That’s what I told my high school youth group when we went around the room and named the superlative we’d like to be true of us. I wanted those I interacted with—particularly friends in my public high school—to know their value as ones made in the image of God, and I believed that being nice was actually a powerful way to communicate that.
Some seventeen years later, I’m not sure the “world’s nicest” award will go to me; I can think of several current coworkers—not to mention friends, family members, and former coworkers—who’d win it first. But being nice to others has remained a high value for me throughout the years.
The Kindness We Crave
To be clear, I’m not talking about the “nice” that avoids conflict at all costs. Or the “nice” that is all sweetness and light externally but bitter and cold internally. Or the “say you’re sorry” forced-to-be “nice.”
I mean the “nice,” which, precisely defined, is kindness. A genuine compassion and respect for the humanity of others that moves us to act and speak in ways that build them up and care for them well.
Every person needs that kind of nice. We might not recognize the need if our “kindness quotient” is regularly being met as we receive love from people in our lives. But if you’ve ever been in a place where you know no one or—even worse—where you’re seen by those around you as an enemy, you know how strong that craving for kindness can be. We become almost desperate for a helpful word, a compassionate smile, a gentle touch.
Why? Kindness communicates, I see you. I see your pain. And I believe that you are worthy of love. It’s an acknowledgment of our common humanity and the universal struggle that comes with living in a post-Fall world, where hard things wreak havoc in our lives all the time. It’s a gift we give to others and a gift we’re meant to receive from others as well.
The Kindness of God
Kindness is not just something we’re supposed to show others, though. Several years after I announced my desire to become the nicest person in the world, I became the meanest I’ve ever been—to myself.
Though I’ve been a high perfectionist my whole life, in my twenties that drive became much worse, resulting in incredibly harsh self-judgment. I pushed myself constantly in every area but could still only see all the ways I didn’t measure up. There was no room for kindness, because (I assumed) kindness to myself would not bring perfection; it would only make me lazy, undisciplined, and careless.
And then I experienced the kindness of God.
I’ve always thought God was kind, of course. He had, after all, placed so many wonderful people in my life—people who regularly showed me kindness and love beyond anything I deserved.
But what I really believed was that he was always disappointed with me because I never measured up.
In a prayer time with a friend, I finally asked God what he thought of me, internally cringing inside. I expected a tired “what should I do with you?” sigh. What I experienced was a glimpse of his delight in me and an assurance that he knows and loves me to my core.
In other words, I experienced deep kindness.
And his deep and unexpected kindness began to slowly change the way I treated myself. Skipping a day at the gym became a gift of rest to my tired body instead of an act of sloth. Missing my aunt’s birthday became an invitation to experience grace instead of the cause of excessive guilt about what a bad niece I was. Enjoying a yummy dessert with friends became an invitation to celebrate instead of a lack of self-discipline.
Somewhere along the way I had lost sight of my own humanity, viewing myself instead as something that could be perfectly controlled until it was more like a machine than a person. But through God’s kindness, I began to see myself as someone—even someone valuable who was worthy of compassion.
That change had another surprising result: it made being kind to others not something I needed to try to do perfectly, but something I could trust God to help me do. His work in me—not my own striving—increased my capacity to care for others better and show the kindness of God to them.
Of course, the truth we all know is that even though we’re made in the image of an incredibly kind God, we can be incredibly mean—especially to those we love the most. How does that happen? How do we lose the capacity to see someone else’s humanity and care about their pain?
There are three main culprits in my life:
1. Tiredness. Being physically or emotionally tired means I’m less likely to put in the extra energy kindness requires.
2. Busyness. Running from one thing to the next leaves me no margin to see—much less help—those around me.
3. Pride. Thinking I know best keeps me from listening to others or God, and my heart grows cold.
The antidotes to numbers one and two are practical: making sleep a priority and saying yes to fewer things so that I have more margin in my life.
But the only antidote to the state of my own selfish heart is continuing to regularly sit with God and both experience his great kindness toward me and gain deeper insight into his great love for those around me. Three practices in particular help me become kinder.
1. Time in God’s Word. When, for example, I’m tempted to stereotype or judge someone at the grocery store who happened to cut in line, verses about the value of others make me check my assumptions and give them the benefit of the doubt.
2. Confession. Admitting to God my blindness over my White privilege makes me more patient with and a better listener to others who are in a different place in their own ethnic journey.
3. Obedience to God’s rules. Every time I choose to remember a coworker’s pain, for example, and respond to them with kindness instead of impatience when they’ve exasperated me, I root myself more deeply in the values of the kingdom of God, which makes obedience a little easier the next time.
Continuing in Kindness
So even though I’m not the nicest person in the world yet, it’s okay. I firmly believe no act of kindness is ever wasted. Those acts change me and communicate Christ’s love to others—a truth God continually reminds me of. Because every time I go to God expecting rolled eyes or anger or disappointment or judgment or impatience, what I receive—every time—is kindness. Kindness from the God “who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). And that act of kindness is still changing everything.