The problem with nice guys

I’m fortunate. I got a handle on my fake niceness before it fatally wounded my marriage of 16 years.

For most of my adult life, I gave faux smiles and was dangerously passive for the same reason a squid squirts ink:

I wanted to hide – at home where it was difficult to lead, at work where it was hard to excel and at church where I feared being authentic.

Sadly, I see this fake niceness in church more than any other place.

“How are you?” I’ll ask another man, whose face is red with stress.

“Doin’ great!” Fake toothy smile. “God bless you!” With such men, that’s code for, “Go away.”

I remember those days when I felt it wasn’t safe to be real, when I drove life-giving fellowship away and my family suffered. I ensured my life remained small, ordinary and boring.

I call this debilitating condition the Christian Nice Guy Syndrome. It’s an emotional and spiritual malady that robs husbands of the power and passion necessary to direct, make sacrifices and provide for their families. Such men are in the grip of two crippling forces I know well: passivity and an incomplete understanding of Jesus.

The passivity trap

Generally, a husband whose passivity undercuts his marriage was a kid who suffered abandonment, neglect, abuse or overprotection. When I was about 10, my mother told me often, “Strangers will be coming to take you away any minute because you’re such an evil boy.”

Mom, prone to drowning others with her emotions, waited for me each day after school. Her impassive look did not reveal whether she would hug me or beat me as I passed. I entered the house dry-mouthed and with heart pounding.

So I learned how to hide my feelings behind a deceptive smile, avoid attention and rarely confront. I had a PhD in passivity before I left elementary school. My unassertive nature was fortified by what I learned at church.

Misunderstanding Jesus

The Christian nice guy problem also has a misunderstood spiritual component. These men have an incomplete picture of God. Thus, they are encouraged to be nice to a fault, making them emotionally dishonest.

When we ask ourselves the popular question WWJD, why do we assume a mild response? We talk a lot about how Jesus drove the money changers from the temple – with a whip no less – as if it’s the only example of His rugged side. Other examples include turning to His followers, exasperated, and asking, “Why are you such cowards?” and “Are you being willfully stupid?” (Mark 4:40, 7:18, The Message, a paraphrase). He called individuals and entire groups “whitewashed tombs,” “blind fools,” “hypocrites” and a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 23:13-36).

Christian nice guys are encouraged to study the gentle Scriptures but avoid the tougher ones that demand greater discernment and, with it, conflict. The best example comes from Jesus Himself, who said, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes and as innocent as doves” (Matthew 10:16). You may have never heard a sermon on how to be shrewd as a serpent, but you have heard a plethora on how to be innocent as a dove.

Why is this need to toughen up Christian men so important to marriage? Because forging intimacy isn’t always gentle and smooth; emotional engagement requires courage. Intimacy requires flexibility and strength.

Unhealthy marriages

When I brought the fear-based passivity of my youth, combined with the false ideal of Jesus, into my marriage, tension and resentment brewed beneath the surface.

Because I was scared to be direct about my sexual desires, I took the covert route. I thought I was a smooth operator. I’d rub my wife’s back, usually in the evening, to form an unofficial pact: I’ll show you affection; you’ll offer me some intimacy later tonight. When she didn’t, I’d get upset because she didn’t fulfill her end of our agreement – an agreement she never agreed to. Oh, the madness of passivity!

I feared conflict with most everyone, so I would tell my mother what she wanted to hear, then tell my wife something different. Such a scenario may make for a great sitcom, but it’s not funny in real life. There’s a word for this behaviour: lying.

Course corrections

Overcoming the Christian nice guy problem takes time. Here’s how to begin.

  • Surrender to God. One evening in a cold Philadelphia hotel room while on a lonely business trip, I humbly admitted to God that my life stunk. I used to fear humility because I thought it was synonymous with shame. But humility opened my eyes to truth, which is never degrading; oddly, I felt greater power and an ability to genuinely love.
  • Stop bearing false witness – against yourself. I believed I was worthless, not because of my sin, but because I was defective. Then I saw how God sees me, as His wonderful creation (Psalm 139:14) for whom He has good plans.
  • Overcome the fear factor. Fears are often lies in disguise. Look for their deception like a detective searches for clues. Some men may need professional help. The Bible implores us to seek wise counsel (Proverbs 2:2, 15:22).
  • Find the real Jesus. I keep a journal of Christ’s more rugged actions and statements. More are found in Mark than any other Gospel. You’ll discover that He is far too holy to be merely nice.
  • Assert yourself. Three major personality types are found among the judges of the popular reality TV show American Idol. Passive Paula Abdul is gracious but not always truthful. Aggressive Simon Cowell is truthful but rarely gracious. Assertive Randy Jackson is often truthful and gracious. Be like Randy. (Whether you call people “dawg” is up to you.)

These beginning steps lead to greater confidence and honesty. Once Christian nice guys attain them, they will never want to go back to their old, destructive ways – and neither will their grateful families.

Paul Coughlin is the author of No More Christian Nice Guy. He and his wife live in Oregon.

© 2007 Focus on the Family. All rights reserved. International copyright secured. Used by permission.

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