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Reform Magazine | October 22, 2017

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A good question? Is God nice?

A good question? Is God nice?

Each month we ask one question, and get four answers.

This month: God is good; God is great; but… Is God nice?

 

sarah_deanSARAH DEAN

‘Try a bit harder! This is God we’re talking about’

My infant teacher Mrs Thompson banned the use of the word “nice” in her classroom. By forbidding one of the few positive adjectives her class of six-year-olds knew, we were forced to expand our vocabularies. From that point on kittens were “adorable”, cake was “delectable”, and dinner ladies were treated to some pretty Jane Austen sounding exchanges between under-eights in the playground – “Why are you crying?” “Because Kelly-Ann wasn’t being very genial to me.”

Thirty years later, the legacy of Mrs Thompson’s prohibition of this over-used four letter word is that I still regard using “nice” as lazy. There are plenty of other more specific adjectives you can use before having to resort to the positive but ultimately unrevealing descriptor of “nice”.

I would go as far as to say that the only times it is really appropriate to use “nice” on it’s own would be when offering someone “a nice cup of tea” or complimenting their body odour: “You smell nice”. And at a push a combination of the two: “This cup of tea smells nice” or “Your body odour smells of Earl Grey. Nice!”

Given my 30-year prejudice against the blandest word in the English language, can you guess what my answer is to the question is God nice? My answer is NO! GOD ISN’T NICE! Try a bit harder! This is God we’re talking about, the creator of heaven and earth. He sent his son… to die….for us. Nice doesn’t even cut it! And put Roget’s Thesaurus down, because God isn’t genial, or amiable or pleasant or peachy even.

Trying to answer the question highlights the key problem theologians and preachers have struggled with for years – applying a human character trait to God is both inadequate and pointless. It tells us in the Bible that the mind of God is unknowable and as the writer Revd David Bryant points out, we are on dangerous ground if we try to apply character traits and personality onto God: “Faith is not the progressive unearthing of God’s nature but a recognition that he/she is fundamentally unknowable.”*

And yet, while we can’t and shouldn’t even try to know the mind of God, we do know about God’s deeds. These are the evidence for the answer. Is God nice? Yes, God is nice. God’s deeds in the lives of others, in our own lives and recorded in the Bible demonstrate time and again God being nice to disobedient humans. Or, as Mrs Thompson would prefer me to phrase it – demonstrate time and again God being benevolent, considerate and generous to disobedient humans.

Sarah Dean is a comedy writer, performer and charity administrator

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tammy_williamsTAMMY WILLIAMS

‘A nice God falls short both thelogically and pastorally’

God is love. This is the central affirmation of the Christian tradition. Love describes both who God is and how God acts. When theologians speak of the triune God as a “fellowship of holy love”, they are attempting to describe God’s character as relational. When God’s actions and deeds on behalf of God’s people are defined as acts of “covenant love”, such love underscores God’s faithfulness. Contemporary notions of love tend to over-romanticise love as intense emotion, or trivialise it as a heightened way of expressing one’s preference, as in “I love Downton Abbey!” In contrast, Scripture qualifies God’s love as self-giving, as a love that isn’t summoned by the merit of the beloved, but is freely given out of sheer graciousness. The quintessential expression of divine love is not found in a fairy-tale ending, but on a cross.

The correlative to God’s love is God’s wrath. Yet one cannot state that “God is wrath” in the same way that one avows that “God is love,” for wrath doesn’t characterise God’s essential being. Far from being an idiosyncratic instance of God throwing a hissy fit due to uncontrolled anger, God’s wrath is best described as the response of a jilted lover whose love for the beloved is disregarded. Wrath also depicts God’s active condemnation of, and means of, overcoming evil—the malevolence in the world that makes a mockery of God’s love.

To ask if God is nice is a contemporary way of acknowledging love – a useful disposition in the multicultural world in which we live, while disavowing wrath – a perceived act of intolerance that has no place in a progressive society. Paradoxically, “Nice Christianity” which has the coercive capacity to substitute our role as disciples for morally good persons, subverts our ability to bear witness for Christ. Downgrading God’s love to niceness limits the ability of the church to be prophetic by reducing Christian faith to personal ethics. This attempt to make Christianity more appealing mirrors H Richard Niebuhr’s indictment of a liberal Protestantism of an earlier century in which: “A God without wrath brought men [sic] without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”
A nice God falls short – not only theologically but also pastorally. The homeless, mentally disabled, and marginalised persons with whom I interact don’t always consider the world a nice place to live. Amiability is often absent on the mean streets of Newark or London, where the wrath of dealers and hustlers, and hissy fits, reigns. Instead of idolising a nice God, the church needs to worship a God whose love actively opposes evil while tenderly embracing and delivering those who are entrapped by it.

