had been bleeding for 12 years, letting her silently sneak away without healing her physically, relationally, emotionally, and spiritually. Jesus was never just nice.
Jesus loved with every action and every word. He loved everyone he met regardless of their response to him. Jesus loved in life as he invited a ragtag bunch of misfits to follow him and he loved in death as he invited another convicted felon to join Him in paradise. Jesus didn’t die a torturous, humiliating death so that we could be nice. He died so that we could stand before the Father clean, spotless, and redeemed. Jesus canceled the debt that couldn’t be repaid over a thousand lifetimes of good deeds. He freed us from sin, shame, guilt and the need to please and perform in order to secure love. Given the depths of his freely given sacrifice for us, may our lives be marked by a kind of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and gentleness that both reflects who He is and proclaims the depths of our gratitude.