Pastoral care is more than just being nice

We all know it’s nice to be nice. But sometimes doing what seems nice to us turns out to also be detrimental to the person we’re trying to shower with niceness. We may ever so nicely offer our help only to find our helping turns out to cause more problems than it intended to solve.

It may be nice to put your hand in your pocket and buy someone a drink, but if that someone is a recovering alcoholic it’s probably not so nice after all. We may think we’re being nice asking the severely depressed person how we might help them, but finding things that friends can do to display their helpfulness actually becomes a burden that often triggers more anxiety. No doubt the intention is good but the outcome is not so nice after all. Bailing somebody out of their rent arrears may seem pretty nice too. It is not so good, however, when you find you are just enabling that person to continue wasting money knowing that you will always bail them out. This sort of niceness leads, not so much to a culture of dependency, but of fecklessness. I can behave and act however I please knowing that I will always be bailed out by kindly, nice folk. In the long run, these things end up hurting more than helping.

The point here is not to stop being nice. Perish the thought! The point is that what some might deem nice may not actually be in the best interests of the one we are showering with our niceness. Which is just another way of saying it’s perhaps not all that nice at all. Sure, it may feel nice for a bit. Everyone loves pancakes covered in maple syrup, right? But when your blood sugar goes haywire and you end up in a diabetic coma, how nice was it to keep plying our friend with more in the name of niceness?

The same is inevitably true in the church. I’m certainly not saying stop all acts of kindness. That would be totally unbiblical. What I am saying is our own definitions of niceness sometimes cloud what may be in an individual’s best interest and end up failing to be all that nice at all.

Some view pastoral care as a means of simply getting nice stuff from church leaders. I tell them my problems and they make me feel good. As long as they’re nice to me, all is well and I feel cared for. If they don’t seem all that nice, as I define niceness, then they have failed to care for me adequately and I’m off.

But taking a look at some of the choice language Jesus employed – ‘get behind me Satan’ (note: not to Satan), ‘you brood of vipers’ and ‘whitewashed tombs’ spring to mind – these don’t seem to be all that nice. Then there is Paul, who addresses somebody engaging in incestuous sex:

It is actually reported that there is sexual immorality among you, and of a kind that is not tolerated even among pagans, for a man has his father’s wife. And you are arrogant! Ought you not rather to mourn? Let him who has done this be removed from among you.

At which point, we might think fair enough – hardly anyone thinks incest is a grey area. But then he goes off the scale and tells us:

I am writing to you not to associate with anyone who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of sexual immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or swindler—not even to eat with such a one.

So, openly greedy people, idolaters, revilers, drunkards and swindlers must also be thrown out of the church and the church shouldn’t even eat with them until they repent of their sin. That doesn’t seem all that nice, and a bit full on for someone who is a bit greedy!

What we often don’t realise is that Jesus and Paul are showing us the greatest kindness. Listen to what Paul says in Galatians 5:

Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Elsewhere, Paul tells us in 1 Corinthians 6:

Or do you not know that the unrighteous will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: neither the sexually immoral, nor idolaters, nor adulterers, nor men who practise homosexuality, nor thieves, nor the greedy, nor drunkards, nor revilers, nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God. And such were some of you. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.

The greatest problem we all face is the problem of our sin. The greatest kindness that can be done for us is to help us recognise our sin and to have it forgiven in the person of Jesus Christ. We can try to be nice, not upsetting or offending anyone, and comfort people all the way to Hell in their sin. Or, we can have a conversation in which we call out sin for what it is and love people enough to tell them it is neither satisfying, sensible nor salvific despite the awkwardness and unpleasantness of sometimes doing so.

None of that gives us the right to act like jerks. Just because hard things need to be said doesn’t give us the right to say whatever we want, however we want. But how nice are we really being if we skirt these issues? It’s like giving a heroin addict money for drugs. They might feel it’s what they really need and it might seem nice to just give them what they want. But ultimately, we are aiding and abetting what is destroying them. To soft peddle sin and allow people to indulge it on the grounds that it’s not nice to tell people otherwise is neither pastoral wise, loving or very nice at all.

The Bible calls us to be kind, it doesn’t call us to be nice. The kindest thing we can do is to help people realise the severity of their sin problem and to show them the solution in Jesus Christ. Like Paul said, it may take kicking people out of the church and shunning them for a bit before they take notice. Nobody does that lightly; only a sociopath takes pleasure in it and relishes the opportunity. But the point isn’t vindictiveness and nor is it to be nasty. It is to do the kindest thing we can possibly do: show somebody they are not right with Christ and make clear that it is only by repentance (being sorry for, and seeking to stop, that particular sin) and faith (trusting in Jesus Christ for forgiveness) that problem will be resolved.

Pastoral care is fundamentally about caring for people’s souls. If we care about souls, we will care about sin. If we recognise sin if the greatest problem we all face, we won’t let social convention stand in the way of offering people the solution. But as Jesus said, ‘I have not come to call the healthy but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance’. Unless we recognise we’re sick, we cannot avail ourselves of the cure. Whilst nobody likes to be told they’re sick – especially when they feel so well – the kindest most loving thing to do is to show them their need of the cure and to give it to them. It may not be all that nice but it is most certainly kind, loving and caring.