Michael Bluth, the main character of the cult TV series Arrested Development, is the consummate nice guy. With his sheepishly tousled hair, disarming smile, devoted work ethic, and commitment to family, he is the one member of the chaotic Bluth family who consistently tries to do the right thing. But somehow Michael’s nice-guyness often leads him away from the straight and narrow, wandering among bramblesome deeds like lies, theft, and philandering, all wrapped up in good old-fashioned self-righteousness. So how does a nice guy like him end up in a dark wood like that?
The answer lies in a problem with niceness itself. We can use the term “nice” to mean almost nothing at all; the phrase “He’s a really nice guy” generally just primes the pump for the no-holds-barred “but” clause that follows it. Other times we throw around the word as if it were a universal trait; every sweet old lady at church will be sure to call a man who attends daily mass a “nice young man,” but the neighbors of Mark Barton, Eric Harris, and even Ted Bundy have described the brutal murder-next-door as “a nice guy.” So is being nice a virtue or a vice? Does it mean anything at all?
In fact, calling someone “nice” can convey real meaning; the word is a mark of social approbation for external actions. We call someone “nice” when we decide that his observed behavior fits reasonably well into our social expectations, whatever they may be. But being nice is too superficial to carry much moral weight: the criteria for niceness are merely prevalent social standards, not objective morality, and niceness regards only a person’s external behavior, without attending to his internal state. In Michael Bluth’s case, the former problem means that he can be a nice guy while lying, stealing, and philandering to culturally acceptable degrees, and the latter problem means that he can be a nice guy because of the decent things he does, no matter how much he resents doing them.
While in itself morally neutral, the niceness standard can be dangerous. We naturally want to associate niceness with virtue; we want to believe that our social standards of behavior are actually good, and we want to believe that a man’s external actions are faithful mirrors of his internal state. But in our fallen state, things are not so simple. If the nice man is also virtuous, so far so good, but if the nice man is only nice and not virtuous, he may confuse others—and worse, himself—into believing that he is actually virtuous.
Furthermore, the realm of niceness is at once too spacious and too narrow. Men like Michael Bluth—or Ted Bundy—who generally follow social norms find no problem making a home there, but men like St. John Chrysostom—or Jesus Christ—can find no room to lay their heads. Although he was capable of great gentleness, John Chrysostom was always ready to expose and oppose the faults of contemporary social norms, as evidenced by his fiery condemnation of Empress Eudoxia or his frequent diatribes against his congregation’s penchant for vice; in short, he was too committed to the Gospel to be nice.
A fortiori only the wildest flights of fancy could allow us to call Jesus, who was executed for flouting the social and religious norms of Jewish society, a nice guy. Theologians Stephen E. Fowl and L. Gregory Jones point out that we can only consider Jesus a “therapeutic nice-guy” if we have already reduced his profoundly counter-cultural message to “a series of platitudes ranging from the inane to the incoherent.” Had Jesus affirmed the social norms of his day he might have been nice, but he would hardly have been the Savior who has “overcome the world” (Jn 16:33).
The way out of the niceness trap is not to reject social standards of external behavior just for the sake of doing it—that’s called being a jerk. Instead, Christians are called to live in the world but not of it, carefully discerning what of the world’s ways should be kept, what rejected, and what changed. To do this well takes much prayer, patience, and prudence; only by drawing close to God can Christians learn to be “wise as serpents and innocent as doves” (Mt 10:16). This is not a matter of merely external deeds; it is only possible by grace, when the yearning for the face of Christ fills the whole person.
Michael Bluth may be a nice guy, but for the Christian nice is not enough. Jesus called those who hunger and thirst for righteousness “blessed” and not “nice.”
Image: Maurice Quentin de La Tour, Self-Portrait