If you ever went to Sunday school as a child, chances are you saw colorful illustrations of Jesus in action. Remember those? Healing the lame, feeding the five thousand—tremendous miracles performed by a white-robed Jesus with beautiful, long, brown hair. (Just how did Jesus keep his hair looking so silky in that arid climate? Now that was a miracle!) He always looked clean, safe, and…well…nice. Like someone you could bring home to your mother.
Or perhaps, later in life, you were introduced to this one-dimensional Jesus Christ through sermons or books that presented only the sweet side of Jesus. Go into most churches, and you'll rarely hear a sermon about the firm, confrontational, and courageous side of Jesus' personality. Churches sing about "The Old Rugged Cross," but preachers and teachers seldom mention the rugged side of the Savior. For many women, this is not a problem because…let's be honest…the rougher side of Jesus can make women uncomfortable and even lead to an occasional cringe.
For example, weren't you just a little taken aback when you learned that Jesus overturned the money changers' tables and whirled a whip around in the temple courts (John 2)? Somebody could have been killed or accidentally gotten an eye put out. At the very least, Jesus made a big mess, and it doesn't say anywhere in Scripture that he helped clean up.
Or what about in Matthew 15 when the Canaanite mother begs Jesus to heal her daughter, and he responds with, "It is not right to take the children's bread and toss it to their dogs" (v. 26). If he were anyone else, believers would denounce him as being hard-hearted, cruel, and perhaps not even a Christian because he wasn't polite or helpful. In fact, Jesus sounds rude, like he's calling her a dog. What's up with that?
Far too often, when women come to these passages in the Bible, they just skip over them or try to explain away the stronger side of Jesus. They rationalize, "Jesus wasn't really angry in the temple courts. No way. He was calm and amazingly detached as he swung that whip around." They read in the NIV Bible translation that Jesus rebuked Peter with a stern "Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me" (Matthew 26:23), and somehow their NGB (Nice Girl Bible) translation turns that into "Jesus got a little annoyed with Peter and tactfully suggested that it would be best for Peter to give him some space to regroup and have a little ‘me time.'"
When Jesus turned water into wine as his first miracle, he made enough vino to fill six huge water vats—over a hundred gallons of wine, more than any wedding party could consume. If anyone else did this, eyebrows would be raised at a "show off" who seems to encourage drunkenness. But it's Jesus, and so believers skim past it.
When Jesus casts out devils, why would a nice savior cast them into a herd of pigs, destroying two thousand animals and what was most likely a family's life savings? (Mark 5:13). He makes no offer to compensate the pigs' owners either. In Matthew 8:18, when surrounded by a crowd of sick people needing healing, Jesus ordered his disciples to take him away to the other side of the lake. That doesn't sound very supportive or compassionate.
At one time he told his disciples to sell their cloaks and buy swords if they did not already have them in order to fulfill the Scripture that "he was counted as one of the bad people" (Luke 22:37-38, Worldwide English New Testament), a fact that has never sat well with his followers, so it's explained away or simply ignored.
Jesus called a nation's religious leaders "whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of dead men's bones and everything unclean" (Matthew 23:27). He declared that he did not come to bring peace "but a sword" (Matthew 10:34), and that he came to "bring fire on the earth" (Luke 12:49).
Though Jesus was not a model of compliance or "good behavior," often women try to put a positive, non-threatening spin on everything he did, acting like public relations spokeswomen covering for a bungling political candidate. They end up doing damage control for the Son of God—and damaging themselves in the process.
Fortunately, Jesus Christ doesn't need damage control or help from an image consultant. As presented in the Gospels, Jesus is most definitely not one-sided. He is the complete embodiment of healthy, balanced human personality; thus, Jesus is immensely compassionate, kind, and gracious while also being assertive, forceful, and firm when necessary. He is good, but he's definitely not "nice" or as safe as many Christians want to believe.
He is a Savior who was fully aware of his actions and words as he lived on earth in human form for thirty-three years. He is also a Savior who says in Matthew 16:24, "If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me." Not "follow me when I'm nice," but "follow me." No qualifiers, just a straightforward command to walk his walk and talk his talk, whether that walk and talk appears nice or not.
