Tell me. What is kindness? And you’re not allowed to use the word “kind” in the definition. That sounds like the kind of trick question your fourth grade teacher used to ask, doesn’t it?
That’s because I want to make us think. Kindness should easy to define. In fact it sounds like a vanilla word—plain, without sprinkles. We think we know what it means, but find it hard to put into words because it’s so, well, obvious. So instead we put it on buttons: “Be Kind” and leave it at that. Now there’s a punchy slogan for us to tell the world.
But here’s another drawback. I think we’d all agree that kindness is a good, even a wholesome word, it’s just not very interesting. There are many other things we aspire to —being smart or cute or talented or well liked or in demand—but if we can’t seem to measure up to any of those options, at least we can be kind. Right?
It feels like the consolation prize.
Why? Because most of us think kindness is not just unimpressive, but easy. It’s entry level spirituality that anyone can do. So when we’re told that God wants us not just to show kindness, but to love kindness, we think no problem, we’ve got this.
“He has told you, O man, what is good;
and what does the LORD require of you
but to do justice, and to love kindness,
and to walk humbly with your God?”
Let’s have a little taste of this kindness and see what we think then.
Imagine God were to step into our world and walk our streets. How would he act? What would he say? Who would he notice and who would he ignore?
While this may sound like an unusual scenario, it isn’t simply hypothetical.
In fact Paul, the apostle, writes about just such a scenario to his young friend Titus, not using the hypothetical “if”, but the historical “when.”
Not once, but twice in his short letter, Paul uses the word “appeared” to indicate a saving act of God breaking into our world suddenly. It seems God himself interrupts our lives to bring salvation.
Not only do we have nothing to do with it, we didn’t actually see it coming.
“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people (Titus 2:11).”
It’s often said that grace means gift, which is why we don’t have to pay in advance. Nor do we have to pay God back after the fact. Instead we get to take the wrapped package from his hand—oh, it’s heavier than I thought—and open it to find the-one-thing-we-needed-most-that-wasn’t-on-our-list.
Who knew? We thought we were just a jumble of bad habits and petty foibles, that we just needed a little cleaning up, maybe some counseling. But God knew that we needed an intervention, a complete overhaul.
In the second instance of the word “appeared”, Paul makes it clear that he is talking about the appearance of a person, the person, who saved us:
“But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us (Titus 3:4, 5a).”
How did he save us? By the Triune act of the sending Father, the incarnate Son, and the renewing Holy Spirit.
Of these, the only One who actually appeared to those around him was Jesus.
Kindness Walked Among Us
If the invisible God were to put on flesh, what would he look like? Patient? Certainly. What about powerful? Authoritative? Giving orders? Handing out tickets?
No, he would be kind. Indiscriminately, energetically, constantly kind. In fact, if you want to see the kindness of God fleshed out, just look at the life of Jesus.
During the years of his ministry, Jesus was in constant motion, busier than a mother with triplets. All four gospels present a picture of his ceaseless, merciful activity.
After calling his disciples, Matthew summarizes his early ministry:
“And he went throughout all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and proclaiming the gospel of the kingdom and healing every disease and every affliction among the people (Matthew 4:23, my emphasis).”
Notice the extent of his travels, “all Galilee.” See the range of his healing, “every disease and every affliction.” Preachers often explain that the miracles were primarily meant to validate his message. Certainly they did that. But they also revealed his great kindness, an exact image of his heavenly Father’s.
What does it take to travel extensively, by foot, over all kinds of terrain, to all sizes of communities? Perseverance. Commitment.
What does it take to heal so continuously that no one is left waiting in line? No triage has turned prospective patients away? No man, woman, or child has been ignored? Generosity. Concern. Kindness.
This made an impression on his disciples. Mark writes,
“That evening at sundown they brought to him all who were sick or oppressed by demons. And the whole city was gathered together at the door (Mark 1:32-33, my emphasis).”
“Now when the sun was setting, all those who had any who were sick with various diseases brought them to him, and he laid his hands on every one of them and healed them (Luke 4:40, my emphasis).”
The 31 Flavors of Kindness
When we taste God’s kindness, we notice the details. It’s not just plain vanilla, it’s 31 (or more) flavors. Think of your own visits to the emergency room with a child who fell out of a tree. Or your long vigil in the dreary waiting room, wondering if your husband made it through open heart surgery.
In his kindness, Jesus ministered not just to bodies, but to souls filled with anxiety, fear, loneliness, despair. He treated their sorrows and shame. He responded with compassion to their hunger (John 6), even when they turned grouchy and demanding. Some he treated in privacy, blocking the view of curious onlookers. Others he treated publicly, restoring them for all to see.
His eyes weren’t on his popularity ratings. His ears weren’t listening to his reviews. No, instead he saw the widow, weeping over the death of her only son. So he commanded the son to rise. When he did, Jesus didn’t stop to take a bow, instead he “gave him to his mother (Luke 7:15).”
In Jesus Christ, the kindness of God appeared, a kindness so kind it was willing to be interrupted, exhausted, and then delighted by the sudden relief of a mother’s despairing grief.
Tasting the Unforbidden Fruit
Once upon a time in Eden, there was also abundant fruit, against which there was no law—tree after tree where permission was granted to taste and enjoy. Only one tree with its fruit was forbidden. Against this there was a law, spoken by God, telling them not to eat.
The tempter slandered God, accusing him of being unkind. Of withholding something good, when he could so easily have granted it. Our first parents believed him, and sinned, not just against the Law Giver, but against the Kind One.
Now that Christ has appeared, those who trust in him are ushered into a new garden, full of fruit against which there is no law. Take the fruit of God’s kindness in your hand. Feel the weight of its juiciness. Smell its sweet ripeness.
This is the fruit he wants his people to enjoy forever, “so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7).”
Not just kindness forever, which might get dull to the unimaginative, but multiplied, expansive, immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness. Forever.
Think about that for a while.
Walking By the Spirit
Until then, let us walk by the Spirit. Let us keep in step with this interruptible, friendly, concerned, generous, and considerate Savior we worship.
And may our Father help us, one step at a time, to taste his kindness, so we can hand little tastes of it to those around us.