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Thursday, February 18, 2010

Book Review: Getting Off The Niceness Treadmill

By Carol Noren Johnson

"For am I now seeking the approval of man, or of God? Or am I trying to please man? If I were still trying to please man, I would not be a servant of Christ." (Galatians 1:10)"
Such is the great gulf between "niceness" and "godliness", a necessary distinction that Carol Noren Johnson can relate to. In "Getting Off The Niceness Treadmill", Carol (NewKidontheBlogg) shares her life's journey that began in Portland, Oregon in a Christian family. Like many Christians, Carol learned that Christian girls are supposed to be "nice", a lesson that made her subject to being a pawn for many self-serving acquaintances along her life's path. "Niceness", she writes, "is not always biblical kindness, but an ego need, or, in my case, a habit from early training". Carol relates how her "addiction" to niceness made her a pushover for many, especially during her years as a widow. Her combination of loneliness and "need to be needed" allowed room mates and relatives to take advantage of her, junk up her property, use her as a chauffeur, and play to her "Christian" sympathies while embezzling and stealing money for drug use.

Carol traces her own addiction to niceness back to her teenage years, from a desire to please her loving yet strict Swedish grandmother to her later guilt trip over not providing the grandchildren that her mother desired.

"Please others! Because of my mother's and grandmother's rules, I began to reason that pleasing is the way to live. Be nice, do nice, so it will be easy for everyone and everyone will like me. I didn't realize that people don't have to like me. I didn't realize that I don't even have to begin to please everyone. Yes, we should respect our parents, but we must realize that they may never be pleased entirely. The script I was to live was prepared and would be a problematic journey for me." (p. 15)
Niceness can really become a problem for Christians in regards to church activities, a fact that I can relate to. Churches aren't immune to taking advantage of those who "need to be needed" in order to fulfill perceived needs in their ministry. Conventional wisdom has it that Christians who care for the ministry of the church should always say yes to the leadership of the church, up and until the time when the services are no longer needed. When Carol lost her church position without any explanation, she was asked to tell no one in order to avoid a church split. While it may have been the right thing for her to do out of respect for the Church of Jesus Christ, such an approach caused Carol much emotional pain and anguish that would last for years. (p. 21)

As a result, Carol moved away from California out of a need to "regain psychological health", and began to attend Michigan State University in order to obtain her PhD in Educational Systems Development. There she faced many obstacles as a student trying to make ends meet via odd jobs, battling loneliness, financial struggles, and health problems. Yet through God's providence, it is also where she met her first husband Don, whose knowledge in pastoral counseling helped her "work through the hurt" that she felt. (p. 24)

Carol's life is evident of the fact that doctrine does matter, and she elaborates in Chapters 6 and 7 on how sound doctrine helped her to arrive at a proper "perspective on good works, obligation, reciprocation, and the glory of God". (p. 47) Carol's "niceness" was in fact a combination of self-obsession and a works-based worldview instead of self-denial and a God-centered worldview. Too many Christians unfortunately see doctrine as purely an academic or theological matter, with no real practical use (other than to cause division in the church). But it was Carol's introduction to the Reformed doctrines of Sovereign Grace and Providence that began her migration off of the niceness treadmill. Mainstream evangelicalism, at some level, puts an emphasis on man's works, and that emphasis can only lead to either pride (a denial of the depths of ones sinfulness) or dispair (realizing that we can never do enough good works). Returning the focus to the finished work of Jesus Christ, however, can free us from the need to be needed, and thus give us the ability to walk in the good works that God has ordained for us, without becoming addicted to being nice. Sound doctrine teaches us that, as Christians, we are called into the fellowship of Christ's sufferings. The fact that all the we face in life has been ordained by a sovereign and loving God enables us to face hardships, even if those hardships are caused by others.

"It's kind and honest to tell the truth. We put on kindness and honesty, not niceness, when we go through the process of forgiving. We forgive because He first forgave all of our unrighteousness and self-righteousness." (p.25)
Having a proper view of God and man also helps give wisdom in providing for the needs of others. The opposite of niceness is not meanness, but living a life glorifying to God through biblical kindness, meeting needs as God provides without being a pushover. Though it may sound a bit odd, Carol relates how "niceness" is often built upon the sinful foundations of self-obsession.

"My sins were bitterness and self-pity, and then I shared the "poor me" story [about my previous church experience] with selected others. I kept busy with church, reading my Bible and praying.  When I laid down self-pity, I had taken up another strategy -- give money, take people in who needed lodging, make gifts, do whatever people expect a nice Christian to do.  Would that bring peace? Not really because of the expectations that I had. Certainly it didn't bring respect. It was self-righteous humanitarian behavior. I thought that life should go well for the nice person, and this notion was crumbling all around me". (p. 61)
Through years of growth, Carol was finally delivered from her niceness addiction, and thus she was able to chart a new course with a more godly, biblical attitude.

"_The ultimate gift is that God gave His Son to take our punishment and secure our reward in heaven. "Thanks be to God for His inexpressible gift." (2 Corinthians 9:15 RSV) Our humanitarian efforts are nothing in comparison to His gift.

_God, not Carol Johnson's efforts, supplies the needs of others. Now it sounds silly, doesn't it, that I had this nurturing need to help any and all who came to me.

_Let Him guide me when I feel generous. Am I being generous for a reward or to make my life easier? Don't expect a reward in this life "knowing that your labor is not in vain in the Lord". (1 Corinthians 15:58)

_I can be intolerant in an age of political correctness for causes I am led to support, even if it is not nice.

_Give the gift of time and attention to others. Have front porch discussions with others." (p.43)
True Godliness is not always "nice", and there are many things that Christians should not be nice about. Chapter 8 gives a brief list of such items, and particularly focuses on Carol's work with Drunk Drivers). Unlike many of the books reviewed on Covenant Theology, "Getting Off The Niceness Treadmill" is focused primarily on a particular life application of the doctrine of God's Sovereignty, putting man's works into proper perspective. Whether you or someone you know struggles with a need to please others in order to satisfy their own self-obsession, "Getting Off The Niceness Treadmill" is a helpful resource, particularly for those who are manipulated by niceness as a need to display his or her "Christian Faith".

Published by Genie Publishing Co. 2009
109 Pages
Easy Reading
Highly Recommended
Buy It Here

3 comments:

Mike The Mad Theologian said...

I can relate to this problem. I think the core of much of niceness is believing we can solve all of other people's problems. Seeing us in control not God. As you said an issue of God's sovereignity.

Puritan Lad said...

True. And there are many guilt manipulators out there that will play on this, even challenging your faith if you aren't "nice" enough.

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much, Puritan Lad, for getting the point of my book and writing such an excellent review. May God be praised.

Lord willing I may write a second volume on "Treadmill Stories" where others have struggled and learned similar lessons.

Carol Noren Johnson