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Sharon Hodde Miller – Nice – Feature Review

Sharon Hodde Miller nice ReviewA Barrier to Growth in Christ?

A Feature Review of

Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked and How God Calls Us to More
Sharon Hodde Miller

Paperback: Baker Books, 2019
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Reviewed by Justin Cober-Lake
Niceness rarely gets criticism, either in concept or implementation. “Having a nice personality” might be faint praise you wish to avoid, but more because of what the comment doesn’t say than because of what it does. Being nice might smack of blandness, but we rarely go so far as to see it as inherently problematic. We should. “Nice” can be cowardly or vacuous, a hindrance to the good. That attitude and behavior disguised as politeness can bring with it consequences far worse than not holding the door for some.

Pastor and writer Sharon Hodde Miller takes on this issue in her second book, Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked and How God Calls Us to More. If the topic (or the book’s cover) suggests something self-help-y – a sort of “how to stop being a doormat” theme – that would be a wild misconception. Miller goes deep, combining surprising research and effective exegesis to expose both what we’re getting wrong and why it matters. For far too long the church (as an entity and as individual members) has hidden behind a front of niceness, and Nice effectively addresses that problem.

Miller divides her book into two halves, each utilizing a tree metaphor. The first section, building on the idea that “bad trees produce bad fruit,” examines these sour fruits of niceness, because the fruits are “how we recognize the tree” (16). In seeing the results of our niceties, we’re album to see the sickness of the tree itself, tracing out the roots of our illness. The second section of the book explains how we can cultivate better trees, recognizing that “the fruit is not the problem…. The problem is the tree” (123). In this latter half, Miller considers the deep work needed to enable us to live a life free from niceness and liberated to true spiritual growth.

Before exploring the specific fruits of niceness, Miller looks at an overview of the concept. Working from Plato forward, she recognizes that niceness is both a false virtue and false idol. “Niceness has the appearance of serving others but it exists primarily to serve ourselves, and that is why niceness is a false virtue” (26). Niceness doesn’t tend to aid other people; it tends to advance our own needs, whether through conscious manipulation or simply play social games. It looks good, so we look good when we’re nice, but there’s no depth to it. Acting nice simply maintains a veneer that serves us while looking like a virtue.

Focusing on niceness as a Christian can create a false idol, Miller explains. We can seek our own safety, comfort, and joy through our own efforts and pretense rather than through gospel means. We can also establish being nice as an end in itself. If we’re looking for transformation through Christ, either in ourselves or the world around us, we won’t find it by willing ourselves to be nice. Our shiny kingdom might look good, but its buildings are hollow.

With those ideas in place, Miller can move on to the fruits of niceness, which she sees as inauthenticity, corruption, cowardice, cynicism, self-righteousness, and sentimentality. A few of these ideas sound obvious. No one can hide behind of facade of niceness (or anything) and still be authentic. If you idolize niceness, it becomes easy to fall into cowardice with the excuse that you have to maintain your image. Others of these don’t immediately jump out, but Miller makes a strong case not only to tie each of them to being nice, but also to understand the dangerousness of them.

To take just one of these, sentimentality sounds like a vapid rather than a sick fruit, but Miller points out that a treacly approach to faith comes with a serious dark side. “On its face,” she writes, “sentimental faith appears stable, but there is little underneath to support it. It’s faith oriented more toward the comforts of Jesus than Jesus himself” (113). Here we see niceness as almost antithetical to the gospel message. Likewise, self-righeousness allows us to reject God’s grace, as nice rigidity turns to rebellious self-reliance. The core issue of {Nice} isn’t how to be a better or a stronger person; it’s how to shake off a toxic attitude in order to more fully embrace Jesus.

The second half of the book helps us do just that. Miller presents multiple ways to help grow better fruit by cultivating a tree that grows original, deep, less, and wild. Our “habit of niceness…. has cultivated something shallow and frail where the character of Christ was meant to be” (200). We have this habit well engrained in us because it serves us well. It helps us, on the surface, in so many areas of our life that we’re generally content to utilize it. Miller has a bigger vision and can’t rest there.

For many of us, this sort of change takes work. We’ll need to be more disciplined and we’ll need to willingly taking pruning shears to our lives. The rewards, though, are great. Where niceness results in plastic smiles and superficial connections, Christian growth develops authentic interactions and deep relationships. It allows us to speak truth and confront injustice. Where niceness lets us have a fleeting joy, its alternatives allow us to pursue a bigger vision, the sort of hope that drove the apostle Paul and that supported the early martyrs.

Fortunately, few readers will overcome their niceness only to head to a fiery stake. Hopefully, however, they will find a new way of seeing and engaging their world. Miller makes no promises that it will be easy, but her sense that niceness can be a barrier to true growth in Christ resonates. The rewards of dropping a false virtue and idol for a true hope makes any of the possible risks simply wither away.

Justin Cober-Lake is the Pastor of Spiritual Formation at The Well of Nelson in central Virginia. He holds an MA in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.

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Justin Cober-Lake

Justin Cober-Lake a pastor in central Virginia. He holds an M.A. in American Studies from the University of Virginia and has worked in academic publishing for the past 15 years. His editing and freelance writing have focused mostly on cultural criticism, particularly pop music.

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