In the past several years I have taken to telling people that they are kind, as in “Thank you, you’re very kind.” Of course, I say this, not frivolously, but as an observation of kindness. But often I receive a shocked or surprised look in return.
You don’t have to be a Christian to be kind. In fact, “kindness” was culturally popular a few years ago. “Be kind!” was on bumper stickers and t-shirts and I heard it more than once proclaimed in public. Kindness evokes images of tolerance, affirmation, and peace and seems to supersede “good deeds” or simple “help.” Still, as popular as that slogan was (is?), our culture seems to be moving farther and farther away from kindness and civility.
St. Paul, in his Letter to the Galatians, identifies attributes of the flesh from which behaviors are born; cultural kindness is one such behavior. Lacking in depth, it pretends to do and be good while unable to produce any real change. Flowing from a purely subjective source (the flesh) cultural kindness is subject to our cultural trajectory of individual sovereignty and personal rights. Sadly, as we all have experienced, when we disagree with someone it is no longer seen as an opportunity for dialogue and mutual understanding, but as a threat to personal worth. The best cultural kindness can offer is bland tolerance, and at its worst is hatred with a smile. Perhaps the blank stares and shocked expressions I receive betray cultural kindness at its core: kindness fueled by individual perspective and defined by personal opinion.
As people of faith, Christian Kindness is at odds with cultural kindness. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word chesed, which means loving-kindness, is used to describe how God relates to his people. It’s also this loving-kindness that God expects from his people in response to his own. God proclaims through the Prophet Hosea, “I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.” Burnt offerings, as a cultural practice in response to God, and sacrifices that go through the motions of devotion without love—were rejected.
Chesed captures the steadfast and sacrificial love of God who refuses to abandon a people who are radically different from him; who anger him and who fail him again and again. Christian Kindness must be rooted in this kind of covenantal love that endures at all costs. Our kind God doesn’t merely tolerate us or endure us with distaste. He loves us with a fierce kindness that’s more committed to our own well-being than we are.
Christian Kindness is not based on personal opinion, ideas of self-worth, or observations of likeness (or difference). It is founded on God’s faith in us and call for us to be like him. Through the sacrifice of Christ, God has forgiven our sins even though we do not deserve to be forgiven. We have been given much as “the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 6:23). The light of Jesus’ sacrifice for us and his gift to us shines through his command to “love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35). To empower us, God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).
To guide us to a deeper understanding of Christian Kindness, St. Paul lists Kindness as the fifth of the nine attributes of Christian life inspired by the Holy Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Goodness, Faithfulness, Gentleness, Self-control. Christian Kindness flows supernaturally within the soul of someone who is saved, redeemed, born again, justified, and forgiven. God has “put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (1 Corinthians 1:22) to be the foundation of how we live our earthly life. It is from this foundation of the indwelling power of the Holy Spirit that true Kindness flows.
God the Father sent Jesus Christ to extend to us the ultimate kindness: our salvation (Titus 3:4). And in Christ, we are set apart to be transformed into his likeness through the Holy Spirit who produces godly fruit in our lives--fruit like Kindness (Gal. 5:22). This is the calling placed on God’s chosen people: to put on godly Kindness that we might be filled with love in all our interactions, caring about the well-being of others, and speaking the truth in love in the same manner that our heavenly Father does.
In our culture, we all encounter those who care nothing of our forgiveness or our kindness. But God calls us to extend mercy and Kindness just the same. We are able to do this because Christian Kindness is a gift from God, not our own product. Perhaps our witness of true Kindness will help others to seek the source of such radical behavior and make shocked or surprised looks a thing of the past.
Kindly encountering culture,
Father Bill Burk†