Have you heard this one: It’s nice to be important, but it’s more important to be nice? It sounds like a good adage. I always find myself training my children in the art of niceness. It’s, “be nice,” or, “that isn’t very nice!” Nice is mannerly. Mannerly is important.

But it’s more important to be kind than nice. (I know, it just doesn’t have the same ring to it.) Nice is a behavior. We learn niceness. It can be very fake and even manipulative. Haydn might not want to let the little girl at the ball field play with his Batman, but I tell him to be nice and share. Zaidee may want to tear her sister’s eyes out for instigating. I tell Solanna that she’s not being very nice to her sister, and Zaidee that she should go for her mouth if she wants true lex talionis justification (just kidding on that last part).

But seriously, my kids are already pretty nice. They get it. I do my best parenting when I cut past the nice stuff and get to the real spiritual matter—a kind heart. For example, “Sol, what does it reveal about your heart that you want to provoke your sister to anger?” When I take this approach, I am often met with pursed lips and silence—like I just don’t get it. But she knows I do. And I know I just made her think about her own spiritual condition.

There’s a difference between niceness and kindness. A nice person is agreeable, delicate and subtle. While this is very helpful behavior that is useful to society, these can also be very manipulative traits. A kind person is benevolent, compassionate, gracious and favorable. The difference is striking. Sometimes, my niceness is the very thing of which I need to repent. Since I do have a “nice” disposition or personality, I often find it to be a struggle in my Christian walk. I sometimes find myself being agreeable when I don’t really agree; I lack certain boldness for Christ because I want people to feel comfortable; and in my continuous desire to please people I miss the opportunities given to really serve them.

My temperament is nicer than my husband’s. I know that Christians may judge spiritual growth by our level of niceness. I find myself judging the well-behaved, nicies as the more spiritually mature. But this is one way God has used my marriage to Matt to expose my own misconceptions. As C.S. Lewis put it, “A world of nice people, content in their own niceness, looking no further, turned away from God, would be just as desperately in need of salvation as a miserable world—and might be even more difficult to save” (Mere Christianity, p.215). Not being predisposed to a “nice” temperament, my husband is more keenly aware of his dependence on Christ. And he is also one of the most loving people I know.

But let’s get back to our children. In her book Almost Christian, Kenda Creasy Dean observes how our teenagers have taken our social cues on niceness to become indifferent, noncommittal clones of one another. “As a social lubricant, ‘nice’ is a cheap and versatile adjective; it offers a nod without commitment, in religion as in other spheres…American teenagers ‘tend to view religion as a Very Nice Thing’—meaning that religion may be beneficial, even pleasant, but it does not ask much of them or even concern them greatly, and as far as they can tell it wields very little influence in their lives…The Bible has much to say about kindness and compassion but says nothing at all about being nice” (33).

Maybe we need to reexamine the virtues that we are teaching. Lewis reminded us that God wants to make us new creatures, not just an improvement of our old selves. As a matter of fact, he puts to death our old self, niceness and all. The new creation has a spiritual fruit: kindness. Whereas niceness mainly stems from a love of self, kindness grows out of love for God and neighbor. It is certainly a more difficult teaching. But of course, we begin by looking at the One who is the epitome of kind. Jesus Christ wasn’t always nice. As a matter of fact, he was downright offensive. But he was kind to the worst of sinners, including me. He sacrificed his very life to forgive my sins, and give me his kindness. That’s the message that changes a heart of nice to a heart of kind. That’s what I want to teach my children. Meditation: Gal. 5:22

*Originally published on July 24, 2012.