Wholly Living

A Not-So-Simple Four-Letter Word

True kindness asks us to pay attention, to invest in others by giving of my time, to forgive without abandon, to be brave enough to risk extending care without measuring the cost. by Kate Meadows

Picture this:

A nameless middle-aged man is carrying his oatmeal to a small empty table in the continental breakfast room of a three-star hotel. The grey t-shirt he wears says, “Be kind.” A few blocks away, a middle-aged woman is window shopping with a companion. Her shirt reads, “We were put on this earth to love each other.” And 100 miles further east, a young woman with spiky blonde hair sits on the floor near a gate at the airport terminal. Her t-shirt shouts, “Kindness looks amazing on you!” I encountered these t-shirts in one day, as I flew to St. Louis from Philadelphia.

“What is going on?” I wondered (and not for the first time). We are a nation divided, yet, in the face of rancor, volatility and wild differences in values, I see a common denominator. It pushes through our scraped soil like a deliciously stubborn blade of grass. It takes many shapes, but it has a common name: kindness. 

“Could it be,” I thought that day as I prepared for my own flight, “that a kindness movement is sweeping our country?”

Kindness is a loose term, though. It doesn’t take long to come up with a list of synonyms for kind. Understood from a perspective of culture, the word might be equated with being nice, making someone happy, staying civil or simply not upsetting someone. It’s easy to say hello to a stranger on the street, let a car go in front of you during rush hour, wear a t-shirt with a message. But so much more is wrapped up in that little four-letter word.

In the Bible, kindness goes deeper than being civil. True kindness pushes us beyond simply making someone happy. Indeed, the raw kindness that God displays in the Bible does not guarantee “happy” as a direct response. The greatest act of kindness of all time produced blood and tears and unimaginable pain and culminated in a son’s death on the cross. 

This show of kindness—selfless sacrifice—starts with meeting others’ basic needs.

I was hungry and you gave me something to eat.

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.

I was a stranger and you invited me in.

I needed clothes and you clothed me.

I was sick and you looked after me.

I was in prison and you came to visit me.

… whatever you did for one of the least of these…you did for me.

Matthew 25:40

Secular society sees kindness as a series of acts: doing nice things for others. This definition of kindness is not wrong; it’s just not complete. The countless acts of kindness that Jesus showed to others were a direct outpouring of His connectedness to God the Father. 

The Bible tells us that love is kind (1 Cor. 13:4). But how do we cultivate love within ourselves? We were born sinful and selfish. Without God’s deep mercy, we would be condemned to hell. Think about that. Without God’s kindness we would be condemned to hell. We needed it to be saved. The world needs it to be saved.

Jesus demonstrated that kindness is less a series of acts and more an attitude and way of life. That way of life requires an ever-growing connectedness to God through Word and prayer. As James says, “Draw near to God and he will draw near to you” (4:8). The more we know God, the more compelled we will be to cultivate a life of kindness toward others. What does that look like?

Kindness pays attention.

When Jesus was on His way to heal Jairus’ dying daughter, He felt a woman touch His garment. He stopped to acknowledge it and ultimately told the woman her faith had cured her (Mark 5:25-34). In the busy demands of daily life, who will you stop for?

Kindness offers second chances.

How many times could God have given up on His people after they turned their backs on Him? “But he gives us more grace” (James 4:6). Who can you forgive?

Kindness reaches “the least of these.”

Jesus spent time with the poor and outcast people of society. When the Pharisees wanted to publicly stone a woman caught in adultery, Jesus turned the tables, saying, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her” (John 8:7). No one cast a stone. Jesus effectively put the Pharisees on a level playing field with the adulterous woman. Who are “the least of these” in your world? 

Could you forgive the person who stole your car? Could you pay attention to the homeless man long enough to hear his story? Could you reach out to a person who stole to support his or her drug habit? How might you live out those t-shirt messages if time, energy and fear did not hold you back?

Kindness should push us out of comfort zones. And the more we know God and His loving-kindness toward us, the wider our own comfort zones will grow. The more we know Jesus and listen to the Holy Spirit, the more driven we will be to practice radical acts of kindness wherever we go. 

James writes, “How can you show me your faith if you don’t have good deeds? I will show you my faith by my good deeds.” (2:18). No one asked for God to sacrifice His Son so that others might be saved. Knowing—really knowing—what Jesus did for us on the cross should so fill us with love and awe that we cannot help wanting others to know that love. Imagine our potential witness to the world if we all practiced the radical kindness we see in the Gospels. True kindness, in a culture that preaches feeling good above all else, asks us to pay attention, to invest in others by giving of my time, to forgive without abandon, to be brave enough to risk extending care without measuring the cost. 

Kate Meadows is a writer, editor and pastor’s wife who lives in the Black Hills of South Dakota. Learn more about her work at katemeadows.com. 

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