Scattered throughout the pages of Scripture, there can be found any number of verses notable for their capacity to convey whole concepts in few words. John 11:35 is one that comes to mind. There, through the simple words “Jesus wept,” a whole scene is conveyed. In John 19:18 also, four short words encompass the most portentous events in all human history: “There they crucified him.” Finally, there are the words of Paul set in the latter half of his epistle to the Ephesians. In the earlier half, his words about God, salvation and grace soar to great heights. But in the latter half of his letter, Paul gets down to applications. His sentences get short and his words directive as he explains how the gospel should affect human lives. “Put away falsehood,” he says. Speak the truth to your neighbors, be angry but do not sin, make no room for the devil, give up stealing, let no evil talk come out of your mouths, or fornication or impurity. Then, suddenly, there is verse 32: “And be kind to one another, tender-hearted…” Somehow as Paul is going about addressing the rough-and-tumble of life, this injunction comes to mind: “You believers in Jesus Christ, you who have taken his name, you who believe, who are the recipients of great and marvelous promises, to whom God has made known mysteries unknown in the past—as you go about the business of living, be kind!”
The Bible calls kindness a fruit of the Spirit, and according to 2 Peter 1:5-7, kindness is nearly the cream of virtues, topped only by love: “And besides this, giving all diligence, add to your faith virtue, and to virtue knowledge; And to knowledge temperance; and to temperance, patience; and to patience, godliness; And to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, charity. If we read this passage as a progression, then we can understand kindness to be the virtue of Christianity in full blossom—belief close to the full maturity of love.
As with all the fruits of the Spirit, kindness has a volitional element and a practical one. It is available to all, but it grows only in those who choose to allow it room, and it grows only as it is practiced. I am particularly intrigued by the volitional aspect. In the various circumstances of life, we choose whether kindness will be present or not, whether the people who cross our paths in life will experience the goodly effects of our kindness, or whether they will encounter something different.
In Scripture there are many stories upholding kindness as a virtue worthy of emulation, such as the story of David and Mephibosheth, of the Philippian jailer, and of the “barbarous” people on Malta in Acts 28. Most profoundly, there is the story of Jesus, through whom we see that God is kind. One sees in Jesus’ dealings with the woman taken in adultery, for example, a portrait of his desire to relate kindly to broken humanity at large. What do you do with a “known” sinner? (We are all “known” sinners.) This woman cowered before Jesus in fear, anticipating death by stoning, silently awaiting her doom.
But Jesus was kind. He did not recite the law to her (she knew its provisions). He did not recite her sins to her (she well knew them too). He did not upbraid her, or tell her to reform herself so as to avoid such things. With her accusers gone, Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go, sin no more.” Kindness won the day, and it also won a heart. The Desire of Ages says of this moment, “Her heart was melted, and she cast herself at the feet of Jesus, sobbing out her grateful love, and with bitter tears confessing her sins. This was to her the beginning of a new life, a life of purity and peace, devoted to the service of God… This penitent woman became one of His most steadfast followers. With self-sacrificing love and devotion she repaid His forgiving mercy” (462). Here is illustrated the great power of kindness; it softens the human heart, infuses the soul with gentleness, and leaves a wonderful residue there that can perfume life for many years.
In his book De Profundus, Oscar Wilde relates an incident when, during a bitter experience, someone was kind to him. Facing charges of bankruptcy, Wilde was being brought before the judge handcuffed by two policemen. A large crowd of eager sightseers had assembled to watch the famous man in irons pass (how unfeeling are the merely curious). As Wilde was being brought shamefully down the long, dreary crowd-lined corridor, he caught sight of a friend who simply raised his hat in silent salute to a friend in a trying hour. This act, seen by all, hushed the crowd. Later, speaking of his time in prison, Oscar Wilde wrote, “Wisdom had been profitless to me, philosophy barren, and the proverbs and phrases of those who sought to give me consolation as dust and ashes in my mouth; [but] the memory of that little, lovely, silent act of love… unsealed for me all the wells of pity.”
When I myself was about fifteen years old, I broke my arm while away at a boarding school far from home. The school was out in the country, away from town and hospital. With no evil or malicious intent, quite the comedy of errors and insensitivities accompanied me in my mishap: One person tried to move my arm after it had become stiff because, he said, it was not at the right angle as shown in the first aid book. Another person sent me off alone to try to find a ride to town, and a third person made the oh-so-common insensitive remark, “So what have you gone and done now?” as if I had performed my accident on purpose. Finally, the mother of one of my classmates took me to town, to the hospital where she happened to work. Leaving me in the car, she went in to admissions and, after a few minutes, came out and drove me around to a side entrance to the hospital. There she pointed to a door and told me to go “in there” and up the stairs to the top floor, where I would find a nurse.
No words can describe the forlornness of that ascent up an unknown staircase, nursing a broken arm in an unfamiliar place, all alone, facing an undetermined future. I came finally to the top of the stairs, where an angel met me—an angel in the form of a fifty-something year old night nurse who graciously and tenderly cared for me as if I were her own child. Carefully she took my bag of things, and gently she led me and protected my arm as I readied myself for bed. I never learned her name, and I never saw her again, but she lingers in my mind as an agent of heaven—a dispenser of kindness into the brokenness of a forlorn and wounded schoolboy.
What would the world be like if the followers of Jesus were known as people who are kind?
Dave Thomas is Dean of the School of Theology at Walla Walla University