A common feature of the pastoral life that I’ve lived for the past twenty-nine years has been that strangers to me will regularly come the church door and ask for me. These are typically people faced with some sort of difficult personal and/or financial problem. They come to me looking for help. Sometimes I’ve been able to help. Sometimes the person has had a rather extravagant idea of my abilities to be helpful. Sometimes the person as clearly assumed I was a naïve fool. This last usually doesn’t get us off to a very good start.
Sometimes the person wants financial help. Not infrequently, the person wants and needs much more than financial help. Along with the people looking for rent money or diapers or groceries, I’ve also had to try to deal with more unusual problems.
I’ve tried to help a number of run-away teenagers. I’ve met an Algerian man in the U.S. on a student visa who had grown dissatisfied with Islam and wanted to know more about Christianity. He was on the run from his Muslim “friends”, who, upon hearing of his religious doubts, threatened him with harm. He spoke only Arabic and French which made our conversation especially challenging. We got him settled with a Christian family, a part-time job, and a new found faith in Jesus, then after six months, he just mysteriously disappeared. I’ve met a former member of the Hell’s Angels, who had just been released from 34 years in prison for having killed someone with a knife. I’ve meet a number of people suffering with AIDS, one of whom was covered with open, oozing sores at the time.
Another fellow was also on the run, this time from his former employers – an organization called the Mafia. Even though by that point in my ministry I had seen quite a few scam artists, I found this fellow strangely convincing. I helped him with transportation–an investment of less than twenty bucks. And when I tried to step out on the sidewalk to see him off, he shoved me back into the church. And with his hand tucked discretely into his pocket, looked carefully up and down the street, then thanked me again, pushed the door shut, and hurried off up the street.
Regardless of why the people came to me, they all had chosen a church as the place where they would look for help. Why? Well, almost always, it was because they believed that at a Christian church they would be received with kindness. And that is always my aim – to receive everyone with kindness regardless of the merits of they request. But even in those cases when I do not give people what they are asking for, I always try to make sure that my refusal is based on good reason and isn’t simply the result of a failure of kindness on my part.
“Each of us is conscious of his own weakness; and therefore we ought to consider of what importance it is that Christ should treat us with kindness.”
The Indespensibility of Kindness. Kindness is a crucial element of the Christian life. We don’t give the notion of Christian kindness nearly enough attention in our thinking, talking, and teaching about the Christian life. But the truth is that our lives hang on the thread of God’s kindness toward us. And time and again, the Scriptures call on us to follow the example of God when we deal with others. We can live Christian lives, or we can be unkind, but we cannot do both at the same time.
What Kindness is not. Sometimes we can make the mistake of thinking that being nice or being polite is the same thing as being kind. Now, there is no question that rudeness is never kind. But real kindness is far more than simple politeness. And in fact, it is quite possible to be entirely polite and unkind at the same time.
We also sometimes make the mistake of thinking that to be kind means to do whatever anyone wants us to do. This matter is a bit more complicated, because kindness cannot simply disregard what another person wants. But ultimately what other people want cannot be taken as the unquestioned measure of what is best for them. None of us has a perfect understanding of what is best for us, and so it is no kindness for someone to help us get that which is not good for us simply because that’s what we think we want.
So what is“kindness” then? Well, certainly, it’s a bigger topic than I can cover here. But I can suggest several things that are important parts
of genuine Christian kindness.
It’s Active. Kindness is not merely a feeling. It must ultimately take shape in action. There are some times when all that is called for is to express our feelings of sympathy. To notice people’s distress and to express sympathy and concern for them can be one of the simplest forms of kindness. Example: “It’s so hard to lose a pet that you have loved for so many years.”
But often true kindness in our hearts will move us beyond words of sympathy and concern to actively helping the person with their problem or burden. When my mother was in the hospital dying of cancer, my father came home one afternoon to find his lawn being mowed by a friend from church. My father’s friend knew that my father had an enormous burden to carry, and so without waiting to be asked, the friend just pitched in to lighten the burden a bit.
It’s Personal. Kindness is an act in which one person touches another person’s life. It is very hard – probably impossible – to do that from a distance. It is certainly a very good thing to donate to the Salvation Army or World Vision. But it is an act of kindness to fill up your unemployed neighbor’s car with gasoline, so that he can get around to look for work. Kindness is an expression of genuine, personal love and concern from one person to another. Acts of kindness build relationships between people.
It Is Other-Focused. This “other-focus” should be visible in two ways: in terms of our attitudes and in terms of our actions. In terms of our attitude, it should be apparent to all that we genuinely and from our heart care about this other person. Commenting on 1 John 3:17, John Calvin writes,
No act of kindness, except accompanied with sympathy, is pleasing to God. There are many apparently liberal, who yet do not feel for the miseries of their brethren. But the Apostle requires that our bowels should be opened; which is done, when we are endued with such a feeling as to sympathize with others in their evils, no otherwise than as though they were our own.
Our attitude should show that the other person’s feelings and needs really matter to us and that we do not act grudgingly or from self-serving motives. Acts of kindness that are offered grudgingly may be helpful, but they are not kind. The people of God are called upon not only to be helpful but to be kind.
In terms of our actions, acts of kindness take their shape from what is good for the other person not from what is good for me. This is where kindness can begin to become a pain in the neck. By its very nature kindness is not something we act on for our own benefit. The very essence of kindness is that it is aimed at benefiting the other person. My preferences really should not come much into play when I determine to act in kindness. What I want isn’t the issue. The other person’s need is what is at issue.
If my elderly neighbor needs some groceries, the fact that I may dislike grocery shopping is simply not relevant. That’s why I say that kindness can become a pain. It may put me in a position where I am called upon to do things that I dislike doing. Acts of kindness can be proved really genuine when they become inconvenient or costly.
The Gospel and Kindness. And this brings us back to the importance of active kindness for the Christian life, because in this sense the centerpiece of the Christian gospel is an act of kindness by God toward us. The crucifixion was costly and unpleasant in the extreme for Jesus. The crucifixion did not really benefit Jesus personally in any way; the benefit was all for us. The crucifixion was active; it was a course of action that Jesus pursued intentionally, actively, and unswervingly out of his kindness.
Christian people should be constant imitators of Christ in this regard. Kindness should be the hallmark of our way of life. In that way we will become models for people, so that they are able to see a glimpse of the character of Christ in us.
“Therefore, let us not by our unkindness bar the way to God’s mercy, which manifests itself so generously.”
©2012 Gary A. Chorpenning; all rights reserved.