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“Nice” is not an English word used in any serious Bible translation and “being nice” is certainly not a biblical virtue. Although its close cousin, kindness, is a Christian virtue, being nice is to Christian kindness what being empathetic is to Christian compassion. It is a partial secular substitute for the more robust Christian virtue that entails substantive redemptive actions. Christians need to understand and practice the difference.

The Historical Nature of “Nice”

Interestingly, up until the turn of the nineteenth century, being nice was a vice. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) the word “nyce” or “nice” was used between 1300 to 1665 to mean fool or a foolish person or action. A second, similarly negative usage occurred between 1400 to 1671, meaning “dissolute or wicked people as a class.” The OED cites Milton’s Paradise Regained as an example, as Milton wrote, “Nothing will please the difficult and the nice.”1

Nice appears to have had a moral conversion around the turn of the nineteenth century. According to the OED, to call a woman or man “nice” at this time was to label them “pleasant in manner, agreeable, good-natured; attractive.” These are the qualities we usually attribute to those in sales, and perhaps the growth of capitalism had some role in emphasizing the positive importance of these features.

The word gained its first positive moral usage at this time with the help of female authors. OED records that nice then became synonymous with a second related definition, which they list as “respectable, virtuous, decent.” They illustrate its initial usage using one of Jane Austen’s 1799 letters where she said, “The Biggs would call her a nice Woman.” A century later in 1905, Edith Wharton proclaimed in the House of Mirth, “He had never wanted to marry a ‘nice” girl: the adjective connoting certain utilitarian qualities apt to preclude the luxury of charm.” As one can see, it appears that “nice” emerged during the Victorian period to describe a decently respectable woman.

Now, why would one want or not want to marry a “nice” woman or man? A 1935 usage cited in the OED is particularly insightful in this regard. In one of the few examples not used particularly with women from the 1935 book Illyrian Spring, Ann Smith wrote, “He came of nice people, in the particular sense in which the English use of the word nice—meaning thereby, not that family is necessarily amiable or amusing, but merely that it possesses a certain degree of good breeding.” To be nice was to be someone who in the words of the OED is “refined, cultured; associated with polite society,” although as the two examples reveal, it was not necessarily a high compliment.

It should be no surprise then that this classic definition is used when parents hope for their children to marry “a nice Christian, Jewish, etc. boy or girl.” Indeed, one of the OED examples cited comes from Ronna Jaffe’s Class Reunion: “They took her to resort hotels where she could meet nice Jewish boys.” Interestingly, one small 2003 study did find that for women, “Niceness appeared to be the most salient factor when it came to desirability for more serious relationships.”2 According to this study, in the competition for mates, nice guys do not finish last.

Repenting of Being Nice

In my own experience, I realized at one point in my life I had grown up as a Christian thinking that being nice is a Christian virtue. I am not sure where I got that idea. Perhaps it is something I developed after moving to the South in the seventh grade where being outwardly agreeable and pleasant is often seen as a virtue (see the YouTube channel, “It’s a Southern Thing”). It is also said to be the national virtue of Canadians and two-thirds of Canadians think they are as nice as people say (which of course leads to a different kind of vice).

Oddly, I find niceness unevenly emphasized yet still encouraged in the contemporary academy, where the policing of tone and how one makes another person feel has reached significant heights (e.g., the contemporary campaign to make sure students always feel safe and comfortable). Not surprisingly, its literary usage has been on the rise since 1965.

Ultimately, the temptation toward niceness stems from the teenage longing for acceptance and belonging. I remember being named class favorite my sophomore year of high school (looking back, that we let sophomores vote on this sort of thing now seems odd). I suddenly felt that I needed to up my nice game to keep my favorite status (I lost it the following year). The problem with the award is that it suddenly made me self-conscious, and for a time it started me down the path of being nice—a path that leads to self-absorption and being overly concerned about what other people think. Lawrence Kohlberg called this adolescent moral reasoning stage, the “Nice Boy/Nice Girl Stage,” but he identified it as a stage from which one moved to something more morally advanced.3

Is the Triune God Nice?

