Point of Reference
by Fred Price
In an essay titled, “Nice is not the point”, Marilyn McEntyre wrote, “One of my husband’s finer moments in parenting came one day when, after he had uttered an unwelcome word of correction to a disgruntled child, he leaned down, looked her in the eye and said, ‘Honey, this is what love looks like.’”1 I dare say, at that moment, she would have disagreed. But when we as parents, teachers, friends or “the church” – following Jesus’ example – speak sternly, it’s not merely to get the object of our sternness to do what we want but to motivate them to do the right thing – for their own good! St. Augustine speaking for the church when he said, “In our discipline, the question is not whether the devout soul is angry… (for) to be indignant with a sinner with a view to his correction… no sane judgment could reprove.”2
His concept of discipline comes straight from scripture which asserts that, “…the Lord disciplines those he loves,…”, and then going a step further says, “…he punishes everyone he accepts as a son.” Acknowledging that, “No discipline seems pleasant at the time,…”; the Hebrew writer none-the-less insists that, “Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.” Hebrews 12:6-11
Many today are shocked or repelled at such thinking, believing God to be a forever smiling grandfather figure who indulgently winks at every human foible and “mistake”, reassuring us with a nod and a pat on the back that, ‘It doesn’t really matter, I love you anyway.’ (Which is only partly true; as it does matter even as He continues to love us.) Leading some to propose that our purpose in life is not necessarily about being right but about avoiding conflict. As a consequence, we learn to never challenge what we’re taught at school, what we’re asked to do at work or ponder what being right really means (according to God’s definition of rightness); imagining that anyone making us feel good – or being nice – is loving and kind, while everyone who makes us feel bad – by disagreeing or being stern – isn’t and doesn’t like us. Soren Kierkegaard exclaiming, “Woe to the person who smoothly, flirtatiously, commandingly, convincingly preaches some soft, sweet something which is supposed to be Christianity!”3
The Bible depicts even Jesus as something less than nice on occasion, but only because people were often foolish and wicked (See Mark 9:11 & 11:15-17; Matthew 23:24,25 & 27), needing at times to be shocked out of their complacent and rebellious attitudes. (Even with a friend – Matthew 16:21-23) Paul instructing the Colossians to, “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, …”; by teaching and admonishing each other. (Colossians 3:16) There being a unity fostered among people through a variety of behaviors; such as “…compassion, kindness, humility, meekness and patience.” Colossians 3:12; accompanied by just a hint ,when needed of, “…teaching, rebuking, correcting, training (as well as encouraging) in righteousness,…” 2 Timothy 3:10 & 4:2
But some would question the right of anyone to confront someone else for any reason. After all, didn’t Jesus teach us, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.”? Matthew 7:1 Yes, but he also instructed us on the techniques of positive confrontation; seeking the offender out one-on-one, if the response is inappropriate – then taking along a witness and trying again. If that is rebuffed and they obstinately refuse to reconsider their errant way, Jesus directs us to take the issue before the church and if that is ignored to treat the offender as, “…a pagan or a tax collector.” Matthew 18:15-17 In other words, do your best to correct and reconcile, but if someone persists in willfully sinful behavior, remove yourself from their presence. (See Galatians 6:1 & Romans 16:17 & 18) It is imperative that we not be critically judgmental, holding others to a standard we’re incapable or unwilling to follow ourselves (Mat. &:2-5); but it is just as imperative that we exercise discernment, making judgments on a daily basis as to what is right and wrong as well as who – or what – we can legitimately participate in and associate with.
Let me be quick to say that most circumstances require us to be civil, courteous, understanding and patient – or nice. As we won’t have much success sharing the gospel if we are perceived as being rude, demanding and impatient – or not nice. But on occasion, the most legitimate response to foolishness and evil is anger. How could Jesus – or we – maintain any sense of integrity by being indifferent or glossing over the very sin that led Him to the cross? Being upset, angry – or something less than nice – at times actually being evidence of concern! (See Mark 3:15) In fact, even when we speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15), in a spirit of gentleness and genuine concern, we may still be misconstrued as intolerant, insensitive and holier-than-thou. Scholar Ben Witherington asserting that, “One could even say that righteous anger is a pre-requisite of ministry, for a person who has no capacity for righteous anger at the things that destroy humankind is a person who fails to be truly compassionate.”4 God, Jesus and at least one prominent Biblical “minister” of the gospel describing themselves as appropriately jealous for holiness and angry with foolishness. (See Deuteronomy 4:24; Matthew 13:47-50; 2 Corinthians 11:2 & Hebrews 10:26-30)
Many people, even within the church, see their “business” as identifying with the surrounding culture in an effort to reach more people for Christ. But can we be truly relevant to a sin-sick world by mimicking it’s practices and attitudes? Or would genuine relevance be expressed best in our distinctiveness and peculiarity in the world? (Exodus 9:5; Deuteronomy 14:2; 1 Peter 2:9 & Titus 2:14 The term peculiar used in the KJ, translated in the NIV as treasured possession, a people belonging to God – redeemed from wickedness and purified for good works.)
In fact, if some people don’t find us offensive, we’re probably not living nor loving people as Christ did and we should. Indeed, being well thought of by everybody runs counter to scripture, which warns “Woe to you when all men speak well of you,…” as “…everyone who wants to live a Godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted,…” Luke 6:26 & 2 Timothy 3:12 Or as James said to those apparently straddling the fence, “You adulterous people, don’t you know that friendship with the world is hatred toward God? Anyone who chooses to be a friend of the world becomes an enemy of God. Or do you think scripture says without reason that the spirit he caused to live in us envies intensely?” James 4:4,5 (Or longs jealously – see also Matthew 6:24 & 1 John 2:15-17)
The personal risk of over-sympathizing with people is that we become tempted to compromise our principles and by doing so become ineffective, our message meaningless. “But true love is robust. It includes compassion and confrontation, empathy and truth telling, kindness and sternness. When we enter such relationships, we must enter them not with sentimentality but with full-orbed love. (Which) takes not only compassion but courage.”5 The point not being to speak out in self-righteousness and thus create enemies, but to be faithful to Christ and thoughtful of others in word and deed; which sometimes means speaking with an urgent directness that is not always “nice” as the world defines it.
1Appearing in Christianity Today
2From his work titled, “City of God.”
3Quoted in “The Others” from Provocations: Spiritual Writings of Kierkegaard
4Noted in his commentary on The Gospel of Mark
5 Mark Galli – Jesus Mean and Wild
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Fred Price - married (49 years), father of two grown children, grandfather of six.
Fred retired earlier this year after 42 years as a factory worker. He has always had a heart for young people and the challenges they face today. Over the years Fred has taught Discipleship Groups for High School and college students.
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