The Debate of Nice Vs. Kind

World Challenge Staff

Although most people don’t realize it, there is a vast difference between being nice and being kind, and one is far more biblical than the other. 

Niceness is what initially lures Mark Studdock into the fold of National Institute for Co-ordinated Experiments (N.I.C.E.). He’s flattered and made to feel like a vital part of the propaganda machine within the organization despite his repeated poor performance.

The antagonists of C. S. Lewis’s renowned science fiction book That Hideous Strength set themselves up as progressive scientists who want to free humanity from the constraints of organic life. The needs and frailties of our bodies are seen as the ultimate barrier to overcome in their minds. The illogic of their arguments flies over Mark’s head at a certain point because of how nice the members are to him and how nice it feels to be part of something larger than himself.   

The long-winded deputy director of N.I.C.E., John Wither, has had contact with demonic powers for so long that it has ‘withered’ his mind. Most people he speaks to find his rambling dialogs stuffed with jargon and mind-numbingly vague. He is, however, unfailingly polite and nebulously pleasant. Anytime Mark starts to suspect the truth about his work or his actual place in N.I.C.E., John Wither swoops in with banal assurances and mindless compliments. 

Only Dr. Cecil Dimble’s sharp criticism of N.I.C.E. and how Mark has failed to protect his wife rattles Mark to awareness of his actual situation. As badly as Dr. Dimble offends him, Mark is only saved from full conversion to the dark side by the doctor’s tough but timely words.

The kindest words spoken to Mark throughout the entire novel are those which most offend him in the moment and haunt him until his redemption in the book’s final pages.

Unlike what many people assume, the overlap between niceness and kindness is fairly small. The Blackburn Center, which helps survivors of domestic abuse, classifies the difference this way: “Generally, niceness involves doing something that is pleasing or agreeable. By contrast, kindness is doing something that is helpful to others, or that comes from a place of benevolence. …Being kind doesn’t always mean being nice, however — because the truly kind response won’t always be pleasing to the other person. In many situations, being nice is not necessarily kind.”

Niceness invites an abusive family member to the holiday dinner so as to avoid conflict. Niceness hides frustration and honest questions during a conflict with a coworker, at least until they’re in the other room. Niceness is the fond eulogy at the funeral of a harsh man.

Let’s call niceness what it actually is. It’s either people-pleasing, conflict-avoidance or an effective way to manipulate others. Lia Avellino, LCSW and CEO of Spoke, wrote, “In reality, people-pleasing is about avoiding our own negative emotions that arise in the presence of another who doesn’t get what they want from us. It’s about not wanting to threaten relational security by being true to ourselves. …Any connection that is destabilized by truth is one that needs more of it.”

Niceness initially endears us to people then brings about a false sense of belonging because it promotes inauthentic behavior and poisons genuine connection between people. Niceness folds a gentle cloth over our eyes when it comes to seeing sin. We develop the saccharine sentimentality of emotions-driven faith, and we make dishonest excuses for our own sins and for others. We don’t call out bad behavior or warn others away from it. All of this leaves us dangerously vulnerable to being blindsided by corruption. Niceness champions cowardice and eventually a blandness of character as we become all things to all people with no goal other than acceptance in mind. Behind our façade, we suspect everyone else of being equally fake.

In the end, niceness leads first to cynicism and finally to bitterness. If all our relationships are nice, no one will tell us the truth, and therefore no one may be trusted. Niceness lures us in with the promise of being liked, maybe even loved, then leaves us with hollow relationships, bouncing between inauthenticity, sentimentality, corruption, blandness and cynicism. 

What does genuine kindness look like then, if it may not even be a cousin to niceness?

In her book Nice: Why We Love to Be Liked and How God Calls Us to More, Sharon Hodde Miller muses, “Many of us nice Christians are willing to speak the truth in love so long as we are speaking it to other people ‘out there.’ We will criticize that other group, that other strand of Christianity, those other people outside the walls of our church. This allows us to call ourselves bold while maintaining our nice Christian image because we never turn the critical eye on our own group.”

This is exactly what Paul didn’t do when he saw an issue not only in the churches he helped found but even among his own group of church leaders.

There was nothing nice about Paul confrontation with Peter in Antioch, but it was at the heart a deeply kind and loving act. “For before certain men came from James, he was eating with the Gentiles; but when they came he drew back and separated himself, fearing the circumcision party. And the rest of the Jews acted hypocritically along with him, so that even Barnabas was led astray by their hypocrisy. But when I saw that their conduct was not in step with the truth of the gospel, I said to Cephas before them all, ‘If you, though a Jew, live like a Gentile and not like a Jew, how can you force the Gentiles to live like Jews?’” (Galatians 2:12-14, ESV). 

Peter had the temerity to argue with Jesus who was never wrong, so it’s difficult to imagine that he initially took this rebuke well. The Jews whom he feared certainly weren’t going to agree with Paul. Imagine the heated discussion and tension in the room at that moment!

The nice thing to do would’ve been to say nothing at all. Perhaps Paul could have written a letter to Peter later. At the very least, he could have taken Peter aside for a private conversation instead of saying something in front of everyone. The problem with those approaches is that they would have prolonged the confusion that the Gentile believers would’ve suffered about whether church leaders intended them to obey Jewish law. Rather than to allow whispers to spread and uncertainty to grow, Paul dealt with the issue immediately. Rather than allowing Peter to gain a reputation as a hypocritical leader, Paul spoke to him immediately and made room for him to clear the air.

Perhaps the temptation, in our efforts to move from nice to kind, is to become overly candid with everyone.  

Being truthful with the people closest to us or even to those who are in positions where they could do great harm to us isn’t about saying whatever we think and letting the chips land where they may. True kindness means speaking the truth in love, not just blasting people with the truth. Sometimes, in order to protect ourselves in case people respond poorly to what we say, we harden our hearts. If we don’t care about them or we cut them off, their reaction hurts us less. True kindness, though, loves. True kindness doesn’t turn away, and kindness always requires both wisdom and courage.

Wisdom is needed because we must be able to separate our own desires for a situation from what God is actually calling someone else to do and what they really need. Wisdom recognizes that we all carry a filter of sin that can obscure our view of other people and what’s really going on in their lives and hearts. Wisdom tempers our expression of what we think we’ve heard the Holy Spirit say by acknowledging that we don’t know what’s in another person’s heart. Fortunately, God promises to help us here. “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5). That’s really good news for anyone wanted to grow in kindness.

Courage is the other ingredient for kindness. “Courage,” Karen Swallow Prior wrote, “requires putting a greater good before a lesser good.” There will always, always be good reasons to not say something potentially offensive. It’s not necessarily evil to choose what’s best for ourselves, and that makes the choice that will spare us conflict or frustration or rejection easy. Courage is required to stand up and say, “This will cost me. It may cost me this friendship. It may result in a fight with someone I love. I may end up having to navigate some really awkward and frustrating situations on the other side of this conversation. I accept those possibilities because I care too much about what’s right, what God wants, how God loves this person, to let this go past me without comment.”

This is how unhealthy relationships get weeded out. This is how good relationships grow to be stronger. This is how a community of people help one another grow closer to God and mature in their spiritual gifts.

With great deal of personal experience in speaking kind but hard truths, Paul wrote to the early church, “Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:15-16).