What Are We Fighting For? Part 12: Love Does Not Equal “Being Nice”


We talk a lot about kindness here. And how we treat one another is a big deal - in our families, at work, in our communities, cross-culturally and cross-generationally. But what we are NOT talking about is simply acting '“nice.”

One of the great disappointments of my life was the realization that all my years of trying to be nice in no way meant that I knew how to love well. I felt so ripped off! I took the high road and believed the best in people and was SO FREAKING NICE, even to people who insulted me, betrayed me and spoke poorly about me behind my back.

In fact, I’ll go as far as to say that being nice has actually hindered me from choosing love more often than I’d like to admit. How? Because I have allowed being nice to get in the way of authenticity.

Now before we go on, let’s define “authenticity.” It isn’t an excuse to treat people like crap just because our experiences and feelings are real. It goes deeper than just being unfiltered. It’s an awareness of our potential to cause damage to others, followed by a willingness to do something about it. Authenticity, the way we define it around here, isn’t an excuse, but rather a surrender to the truth about ourselves and it is always undergirded with grace for others because we know how much we need it. THAT’s what we’re talking about when we say “authenticity.”

All my life, I would’ve told you that telling the truth was an important value. Yet there was this huge blind spot. I avoided telling the whole truth about what I felt, or feared, or experienced, because I was afraid of what authenticity might mean for my relationships. So I kept a cushion of space around myself. And that cushion was stuffed with the fear of my imperfection and upholstered firmly with niceness.

I’ve gone along with things that I didn’t agree with, I’ve kept my mouth shut when others or myself were being treated disrespectfully, I have failed to come to others’ defense and I’ve avoided talking about topics I didn’t think would be popular because I was afraid. I chose, instead, to be nice. Because engaging at a deeper level was messy and nuanced and I didn’t know how to do it.

Admitting this probably makes me the last person anyone wants to hear talking about how to love better. Scott and I have each worked long and hard on the things that have tried to sabotage our ability to love, and this has been a big one for me.

The reason I divulge this deficit in my ability to love is because maybe I’m not the only one that has been deceived by niceness. It can seem like a such a good thing - and when it’s sincere, I suppose it is - but it’s not enough by itself.

For our home, communities and world to be better, our relationships need to be more than a series of reactions to our own reflection. If we don’t have authenticity, we are nothing more than actors in a performance about life. Believe me when I say… settling for that forces us to sacrifice connectedness and intimacy. It robs us of the kind of love our hearts long for. Even if we’ve never let ourselves experience love like that, we are wired for it. That is why anything short of that leaves us wanting more, and more, AND MORE. Like a hole we can never fill.

There is a WAY to tell the truth that isn’t hateful or destructive. After all, effective confrontation is ultimately an act of love to keep the space between us free from resentment and hatred and other such things that can actually morph into evil if allowed to fester.

Authentic truth-telling is more wholistic than venting or reacting. In no way do we ignore our emotions, but we combine them with with other skills, like listening and clearly communicating what we need from one another and what we will not tolerate.

Some of the moments I have felt most loved have been moments when people I trust were willing to look me in the eye and trust me with a difficult truth - about me or about themselves. That kind of trust is sacred, and being nice doesn’t hold a candle to it. Being told how my actions or words are hurting someone communicates that the relationship is important enough to work on so our connection can grow stronger, safer, more genuine.

Loving better isn’t about faking that things are fine, ignoring the truth, or skirting around uncomfortable topics. (Bummer, right?!) It might, however, mean focusing less on the insecurities or neuroses that compel us to make everything about us. It will most likely require us to listen more, think more about others’ perceptions and identify with other perspectives (which are so often not about us).

Loving better never means tolerating abuse or cruelty - never ever. Love thrives in an atmosphere of truth, even when the truth hurts. Love is so much bigger than cover-up stories to protect people we’re afraid of, and it means loving someone enough to stop allowing them dump their pain on you (or anyone else) without accountability.

Abuse is bad for EVERYONE, including the abuser. Lying is bad for the world, including the liar. If a relationship can’t hold up to these truths, love might be getting confused with fear.

What I have to keep remembering when I’m tempted to be nice instead of truthful is this:

Being nice benefits me in the moment. Authentic love benefits everyone in the long run.

Here’s something we wish every engaged couple, and politician, and job interviewee, and human being on planet earth could understand:

A predictor of the future of any relationship isn’t how nice we are when we agree, but how honest we can be when we don’t agree.