There are several profound problems associated with portraying Jesus as the nicest person to ever skip across ancient soil. First, it's a misrepresentation of Scripture. Presenting half of Jesus (even if it is the gentle half) as the total sum of Jesus requires ignoring almost twenty percent of the verses in the Gospels. That's just wrong. Second Timothy 3:16-17 teaches that "all Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." Every verse about Jesus is in the Bible because God wants it there to develop believers into an accurate image of Christ. And yes, that includes verses where women may wince at the forceful side of Jesus.
Second, a narrow focus on the sweet side of Jesus gives women the idea that God wants Christians to behave sweetly in all situations. Here's the problem: Jesus says in Matthew 5:13, "You are the salt of the earth," not the sugar of the earth. Yes, sugar is delicious, particularly in chocolate desserts. However, salt is infinitely more useful than sugar. Salt enhances natural food flavors, preserves food, and is used in manufacturing over 14,000 products (including glass, rubber, metals, textiles, soap, and cosmetics). Salt, unlike sugar, is necessary for human life. In Mark 9:50, Jesus says "Have salt in yourselves, and be at peace with each other," making a clear connection between being like salt and being at peace with others. Your mother may have said, "You can catch more flies with honey than with vinegar," but Jesus wants you to do far more than manipulate people with saccharine pseudo-Christianity. He wants you to be useful in his kingdom and to find following his salty-sweet example practical in everyday life and relationships. (It's no coincidence that most people find a salty-sweet combination of foods irresistible. Snack mix, anyone?) Following the example of an artificially sweet Jesus leads to frustration and has even caused some to walk away from their faith altogether because this example doesn't work well in real life. How could it? It's fake.
Third, portraying Jesus as Mr. Manners in sandals gives the impression that politeness pretty much sums up what it means to be Christ-like. The problem here is that hurt people are not drawn toward perfectly nice people. Folks don't look toward women with perfect etiquette for help when life comes crashing down. Hurting people look toward individuals who, like Jesus, have both fire and compassion in their eyes, individuals who inspire and who will speak the truth in love—even if it stings. This is the kind of Jesus who attracted "people crowding around him and listening to the word of God" (Luke 5:1), people so numerous that "There was no room left, not even outside the door" (Mark 2:2). If you are going to be a woman who draws people to Christ, you need to reflect to the world an accurate image of Christ, not an image of Miss Manners with a cross around her neck.
A fourth and final serious problem occurs when the Lion of Judah is misrepresented as a precious little lamb: women lose Christ's complete example of authentic goodness, and over time, begin to sanctify and pursue false niceness instead of true goodness. They substitute something similar for the real thing, guaranteeing disappointing results.
For instance, have you ever tried to make thick, chewy chocolate-chip cookies and ended up with wafer-thin cookies instead? You may have made the error of substituting a margarine spread for butter in the recipe. They look the same and even produce similar looking dough, but the oven's heat reveals their crucial differences. (That's assuming you didn't eat all of the raw cookie dough first. Margarine spreads are usually 25 to 50% water, so cookie dough made with them will spread more when baked.) True goodness and false niceness are like butter and margarine. They can look similar, but when life's pressures crank up the heat, only authentic goodness will produce the results you want. Far too often, Christian women are fed a watered down version of Christ's goodness and consequently believe that timid compliance and superficial sweetness are necessary ingredients for an abundant life. They substitute bland niceness for real goodness, and then when failure results, women blame themselves and believe following Christ's example doesn't work in everyday life. Nothing could be farther from the truth.
True goodness is immensely useful. If you follow Christ's example of goodness, you will find that Christianity works, and works far better than anything else to produce the abundant life. You just have to make sure that your key ingredient is authentic goodness and not a watered-down substitute.
Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including Unleashing Courageous Faith, No More Christian Nice Guy and No More Jellyfish, Chickens or Wimps. He also co-authored a book for married couples with his wife Sandy, titled Married But Not Engaged. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the values-based and faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for public schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals who want to diminish child-based bullying.