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Tuesday, January 17, 2012

Nice, Kind, and Good

I think we’ve made a mistake by teaching our kids (and being taught by our parents) that we ought to be nice. And if it’s possible to change how we talk, we should stop. This is because “nice” as we commonly use the term means multiple things, and some of them are better than others.

“Nice” can mean “kind.” That means you recognize when someone has some weakness or vulnerability and gently extend help to that person. Kindness is produced by the Holy Spirit and is always a good thing.

“Nice” can also mean “courteous.” You don’t behave rudely toward anyone but act according to cultural standards of politeness and propriety that are a ritual way of demonstrating respect for others. Courtesy is a sort of foundational expression of regard for one’s neighbor, so this is also a good thing, at least in all but the most extreme circumstances.

“Nice” can mean “friendly” or “pleasant.” When you meet someone in a social gathering for the first time, you smile and make small-talk that puts others at ease. This can also be an expression of love, and it is also very useful. But though we should strive to put it into practice, this is easier for some than for others just because of their outgoing temperament, not because of any special virtue.

“Nice” can also mean “doesn’t make people feel bad.” This definition of “nice” isn’t just about the nice person but also about the reactions of the people around the nice person. So the same person may be considered nice by less easily offended people and not nice by easily offended people. In such a case, “nice” doesn’t describe the virtue of the nice person but rather the virtue of the people around him or her.

My problem with expecting and teaching people to “be nice” is that, depending on what we mean by “nice,” being nice can be very honoring to God or very dishonoring to God or in some cases just not as important as we make it out to be.

As I said before, being kind is always pleasing to God, and I hope that when we teach our young children to “be nice,” this is the main thing we’re trying to urge on them. And in fact, maybe we should stop saying, “Be nice,” and start saying, “Be kind,” instead to keep things clear. It’s also very appropriate to raise them to be nice as in being polite, so we should keep things going there.

But though it is a fine thing to desire and expect people to be nice as in friendly, let’s not put too much moral stock in it. Con artists are nice—a person can be nice and yet have nothing but the worst intentions for their neighbor. Also, as I said before, some people are nice not because they’re especially good but because they’re good at being nice. It’s a natural talent like being a good athlete or musician. This isn’t bad; in fact, it’s good. But its goodness is like good art that is pleasing to the eye, not like goodness that pleases the moral sense.

The diciest definition of “nice,” in my opinion, has to do with other people not feeling bad. Now, don’t get me wrong: not making people feel bad matters. If you have two ways to do something, and one way will make people feel bad and the other way won’t, then do the way that won’t. That’s not only kind (the really good sort of “nice”) thing to do, but it’s also smart. The problem is that when many people get their feelings hurt, they immediately conclude that the person who hurt them wasn’t nice. If being “nice” is such a great virtue, then their hurt is a marker that the other person is immoral. And maybe the person was. But maybe not. Because lots of holy, righteous people in history have made other people feel bad. Jesus did it all the time, and we know that he was the kindest person the world has ever seen, the living expression of God’s kindness to people who don’t deserve it.

Because all these different meanings are lumped together in the word “nice,” and because Sunday Schools and such, hopefully meaning “Be kind,” tell the children of Christians, “Be nice,” there are many, many people who think that not upsetting other people is the essence and goal of Christian living. They might not put it this way exactly. But how often have you heard someone say (or said yourself), “What So-and-So did is un-Christian,” when what they really believe is, “I don’t like what So-and-So did because it hurt my feelings and ticked me off.” Maybe the problem is with what So-and-So did. Maybe the problem is what the person did who was ticked off by So-and-So. Maybe So-and-So was truly exhibiting love, which both is “kind” and also “is not glad about injustice, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor. 13:4, 6). Maybe the person who is upset by how “not nice” So-and-So is is really just a bit too attached to injustice and falsehood.

So, as I’ve proposed before, let’s back way off trying to be nice and instead zealously pursue being kind, and let’s teach our kids to do the same.

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