Since the basis for Christian virtue theory is that humans are made in God’s image to demonstrate God’s virtues, we need to ask the fundamental question: Is God nice? Christian ethicist Stanley Hauerwas is well-known for his quote, shared here in this YouTube video, “Now, that I’m back among the Methodists, I have discovered that Methodists have a conviction. That God is nice . . . they think they ought to be like God, therefore Methodists are nice like God.” This quote could be said of many Christians beyond Methodists.

Yet, even when asking this question in light of most definitions offered above, such as “pleasant in manner, agreeable,” one hopefully finds an answer bubbling up inside oneself. Not exactly. We understand God as holy, good, and righteous but not nice. When the Psalmist declares, “He will repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness;  the Lord our God will destroy them” (94:23) he is not celebrating God’s niceness.

God’s Everlasting and Unfailing Kindness

Scripture is clear, however, that God demonstrates everlasting and unfailing kindness (Isaiah 54:8; Jer. 31:3). God famously declares in Jer. 9:23-24 (NIV):

“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.

I find it interesting that in the Jeremiah passage quoted above, God’s kindness is mentioned along with heavyweight virtues such as justice and righteousness; yet, I consistently hear many more Christians talk about the importance of justice and righteousness than I hear them talk about kindness.

How is God’s kindness different from contemporary English-speaking niceness? I contend that secularized OED definitions are not as helpful in answering this question. The OED defines being kind as “Having or showing a benevolent, friendly, or warm-hearted nature or disposition; ready to assist, or show consideration for, others; sympathetic, obliging, considerate” and “Behaving in a benevolent, friendly, or warm-hearted manner towards a particular person, group, or animal.” According to these definitions, one may get the impression that kindness is similar to being nice or friendly. It’s waving to your neighbor and smiling at the person walking by you. It’s complimenting what someone is wearing or saying good morning.4

Not surprisingly, God’s kindness is revealed in Scripture to be different and much more substantive, in that it focuses on what God does through creative and redemptive actions. Paul and Barnabas declare that God “has shown kindness by giving you rain from heaven and crops in their seasons; he provides you with plenty of food and fills your hearts with joy” (Acts 14:17). What God provides through creation demonstrates God’s kindness.

Throughout Scripture, God also shows specific kindness to his faithful followers, whether individuals such as Joseph (Gen. 39:21), David, (II Sam. 22:51), or the people of Israel as a whole in Egypt (I. Sam. 15:6; Ps. 106:7) or Persia (Ezra 9:9). What should be noted is that God’s kindness in these instances is not a sentiment or a set of manners, such as waving or smiling to neighbors and strangers, but rather it always involves specific, redemptive actions that aid individuals and groups amid slavery, persecution, or exile. Thus, the salvation from slavery to sin offered through Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s kindness (Eph. 2:7; Titus 3:4).

Where emotions do come into play is through the effect of God’s kindness. For all of God’s chosen, his kindness leads us to repentance (Rom. 2:4) and then seeking to imitate and internalize God’s kindness (Col. 3:12). Kindness is a fruit of the Spirit that we should acquire (II Cor. 6:6; Gal. 5:22). Again, this kindness is something demonstrated not simply by sentimental words or manners but by specific, substantive actions toward those who are enslaved, weak, or in difficult circumstances (e.g., David, 2 Samuel 9:1-7). In contrast, the wicked “prey on the barren and childless woman, and to the widow they show no kindness” (Job 24:21). With this biblical and theological background in mind, I will further unpack the differences between being nice and kind in Part II tomorrow as they relate to current scholarship addressing these virtues.


  1. All OED references are taken from the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2024).
  2. Geoffrey C Urbaniak and Peter R Kilmann, “Physical Attractiveness and the Nice Guy Paradox: Do Nice Guys Really Finish Last?” Sex Roles 49, no. 9–10 (2003): 413–426.
  3. Lawrence Kohlberg, The Philosophy of Moral Development: Moral Stages and the Idea of Justice, Essays on Moral Development (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1981).
  4. One study found that this approach is one way of ten that adolescents view kindness. Jessica L. Cotney, and Robin Banerjee. “Adolescents’ Conceptualizations of Kindness and Its Links with Well-Being: A Focus Group Study.” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships 36, no. 2 (2019): 607.

