I have a colleague at work who, upon leaving to go about her day, will always wave goodbye to me. “Have a good day,” she says. “Take care. Be kind.”
She says it to everyone. And it’s a sentiment that I hear popping up more and more across the board in personal interactions, in social media, and all over the internet. Be kind. Be kind. Be kind.
It’s tempting to recognize that directive – be kind! – as a particularly Christian mandate. As Christians, after all, we are called to kindness. We are instructed to “clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12). Kindness is a part of Christian living.
But how we think about and define kindness matters.
The truth is that anyone can be kind – at least in the sense that most people in the world understand the word. Because for most of the world “kindness” is this: doing nice things for people who deserve or need them when you have the resources. You don’t have to be a Christian to perform this sort of kindness. Buddhists, Muslims, pagans, atheists, agnostics, New Age adherents, and any human on the planet earth can practice it. They can do nice and thoughtful things for others. “Kindness,” by itself and by this definition, is not distinguishing of Christianity any more than being nice or polite is. All Christians ought to be kind. And frankly it is very easy to be kind in this way.
But kindness as Christians practice it must always be coupled with what Jesus asked of us. And what Jesus asked of us was this: to treat everyone (our neighbor, our enemy, our beloved, our unloved) with the care and grace that we normally reserve only for ourselves, and to put others first always. As you can see, that takes the secular definition of kindness and reshapes it. For the Christian, kindness is not just a random nice act or a “good” behavior from a place of abundance toward someone deserving. Rather, it is consistently engaging both the deserving and the undeserving with the grace, patience, and welcoming love that are the hallmarks of Christ – whether we sit in a place of abundance, a place of lack, or somewhere in between.
Christian kindness isn’t just “being nice.” Anybody can be nice. Christian kindness isn’t just doing nice things for people. Anybody can do those. What complements Christian kindness and sets it apart is that it is kindness distributed without regard to merit; kindness given equally to everyone, and especially those perceived as “least” and “last”; kindness that comes not from security in our resources but from security in God’s provision.
And it is a difficult kindness. To be kind to the liar, to the person who already seems to have everything, to the person who said an unkind thing, to the people with whom we disagree profoundly – that’s hard. And the secular world says that we don’t have to, because in the secular world “kindness” is a very fluffy, feel-good sort of thing that demands very little of us spiritually. But engaging in Christian kindness can at times be a rigorous act of discipline, the bending of our very human desires to what God clearly wants us to do for others whether we feel like they deserve it or need it or not.
I’ll close with this. It’s not wrong for a believer to engage in fluffy, feel-good kindness. I love random acts of kindness, and doing nice things for people who need a lift, and doing my part in making the world a little bit brighter and less miserable. It is actually one of the best and joyful Christlike things we can do. But if that is all our “kindness” ever asks of us, then we’re ignoring God’s mandates and indeed His very identity on earth: the Savior who extended a hand to rich and poor, who elevated those who came last, who Himself took the nature of a servant even to the hateful, the despised, and those who would betray Him in the end.