This is true in dating, marriage, church communities, business, and, well… it’s true everywhere.

I say all this to say:

The most loving thing that can happen for anyone, anywhere is to create a culture of truth-telling.

Whenever someone isn’t safe to tell the truth, there is always trouble.

Imagine being fully known AND completely loved. That’s the dream, right? But it will never happen until we stop sacrificing honesty on the altar of “niceness.” And it will never happen when we trash others behind closed doors while remaining unwilling to look truthfully at our own internal messes. And it will never happen if we make others afraid of rocking the boat and being honest with us.

Love is strong enough to tell the truth, vulnerable enough to accept the truth from others, and respectful enough to work out how we are going to operate when the whole truth is out in the open. THAT is a far cry from nice. It is gritty and is the only way to facilitate deep, lasting, healing relationships.

Not everyone has the tolerance for this kind of vulnerability. We see it all the time working with couples. They’re drawn together because of the way they make each other feel and they make promises based on what little they know about one another. But after a few years (months, in some cases), they don’t feel the same good vibes. (Who on earth expects our flaws not to surface when we’re together day after day? Yet most of us enter marriage thinking it won’t happen to us.)

When the couple gets tired of having the same arguments over and over, or faces a crisis that’s out of their depth, it seems so intuitive to go somewhere else (or to someone else) for the affirmation they long for. Yet all the stuff that sabotaged the first relationship is still in there, unresolved, lying in wait. Many keep moving from person to person, or vice to vice, without ever learning how to let love into all the raw, scary places they fear are unknowable and unloveable.

We get it! Everyone faces the reality that the worst of us will try to sabotage the best of us. Call it spiritual warfare, or being human, or whatever else you want to call it. But it’s a reality.

The truth is, rooted inside the darkness of all that we’re afraid to expose, are seeds that have the potential to grow into life-giving fruit that feeds multitudes for generations. If we can stop faking (aka ignoring it) and courageously expose our scariest, neediest selves to the Light, miracles are possible.

The Psalmist, David, faced his darkness full-on and wrote about how it felt to be fully exposed and fully accepted:

I could ask the darkness to hide me
    and the light around me to become night—
     but even in darkness I cannot hide from you.
To you the night shines as bright as day.
    Darkness and light are the same to you.

Psalm 119:11-12 (NLT)

Then he writes:

“How precious are your thoughts about me,
O God! They cannot be numbered!
I can’t even count them;
they outnumber the grains of sand!
And when I wake up, 
you are still with me!”
(Ps 119:17-18)

This is one of the most beautiful writings ever about how deeply we are both known AND loved. AT THE SAME TIME.

It is so much easier to know and love each other when we understand how known and loved we are. Yet for a long time, I’m not sure I REALLY believed it. After years in Christian schools and church culture, I remember being a young adult and meeting people who had no religious background who offered me authentic acceptance far more freely than I knew how to reciprocate. But if we look at Jesus’s life and words, we can’t ignore what He asks us to do: “Love each other. Just as I have loved you, you should love each other. Your love for one another will prove to the world that you are my disciples.” (I John 13:34-35).

If we REALLY believe we are loved by the Divine - the Lover of our Souls - we can view humanity as a connected tapestry that God wove together. Imagine being free to just let go and allow the love we’ve been given to flow freely - first to ourselves, then to each other.

If we believe God loves us as we are, who are we not to accept that about each other?

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Love is a powerful force. It is a force that has been in motion since the beginning of time. I John 4:7 underscores just how central it is: “…love comes from God. Anyone who loves is a child of God and knows God. But anyone who does not love does not know God, for God is love.”

The world is impacted immeasurably by our love (or lack thereof). Those of us who want to live in a world that isn’t overrun with hatred have a responsibility to live authentically, to stand up for one another, and to be unapologetically truthful, even when that is scary or unpopular.

Let’s start with ourselves and accept our whole selves, the good the bad and the ugly, for what we are. Only then we can do that for each other. And when our families operate like that, it flows into our friendships… and communities… and on and on it goes into the world.

This twelve-part series has been a journey! Thank you for sticking with us. But what we are fighting for - in our homes, church, communities and world - is love. It’s love we were created for. And it’s love that hopefully we can work toward if we want to see the broken places in us, and in our world, healed.

Emily SutherlandComment