Redefinition is definitely on-trend in our culture. Words, phrases, and concepts are generally fluid, and are often the tools of a non-democratic process which draws new lines between ‘good’ and ‘evil’ at will. Other linguistic changes seem to simply happen, usage and over-usage leading to their decommissioning and devaluation. One of those words is ‘kindness’, and the shift which has taken place here is symptomatic of wider changes in society and community. In this post I want to probe kindness a little bit, suggesting some subtle ways in which our expectations around this word have altered.
Random acts and covenant kindness
Over the past decade or so our culture and, to a certain extent, the church have bought in to the idea of kindness as an isolated act, as a randomised impulse that ought to be acted on. Paying forward a coffee, passing someone a handwritten note of appreciation, calling someone out of the blue and asking how they are, have become popular ways of showing affection and concern. For many people this is how kindness is now universally coined – it is a brief burst of benevolence, a momentary debit on our energies, resources, or social awkwardness, a credit to our sense of altruism and engagement.
Whatever benefit such acts accrue, they fall far short of how the Bible frames kindness, with its family likeness to ‘grace’. In Scriptural terms, kindness is inherently relational and essentially covenantal, it bespeaks commitment and a long-haul mindset. God’s kindness to Israel is not impetuous or capricious, his mercy is not mercurial or fitful – instead it is a grace grounded in his character, woven through history, and written in the blood of his Son. This kindness is so consistent that it is one of the grounds on which God will indict the unfaithfulness of his people – he has not conducted himself towards them in the way that a fertility god is expected to act. God has been fatherly, faithful, forgiving in the kindness of his heart towards those whom he loves. God’s kindness, then, is far from random, it is as regular as his character, and as unflinching as his purpose.
Good kindness is like God’s kindness
All of this means that our kindness as Christians must be of a different stripe than how the world sees and spells compassion. When Jesus was challenged about neighbourliness he not only disarmed the malicious intent of his questioner by framing his story with a Samaritan as its hero, but by demonstrating the long-term nature of helping a neighbour: provision was made beyond the moment, follow up was guaranteed (Luke 10:25-37).
It is often said that in the online world non-Christians are more kind than Christians. Sadly this is often backed home by the merest sampling of what is being said and how it is being said. Christians are prone to vitriolic dispute, to crass caricatures, ad hominem attacks, and misrepresentation of the facts. Non-Christian Twitter, especially around shared interests, can seem like a kinder place by comparison, a place of affirmation and acceptance. The problem, however, is that this kindness is no more authentic than the anger and angst that social media elicits. It is easy to type nice things, it is easy to warmly congratulate, it costs us nothing to drop a compliment, and it may in fact gain us something in return. This kindness can bear more resemblance to Middle Eastern hospitality culture which looks warm and inviting to individualised Europeans when they encounter it, but which carries powerful expectations of entailment and reciprocation. A good test for this form of kindness is to ask if it represents a vested interest, and if it is extended to those who differ from the group consensus. The answer to the first question is normally affirmative, the answer to the latter is normally negative.
Christians are called to show good kindness, modelled on God’s kindness. It is a compassion which doesn’t pay things forward, which isn’t interested in personal outcome, which isn’t predicated on the worthiness of the recipient, or their intellectual affinity with us. It is a love which tramples boundaries, which upends expectations, which hands a tunic to a coat-demanding-enemy, which turns the cheek, which shows favour to the evil and the good, just like the sunshine of God’s love, and the rainfall of his care.
Chronic conditions demand chronic kindness
One of the great strengths of this biblical kindness is its stamina in the face of hard things. Random acts of kindness might warm someone’s heart for a moment, but without follow up and consistency they amount to little more than a demand that an individual ‘go and be filled’ (James 2:16). Many of those most in need of our care are facing chronic issues and demands, troubles that won’t go away, or wounds which take a long time to heal. Insufficient kindness in those circumstances is mere salt to the wound, and ultimately brings grief to the recipient.
Costly, covenantal kindness makes the return visit, it engages in follow-up – it withstands rebuffs, it can listen to frustration, it knocks the door when the blinds are drawn, it carries the broken until they are whole, it nurses the dying until they are gone, it feeds the hungry until they can provide for themselves, it bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, it never fails.
If our kindness is nothing other than an exaggeration of the culture’s empty sentiments, if it is a smile and a ‘Jesus loves you’ sticker, if it never costs, burns, or burdens then we are falling short of the grace we have been given, the grace we ought to show to a world awash with impotent compassion.