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When Nice Won't Suffice
When "Have a Nice Day" meets the double love commandment

It's one of the astonishing trends of our day that nice has replaced almost all the other virtues. You hear very little today about goodness, righteousness, purity of heart, charity, or any number of classical traits. Now almost everything positive is put down as nice. For example, we no longer send someone off with the nostalgic, "Godspeed," or "The Lord be with you." Now it's simply, "Have a nice trip." Whether it's a casual goodbye between business associates or a parting between intimate friends, I find almost everyone saying, "Have a nice day." 

Of course there are some advantages to this lingo, especially in a pluralistic, secular culture like our own. For "God be with you," raises the question as to whether the person you're speaking with actually believes in God. Even, "Have a good day," might make one pause to contemplate the meaning of goodness. In a fast moving, secular world such as our own, we don't often have time for such deep philosophical and theological questions. So, simply as a matter of convenience, we're down to just plain nice.

Have you noticed how the supreme virtue of our time is being just plain nice? And it's not only in the process of saying hello or goodbye that we reduce ourselves to the lowest common denominator; in more important matters as well, we've come to accept niceness as the number one best selling virtue.

Take the text of a recent ad for Ramada Inns: "Nice people. Nice places. To the nice people who make your visits to Ramada Inn a pleasure, we add another dimension of pleasure. We have a commitment to make Ramada Inns all across the country newer and nicer. It's our goal to enhance every Ramada room, restaurant, lounge and lobby to create the bright, cheerful new place you'd like to make you home away from home. Next time you travel, visit a Ramada Inn. Let our nice people take care of you in the comfort of a nice place. Nice people. Taking care of nice people. All over the world."

Perhaps the reason people have come to prefer niceness over any other virtue is that its so safe, so convenient, so effortless. It requires very little imagination at all to have a nice day; one need hold no strong opinions, one need affirm no deep values, one need not exert oneself at all. Just sit back and relax.

Now admittedly, nice will suffice when it comes to facing up to the routine and the mundane situations in life. Getting out of bed in the morning or making your coffee, for example, that process should be as pleasant as possible. There are times when a warm and comfortable feeling inside is just what we need. Or after a long and grueling day, it's sometimes nice to come home and turn on Dave Letterman, surely one of the nicest men in America, and then slowly fall to sleep.

But on the contrary, can you imagine suggesting to a person who is about to endure serious brain surgery, "Have a nice day." Or imagine the commander of a division of soldiers in Iraq urging his troops to go forward into battle with, "Have a nice day."  Clearly there are many situations in life when nice won't suffice.

There is a clue to the poverty of nice in the etymology of the word itself. The modern word nice is derived from the Middle English root meaning foolish, or the Old French, meaning silly, and ultimately from the Latin, meaning ignorant. So a nice smile can conceal an empty mind, and a heart unmoved by deep passion or feeling.

When we face any of the truly important situations in life, it is silly and foolish to be just plain nice. For example, if you are faced by a truly difficult decision, when the advantages of one course of action seem almost equally matched by those of another, and the risks are ominous no matter which way you turn, you need something far greater than nice. In business, when hundreds of workers may be unemployed by the wrong management decision; in politics, when some new law may affect the lives of hundreds of millions of people; in personal relationships, when you are faced with the challenge of telling someone you love a difficult, but painful truth; in families, when there are feelings of anger, conflict, or resentment that must be faced and resolved; in the important transactions of life, nice will not suffice.

As the apostle Paul reminded us in his letter to the Ephesians, our human situation is not nice at all. So he suggests that if we are to be equipped for the living of these days, we must put on the "whole armor of God, for we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the rulers of this present darkness." Therefore, he writes, "take on the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day.... Gird your loins with truth, put on the breastplate of righteousness, guard your feet with the gospel of peace." Truth and righteousness, peace and love, these antiquated virtues may in fact be more pertinent to the living of these days than all the niceties taught in the schools of secular culture. (See Ephesians 6:11ff)

Certainly, if you're trying to achieve a standard of excellence or a goal beyond the reach of the ordinary or the average, then nice won't suffice. I recently read about a sailor from Denmark who steered his small boat to a gold medal in the summer Olympics. It was a beautiful, bright summer day when he sailed across the finish line in first place. But in order to prepare for that victory he took his little boat out after work almost every day of the year. And in Denmark that meant sailing it even in the dark of night. In January and February he had to search for a stretch of water that was not choked with snow or ice. To tease every ounce of speed out of his little craft, he drove his body constantly up against the edge of pain and exhaustion. If that kind of dedication and sacrifice is necessary to attain an Olympic gold medal, how much more must be required of us if we are to attain the kingdom of heaven?

Most of the goals that are really worth achieving require some measure of sacrifice, pain or risk. Most of the great achievements require imagination, courage, endurance, especially when the whole world seems to be dead set against you. And when you must contend against the powers of evil in this world, whether you are up against the power of prejudice or the inertia or a giant bureaucracy or the raw violence that often seems to rule this world, then clearly nice will not suffice. It's one thing to wish or even to pray that peace may prevail in the Middle East, but actually finding a way toward a just and lasting peace in that region requires something far more costly and more substantial than nice.

When you face the debilitating force of a serious illness, when you are up against an icy storm of self doubt, when you realize that your own abilities may not be sufficient to the challenge of the hour, then you are driven back to the deeper, more basic, more biblical resources. Like the ones Paul listed in his letter to the Corinthians, faith, hope and love, these three.

As Christians we are not to be just another innocuous association, but a people gathered to make real the love of God. It is not appropriate to pay lip service to the Lord God Almighty, even though our lips may bespeak the nicest words in the English language. Rather we must put forward the full challenge of the gospel; as Jesus said: "You shall love the lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself." (Luke 10:27)

The supreme challenge is to love the Lord with all our hearts, with all the deep feelings of the soul and body, with the whole range of awareness our human senses and our God given intelligence allow. This surely is the supreme goal of our faith. And more than that; it is a source of all our smaller virtues. For as we follow this single commandment; as we try to discern what God's love allows in a given situation, then we have a guide and a stay suitable in the most difficult and trying situations of life.

Christ's double love commandment is a compass that shall guide us through the thickest fog or the most tremendous storms. So whenever we are put to the test, whenever we find that nice will not suffice, we shall have the resources sufficient to the hour. Thanks be to God that in Jesus we have such a sure and certain guide.

Charles Henderson

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The Rev. Charles P. Henderson is a Presbyterian minister and author of Faith, Science and the Future, published in 1994 by CrossCurrents Press. He is also the author of God and Science (John Knox / Westminster, 1986) which he is now rewriting to incorporate more recent developments in the conversation taking place between scientists and theologians. He has also written widely for such publications as The New York Times, The Nation, Commonweal, The Christian Century and others.

For further information about Charles Henderson.