Perry L. Glanzer

Baylor University
Perry L. Glanzer, Ph.D., is Professor of Educational Foundations and a Resident Scholar with Baylor Institute for Studies of Religion.


  • fred putnam says:

    Thanks–I look forward to the ensuing parts. You may find of interest this post about the meme “Be kind. Everyone is fighting a hard battle” (there are many permutations and ascriptions):
    Pax Christi.

  • Nicholas Boone says:

    I wonder about the link between the words “kind” and “kin”–Robert Pirsig provided this insight in chapter five of Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: “they can’t have real kindness toward him, they’re not kin.” He talks about how now everyone is supposed to be kind, but intimates that they really can’t be because at the root of kindness is something mysterious at the cellular level–actual kinship. I wonder if the kindness of God has to do with kinship–the rescuing of those who have been redeemed by the blood of his Son, who are part of his body, have become his kin.

  • Joseph "Rocky" Wallace says:

    Dr. Glanzer, I wonder if the draw to being “nice” is a key reason so many Christians do not speak up more when moral decay is accepted simply as “culture”. A person can be kind when advocating for students at a school board meeting, or sending a letter to our state legislative representatives and Congressional officials, without throwing our hands up altogether and accepting poor decisions and policy due to feeling obligated to being “nice”.

    Being kind would be maturely and gracefully holding each other accountable to do our work and live our lives in ethical ways. Being “nice” allows for hurt and irresponsibility to flourish.

    And on the home front, there are countless parents who later have regretted being simply “nice” with their own children (and many broken marriages that could have been saved if accountability was practiced more, and being “nice” less).

  • Gordon Moulden says:

    Well, as a Canadian born and raised in BC, I would say that many of us are not nice. Those who embrace the “woke” philosophy, who are many, show no intention of being nice to those who are not woke. As well, many locals, including less recent immigrants, are not happy with the large flux of newcomers to the country. But putting that issue aside, the bigger problem is that many here are also not kind, and they are not kind because they are not good; they are not adopted children of God (John 1:12). Beyond any discussion of “nice” versus “kind”, what is needed is revival–personal, internal–that changes hearts of stone to hearts of flesh that radiate the fruit of the Spirit. There has never been an exception to that need since the fall, apart from the infant Christ. Each one of us at some point in our lives needs the spiritual regeneration that comes with being born again.

  • Dave Lewycky, Sr. says:

    Nice try, Perry!
    Most of us Canucks no longer speak old middle English so “nice” is a virtue, not ignorance.

    The semantic stew you’ve cooked up with a mixture of etymologies and contexts, cross-contaminated with ancient grit from Latin and French, is a harsh reminder of the popular Strong’s Concordance homiletic technique from the early postmodern era whose pungent aroma lingers unabated into the new millennium. (James Barr’s “The Semantics of Biblical Language” was arguably the best antidote for toxic sermon serum in those days.)

    But if it’ll pass the Texas test, it’s fine with me. My issue is not at all with your main point, just that you’re making a poor little donkey carry a load it was not designed to carry. From way up here in the land of dogsleds and melting permafrost, the dangerous “Christians” of our southern neighbors are not the sort we’d ordinarily label “nice.” You’ve got a pack of “not so nice” that need to be addressed far more urgently than the “nice.”
    All peace.

    • pglanzer says:

      Thanks Dave! You remind me of the time I visited my brother and sister-in-law in Winnipeg. Upon meeting a relative who found out I was American, he immediately wanted to talk about the War of 1812 (even though he was a pacifist). I’m glad to know that some Canadians are breaking the stereotype!

      • Gordon Moulden says:

        We like our violence on the ice, Perry; our women, too! I don’t ever want to tangle with any member of our Canadian women’s ice hockey team! (Or any member of the American team, for that matter!)

      • Dave Lewycky, Sr. says:

        . . . lol. And yes, good guess, I’m in Winnipeg!