“Nice” tripped me up in high school and for a decade after. “Nice” took my friend down a dark path of deadly sin and apostasy. “Nice” still threatens every one of us, our children, and even our good priests and bishops. The devil comes as an angel of light, wolves come in sheep’s (and shepherds’) clothing, and the con man is short for “confidence” man. Not every deceiver has malicious intent, but he deceives, nonetheless. To counter the deceptions of “nice,” let us always look for true. The truth may often hurt—but, unlike “nice,” it can never harm.
As a teen in the 1980s, I was at a moral crossroads. I was a typical, poorly catechized Catholic, playing around with serious sin, and my conscience was slightly bothering me. I had a sense of right and wrong (because relativism was not yet all the rage), but I saw God as a permissive parent who was too “loving” to enforce His own boundaries. However, before I waded further into sin, I thought it best to seek out the holiest friend I knew, Marianne, to get some advice.
Marianne was a practicing Catholic who was caring, kind, sober, and chaste. Always cheerful and patient, she openly spoke of her love for Jesus, went to Mass every Sunday, and was one of the few people I knew through my K-12 public-school years who seemed to be very devoted to Catholicism—certainly much more than I was. It seemed reasonable, then, for me to go to Marianne with my question: Should I continue on this path of serious sin or turn around? Of course, I did not phrase it that way, but she and I both knew that our Faith held these actions to be sinful.
Marianne leaned over and touched my forearm. “Leila,” she said, looking directly into my eyes and smiling warmly, “I just want you to be happy.”
I am 55 years old now, but I still remember her face, the classroom, the surroundings, and the peace of that moment. Those words were all I needed to hear from my most moral friend. I didn’t look back, and for the next ten years, I continued in ever-deepening mortal sin.
I didn’t fully understand that by listening to my friend’s soothing words, I was placing myself into the hands of the devil. She was so nice! She loved me! But in truth, I was a living example of St. Ignatius’ First Rule of the Discernment of Spirits (emphasis mine):
In the persons who go from mortal sin to mortal sin, the enemy is commonly used to propose to them apparent pleasures, making them imagine sensual delights and pleasures in order to hold them more and make them grow in their vices and sins. In these persons the good spirit uses the opposite method, pricking them and biting their consciences through the process of reason.
I fell into the trap that ensnares many souls today: believing that if a person has a pleasing personality, is affable, attentive, and “accepting” (whatever that means), then the person is good. Somewhere along the line, Catholics began making crucial judgments based on feelings rather than reason. We are lulled by a hearty laugh, a twinkling eye, a hug with a knowing smile. We get sucked in by a sense that someone loves us, even though we are being led down a garden path.
The friendly person who accepts us, the one who reaches out to “accompany” and affirm us—that person may not always have our best interests at heart. And sometimes a person who does want the best for us is harming us unknowingly despite his good intentions. We cannot know by outward appearances or our emotions whether or not the other is truly being Christ to us. The only standard we can use to measure another’s advice and guidance is whether or not that advice conforms to objective truth and goodness.
However, because we have been conditioned to use our feelings as a gauge for what is true, discernment has become difficult. The one who laughs at our jokes, is affectionate, and is interested in what we have to say appeals to our senses; we are drawn to him, we like how we feel when we are with him, we want him to like us. We even find it harder to resist or say no to such a person, even when we know we should.