“Now you be nice to your sister.” “Make sure you play nice tonight.” “He is such a nice young man.”
As human beings, it seems that we are drawn to niceness. We like nice people and encourage people to behave in nice ways. We dislike people who aren’t nice or who don’t behave in nice ways. We teach our children to be nice and juxtapose niceness with a host of vices: grumpiness, cruelty, mean-spiritedness.
In Galatians 5, Paul contrasts the qualities of fleshly, worldly people with the qualities of Spirit-filled, godly people. He lists the fruit of the Spirit, those character traits that ought to mark God’s people, saying, “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” (vv. 22–23). Conspicuously absent from Paul’s list is niceness. Kindness is there; patience and gentleness too. But not niceness.
Why isn’t niceness a fruit of the Spirit? Because niceness is a hollow trait that a human can generate even without the inner working of the Holy Spirit. Niceness may require some force of will in the face of disagreement or controversy. It may require restraint. But it does not require an inward transformation.
True love, true joy, true faithfulness and gentleness—these are all qualities for which we are completely dependent upon the Holy Spirit’s work in conforming us to the image of Christ through the Word of God. As we immerse ourselves in God’s Word, as we carefully seek God and His will through the Bible, the Holy Spirit gradually but surely grants us these qualities in growing measure. Now we are able to love—truly love—whereas before we could only hate and brood and love selfishly; now we are able to display patience whereas before we would always explode with anger or perhaps simply simmer with anger; now we are able to be gentle whereas before we were so consistently harsh.
But niceness? Niceness doesn’t require that work of the Spirit. In fact, niceness is often a clever ruse Satan employs to fool us into following ungodly leaders. Be careful around nice people. Evil and ungodly men often rely upon niceness to cover their sin. Where Christians can be fast and blunt in defending the truth, unbelievers—and especially unbelievers claiming to be Christians—can look good in contrast. They can seem so nice as they nicely undermine the very foundations of the Christian faith. Their smiles, their soft words, their sympathetic questions, their niceness—these are all tools designed to mask their opposition to God.
It is not bad to be nice. It is not an evil trait. But it is far better to strive for the higher qualities, the Spirit-given qualities of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law, because such Spirit-given qualities cannot be faked forever.