Tammy Williams is a Baptist minister and a former theology professor at Duke Divinity School in North Carolina

james_careyJAMES CARY

‘God’s love, God’s wrath, God’s holiness – all turned up to 11’

No. God is not nice. But I would say that since I’m a Calvinist. We don’t really “do” nice (in the same way that that Alastair Campbell didn’t “do” God). But this unequivocal answer isn’t just based on Calvin’s Institutes. It’s based on The Bible, which does not portray God as especially “nice”.

This maybe a difficult truth to face for many of us trying to combat the popular culture version of God that has him as either a moody, vengeful force of nature more like Zeus, or some kind of benevolent Dumbledore-Gandalf figure who is well meaning, but not quite as powerful as we’d like. Some like to say the former Zeus-like God is the Old Testament one, and the Dumbledore one is the New Testament version. This is, of course, a lazy stereotype.

The God of the Old Testament is no pussy cat, for sure. In fact, the phrase “Lion of Judah” springs to mind. But equally, one of the most repeated phrases in the hundreds of pages of history, law and prophecy is full of compassionate language: “the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness…” Sounds nice? Very. Except, this description is first delivered at the terrifying encounter with Yahweh at Sinai. And this moment demonstrates that are no half-measures with God. God’s wrath, God’s love, God’s faithfulness, God’s white hot holiness – everything turned up to 11. And yet God’s wrath is not without mercy, and his love not without discipline.

In the same way, Jesus is not nice, or a mealy-mouthed version of John Lennon and Ghandi as many seem to think. He talks of himself as one who comes with a sword, but he also is clear that he himself is the Passover lamb. Jesus was kind to the unfortunate, compassionate to the sick, the lame and the despised. He could be tactful (like when he says to Simon “I have something to tell you”, before dropping a bombshell). Jesus was impossible. Fun to be with (omniscience meaning he knew all the best jokes), but he was such an awkward dinner guest, answering questions with questions, refusing to settle the scores between his followers, subverting expectations and telling ambiguous strange stories that could easily be misinterpreted. Jesus also talked about hell and judgment a lot. Just because pastors don’t like to preach on the passages, it doesn’t mean they’re not there. Jesus was also abusive, calling the Pharisees snakes and whitewashed tombs. He drew a whip on money-lenders in the Temple. Is this nice? A risotto is nice. A teddy bear is nice. Jesus is no teddy bear.

James Cary is a comedy writer whose work includes Miranda and Bluestone 42

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simon_jenkinsSIMON JENKINS

‘Niceness lies at the heart of the Good News’

The question of whether God is nice is a game of two halves. It’s not just about the character of the Supreme Being, but also about the character of a small but vexed four-letter word. The way people disdain it, you’d think “nice” was more like some other four-letters words which can’t be named in this family-friendly publication.

I often censor myself whenever I’m in danger of using nice. In birthday cards, thank-you emails or happy new year texts, I go for words such as fab, wonderful, lovely, kind and cool… anything but “nice”.

Snobbishness about nice has been around for the past 200 years at least. Jane Austen in Northanger Abbey (1803) has the sarcastic Henry Tilney observe: “This is a very nice day, and we are taking a very nice walk; and you are two very nice young ladies. Oh! It is a very nice word indeed! It does for everything.”

But since nice does for everything, why do we object to a word that is so universally handy? It seems perverse, like refusing to use electric plugs or shirt buttons. Sometimes the quick and simple fix you hardly need to think about is exactly what you need. And nice is just that: a highly flexible and handy word covering most things that are agreeable.

But back to the question: is God nice, as in fab, wonderful, lovely, cool and generally all-round agreeable?

I think Christians essentially believe that is true. There isn’t a line in any of the creeds which says “God is nice”, of course, but underlying everything in the Christian faith is the story that God went to huge lengths to rescue us from the dreadful mess we’re in, paying the highest price to do it.
While “nice” isn’t the usual theological word to cover what God did, it would be churlish to argue that niceness doesn’t lie at the heart of the Good News.

After all, being nice to others as you would have them be nice to you is the focus of Jesus’s sermon on the mount. This isn’t some kind of floppy, gooey, sentimental niceness that Jesus has in mind, but real strength of character which seeks to be positive and generous when people are nasty and negative.

Treating people with courtesy when they are being rude to you, speaking calmly when they are shouting abuse at you – in short, being a nice person – is what Christians are called to be. We follow the pattern of how God has been so comprehensively nice to nasty us.

One of the most neglected qualities spoken about in the New Testament is “kindness”. It’s such a mild world (and so close to nice) and yet it’s a key to understanding the Christian way. “When the kindness and love of God our Saviour appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy,” says Paul.

God is kind. God is nice. God is love. These things belong together.

Simon Jenkins is the editor of shipoffools.com

 

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This article was published in the May 2013 edition of  Reform.

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