One of these things…

It was first heard 47 years ago today, November 10, 1969, during the premiere episode of Sesame Street.  Since that time there have been thousands upon thousands of kids and parents who would sing along with the words written by Joe Raposo and Jon Stone:

One of these things is not like the others,
One of these things just doesn’t belong,
Can you tell which thing is not like the others
By the time I finish my song?

Did you guess which thing was not like the others?
Did you guess which thing just doesn’t belong?
If you guessed this one is not like the others,
Then you’re absolutely right!

Let’s play the Sesame Street song game.  Which of these things is not like the others – which one of these things just doesn’t belong?  See if you can pick out the one that doesn’t belong:

  • Kindness
  • Goodness
  • Love
  • Patience
  • Gentleness
  • Self-control
  • Love
  • Peace
  • Niceness
  • Joy

So, how’d you do?  Do you know which one doesn’t belong and why the others do?  In the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians he gives us two lists.  The first of these (5:19-21) Paul calls the “works of the flesh” and he says that they are “evident” – easy to spot.  There are 16 things on this list – 15 specific things and one catch-all category at the end:  sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality,  idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these.

 The second list (5:20-23) reads like this:  love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.  Paul tells us that the items on this second list make up the “Fruit of the Spirit,” i.e. the visible evidence of the presence of the Holy Spirit in the life of a Christian.  Thus, if you are a Christian, your life, your living, will be marked by the kind of character traits found on this list.  So which one is foreign to the list?  Niceness.

The dictionary tells us that people who are nice are “pleasing, agreeable, delightful.”  They are “amiably pleasant; kind… refined in manners, language, etc.”   Generally speaking, we human beings are naturally taken by niceness.  We like to be around people who are nice – their words tend to be pleasant and they are likely to adhere to whatever social custom dictates.  It is a comfortable and attractive quality – but it can also be misleading if not outright fraudulent.

Arthur Brooks, the President of the American Enterprise Institute, recently wrote in the Wall Street Journal about “…this year’s ghastly presidential race… it looks like the worst behavior is being publicly rewarded, doesn’t it?  You could be forgiven for believing that maybe the polarities of karma have reversed, and the world now belongs to jerks.  Right?  Wrong.  Nice people, rejoice… the best available research still clearly shows that in everyday life the nice people, not the creeps, do the best at work, in love and in happiness.”

Who do you think of as being “nice.”  With the rather contentious Presidential election over, I thought I’d check and see if anyone thought of the two candidates as being nice.  Tony Senecal, President-elect Trump’s butler for 20 years has been quoted as saying, “Most of the time he’s just a nice man.”    As for Clinton, back in a 2008 interview it was Donald Trump who said, “Hillary is smart, tough and a very nice person…”  I guess our view of a person as being nice can be a temporary phenomenon.

It may also depend on our knowledge and experience of another person.  Rosa Mitterer, who worked as a maid for Adolf Hitler at his mountain retreat in Bavaria in the 1930s is quoted as saying, “He was a charming man, someone who was only ever nice to me, a great boss to work for.”  Historians tell us that Hitler was said to be very charming in person. He could maintain a very pleasant demeanor while conceiving the most horrendous acts of terror.  I guess the description of “nice” is one that we had best be careful with.

The Book of Proverbs has some very practical guidance for us in this regard.  Proverbs 27:6 reminds us that “Faithful are the wounds of a friend; but profuse are the kisses of an enemy.”

 Ouch!  Most of us prefer kisses to wounds, but kisses Solomon is reminding us can be misleading.  It may be the one who wounds us who cares the most about us.  Jen Hatmaker has been for a number of years a popular Christian speaker and author (not to mention star of an HGTV show).  She made the news recently because the Lifeway Christian Book Stores have decided to no longer carry her books and study materials because she has taken positions over the course of the last year that are incompatible with the Southern Baptists’ position on marriage and the authority of Scripture (Lifeway Stores are owned by the Southern Baptist Convention).  While many have supported Hatmaker’s new comments declaring that same-sex marriage can be “holy,” there are others who have expressed their disagreement with her.  One of those is Rosaria Butterfield.  For ten years Butterfield was a tenured professor of English and Women’s Studies at Syracuse University. She had adopted a lesbian identity and specialized in the teaching of queer theory and actively lobbied for LGBT aims alongside her lesbian partner.  In 1997 while researching the Religious Right and what she calls “their politics of hatred against people like me,” she met Ken Smith, a pastor in the Christian Reformed Church, who became a resource for her research.  She began reading the Bible in large chunks and later converted to Christianity.  (She has written two books about this experience in her life:  “The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert” and a follow-up “Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ.”  You can also read a brief interview with her here.)

Butterfield recently responded to Hatmaker’s new found position in an article called Love Your Neighbor Enough to Speak Truth.  She explains why she finds Hatmaker’s words to be so dangerous.  It is obvious that she believes that Hatmaker’s words were “meant to encourage, not discourage, to build up, not tear down, to defend the marginalized, not broker unearned power” and yet as she reads them, Rosaria notes that “a thin trickle of sweat creeps down my back. If I were still in the thick of the battle over the indwelling sin of lesbian desire, Jen’s words would have put a millstone around my neck.”

 Many who have met her or attended one of her teachings or read one of her books say that Hatmaker sounds very nice.  But, at least in this matter, it would seem that her teachings are not Biblical are in fact dangerous.

A couple of years ago Tim Challies wrote an article called “Smilingly Leading You to Hell” in which he points out that we humans “seem to be naturally drawn to niceness… It is an attractive quality, but it can also be a deceptive one… The Holy Spirit may help us be nice, but niceness is not necessarily proof that we are living in the Spirit and by the Spirit.  Some of the most evil people are also the nicest people.”    They don’t even realize that what they teaching/doing is evil – but because it is diametrically opposed to what the Scripture clearly teaches, that is exactly what it is.  It might be said with a beautiful smile and the best of intentions – but if it substitutes what humans feel is true for what God says is true – it is truly evil.

Challies goes on to say that “Niceness is not a bad trait. It is not wrong or sinful to be nice. But we vastly overestimate it and at the same time confuse it with those traits that matter so much more. It may be good to be nice, but it is so much better to be holy.”

 Taken a minute to read what Rosaria Butterfield wrote – read her interview – it is a wonderful illustration of the need for truth over niceness.