Paul Coughlin Christian Blog and Commentary

The Dangers of a "Nice" Christian Upbringing

The people to whom I provide individual instruction have noticeable talents and abilities.  Many are more talented than they realize, more talented than they will allow themselves to admit.  For example, one popular Christian speaker has a potent testimony about the power for forgiveness, but she’s unable to spread her life-changing message to more people because of her spiritual education.  She was told throughout childhood that believers should shun accomplishment in order to remain humble and avoid becoming prideful.  Her success in ministry is causing her great internal turmoil, the main reason she hasn’t been in public for some time now.  Her well-meaning but naïve and destructive life-script has stopped her from sharing sparkling insights that set people free from hatred and bitterness.


Yes, these people have noticeable talents and abilities.  But, of course, so do their peers.  The fearful and the timid compete for jobs and spouses with one hand tied behind their back.  They possess a self-handicap.  They won’t allow themselves to live successfully, in large part because they don’t think God wants them to be successful.


These nice Christians who grew up as nice kids don’t finish last—that’s a common misconception that blurs the real problem.  Nice Christians finish in life’s frustrated middle, never getting to abundance, filled with inner angst, always playing defense, and usually filling out divorce papers at least once (sometimes more) during their beleaguered lifetime.  Some never get to marriage because they’re so nice as to be unattractive to potential spouses.  Their passive approach toward life often leads them to the passive worlds of fantasy and pornography.


I’ve instructed attorneys, doctors, landscapers, even a Sunday school teacher whose students would not respect him.  Each is thoughtful, considerate, and warm.  Many possess abilities that others crave.  Yet each has a soul controlled by timidity, fear, and anxiety.


They usually hadn’t much considered their backgrounds and experiences until their lives fell apart.  They didn’t seek or find help before they fell in love, married, had children, a mortgage, ailing parents.  There were warning signs, but they didn’t see them or, more commonly, refused to see them, until the amassed pressure they felt was so powerful they could nearly forge diamonds from it.  In many ways, the foundation of their adulthood crash was laid, brick by well-meaning brick, by what they were told as children about God.


Take Lynn Hybels, who along with her husband, Bill, started Willow Creek Community Church in 1975, today one of the nation’s most innovative ministries.  In her book Nice Girls Don’t Change the World, she describes a spiritual heritage that unintentionally makes children timid and passive, kids who do not make the world a better place.  They are handicapped adults and ineffective Christians.


Hybels grew up in a small Michigan town and attended church regularly.  She heard preaching that was “pretty much hellfire and btone.  I heard a lot about sin and punishment, guilt and shame.”


Her training gave her “an uncanny ability to keep almost everybody happy almost all the time,” thought she didn’t truly seem happy herself.  As a little girl, she was always smiling, though she doesn’t remember ever hearing herself laugh.  No one would have ever accused her of being “wildly in love with life,” but she had “such a nice smile.”  She remembers being a very caring person, “though in a passive sort of way.”  She was “not the type to turn the world upside down.”


She always felt God was judging her and making her conform to a list of rules.


At age ten I traded my ballet slippers for a flute because I had been taught that dancing was a sin but making music was an acceptable form of worship…If there were rules to follow, I followed them.  If there were pleasures to give up, I gave them up.  If there was work to do, I did it.  I was determined to earn God’s love.


She received the kind of education that derails adult life.  She eventually grew despondent, exhausted, and depressed. 


I was 39 years old when I walked into my counselor’s office and said, “I’ve been working so hard to keep everybody else happy, but I’m so miserable I want to die.”  I spent the decade of my forties digging out of that hole.  Now, nearly midway through my fifties, I’ve discovered that growing up is an ongoing process—I have no yet arrived.  Still, I have learned some things on the journey to becoming a good woman.


Part of this spiritual journey was figuring out what her gifts were—and what they weren’t.  She made halfhearted stabs to bring her life more in line with her gifts, but her training interfered with her ability to forge a more God-glorifying life.  True to her nice Christian girl script, she didn’t ask for help and, though she was surrounded by insightful and helpful Christians, she made sure not to inconvenience others with her frustrations or doubts, and she felt obligated to do whatever others asked her to do—regardless of whether or not she could do it well.


Lynne Hybels, a dyed-in-the-wool Christian Nice Girl, spent decades ignoring, neglecting, and denying her true gifts and passions, which drained her of the very vitality to which her husband was first drawn.  She felt “incompetent and insecure.  So my husband didn’t win” either.  Nor did her children.  “They didn’t get a joyful mother.  They didn’t get a fun mother.  They didn’t get to see, up close and personal, a woman fully alive in God.”


Like so many believing adults with a similar upbringing, she knew what she should do but lacked the backbone to do it.


God gave me a unique perspective and worthy dreams.  God gave me words and influence to use for good.  But I didn’t use them.  I didn’t show up.  I might have been there physically, but my gifts—my soul—didn’t show up.  I didn’t value what I had to offer enough to actually offer it.


She wasn’t showing up and she didn’t value her talents because she struggled mightily to overcome fear, as every person does when she receives her spiritual legacy.  Fear lies to us, concealing the truth about who we are, the gifts we possess, and the goodwill of other people.  Fear says we’re too dumb or too amateurish or too wimpy to carry out the good works God puts before us.  Fear, Hybels says, told her she “might as well give up.”


Listen to her hard-won insights into the difference between a nice Christian girl and a good Christian woman:


Whereas a girl of any age lives out the script she learned as a child—a script too often grounded in powerlessness—a woman acknowledges and accepts her power to change, and grow, and be a force for good in the world.


Whereas a nice girl tends to live according to the will of others, a good woman has only one goal: to discern and live out the will of God.


A good woman knows that her ultimate calling in life is to be part of God’s plan for redeeming all things in this sin-touched world.


A good woman knows she cannot be all things to all people, and she may, in fact, displease those who think she should just be nice.  She is not strident or petty or demanding, but she does live according to conviction.  She knows that the Jesus she follows was a revolutionary who never tried to keep everyone happy.


That picture of a good woman made me want to be one.  It made me want to grow up and trade the innocuous acceptability of niceness for the world-changing power and passion of true goodness.


Lynne Hybels went outside the advice many Christians receive at church, and it restored her life.  After much grappling—which included realizing that for many years her children and husband had not gotten the kind of mother or wife she wished she was—she came out the other end of her training with a new approach toward life.


I’m happy for her, even though I also wish she didn’t have to go through her ordeal.  She emerged on the other side wiser and stronger.  But others with her spiritual heritage aren’t so fortunate.  They struggle through a life that to them is serial disappointment and unending frustration.  This is what can happen when someone receives that kind of “nice Christian upbringing.” 


Next time:  Worm Theology

Paul Coughlin is the author of numerous books, including 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. His articles appear in Focus on the Family magazine, and he as been interviewed by Dr. James Dobson, FamilyLife Radio, HomeWord, Newsweek, C-SPAN, The New York Times, and the 700 Club among others. Paul is founder of The Protectors, the faith-based answer to adolescent bullying, which provides curriculum for Sunday Schools, private schools, retreats, and individuals that trains people of faith to be sources of light in the theater of bullying. 

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