Summer 2016

The Radical Call of Kindness

Why the church must recover Christian compassion in an age of incivility

By Barry H. Corey

by Barry H. Corey

I held the hand of the kindest man I ever knew, sitting by his bedside in silent reverence while he lay shrouded in sheets bleached white.

We were alone in a Boston palliative care room, just the two of us except for a hospice nurse occasionally interrupting the holy to adjust a drip or check a vital. Room 402 was sacred space.

I looked at him that night as he looked at nothing, and I shook my head at the cruelty of cancer. After three years of potent drugs, radiation, wheelchairs, epidurals and horrible pain that drove him to weeping, he never asked, “Why me?” When visitors walked into his room, even during his last days, he made them the honored guests. I thought about his kindness that night as the sounds of his irregular breathing softened.

By morning, my father — the kindhearted reverend — was dead.

Years later, what I recall is not his courage in death. It is his kindness in life. His kindness was the open door for friends and strangers to enter.

I had never given serious thought to the revolutionary power of kindness until my father died. Then I started paying attention to the stories told about him. He wasn’t quickly forgotten. His gentle influence rippled on and continues to ripple on. The stories were neither about his commanding leadership nor about his well-known status. He didn’t start a company, earn much money, make the news, hold public office or write a book. No one would have drafted his Wikipedia page.

The stories were about his spirit of kindness. His influence ran deep and wide, showing up in kindness lavished liberally. He was wildly welcoming, epic in life because he was epic in love.

I’m just now beginning to grasp how uncommon kindness is. My father’s example doesn't seem to characterize the tone of conversations many Christians are having today in the public square. Kindness has become far too often a forgotten virtue. Christians often bypass kindness to begin a shouting match, or we just talk among ourselves about how awful the other side is. We have ranted before we’ve related, deeming the latter too soft on sin.

Christians — and I’ve seen this especially in American Christians in recent years — have employed the way, and it’s not working. The “culture wars” have done nothing to change our society, and we’ve lost many if not all of these wars. As a result, the church too often is marginalized and mocked, and increasingly people are viewing the Bible as just as intolerable as our aggressive tactics.

To be Christian, however, kindness must shape us and define us. But this powerful virtue seems to be characterizing us less and not more. We have lost an understanding of the power of kindness, mistakenly dismissing it as fluff or bland. Kindness needs to be rediscovered.

Our reflex is to fight those who oppose us. Standing for our dignity and in defense of the truths we hold, we have too often led with harshness toward those antagonistic to the Christian faith. To prove we’re not going soft on our faith (and sometimes understanding that fighting words raise more money), we’re quick to label others from a distance. Leaders have been known to whip their supporters into a frenzy over the antics of their political, media or theological “enemies.”

I wrote Love Kindness out of frustration that those who represent the gospel are often caustic and harsh, picking fights with those whose views are hostile to theirs. In other words, Christians are often starting with unkindness. Unkindness has little effect beyond marshaling other Christians to admire our toughness and raising our own profile. This has gotten us nowhere in the cause of the gospel, our Christian call to be redemptive voices to that which is broken.

Our increasingly shrill sounds in the public square are not strengthening our witness but weakening it. Bullhorns and fist shaking — mustering armies and using war-waging rhetoric — are far less effective than the way of kindness, treating those with whom we disagree with charity and civility.

That doesn’t mean we don’t stand courageously for what we deem right, true and just. But kindness is not incompatible with courage. Kindness embodies courage, although courage does not always embody kindness. Too often our centers are firm on conviction, but our edges are also hard in our tactics. This way is characterized by aggression.

And on the other hand there is the way of “niceness.” Whereas aggression has a firm center and hard edges, niceness has soft edges and a spongy center. Niceness may be pleasant, but it lacks conviction. It has no soul. Niceness trims its sails to prevailing cultural winds and wanders aimlessly, standing for nothing and thereby falling for everything.

Kindness is certainly not aggression, but it’s also not niceness. Niceness is cosmetic. It’s bland. Niceness is keeping an employee in the job, knowing he’s no longer the right fit but failing him and the company because you don’t have the courage to do the kind thing. Kindness calls you to tell him he’s not the person for the position and then dignify him in the transition.

Kindness is fierce, never to be mistaken for niceness. They’re not the same and never were. Kindness is neither timid nor frail, as niceness can be so easily. Kindness is all over the Bible, plentiful in both Testaments. But you won’t find niceness there once — or nice, for that matter. The ideals of kindness are rooted in Scripture, founded on Christian theology and tested over the millennia by followers of Jesus. Since the early church, disciples have walked the risky and sometimes dangerous road of kindness.

In today’s polarized culture, we are often pulled toward one way or the other, toward the extremes of soft centers or hard edges. I’m proposing a different approach, a third way. Rather than the harshness of firm centers and hard edges, and rather than the weakness of spongy centers and soft edges, why don’t we start with kindness? Kindness is the way of firm centers and soft edges.

Kindness is a biblical way of living. It’s a fruit of the Holy Spirit on Paul’s short list in Galatians 5. It’s not a duty or an act. It’s the natural result of the Holy Spirit’s presence in our lives. We exhale kindness after we inhale what’s been breathed into us by the Spirit. Kindness radiates when we’re earnest about living the way of Christ, the way of the Spirit. Kindness displays the wonder of Christ’s love through us.

Many Christians nowadays tend to talk with bravado and bluster about heroism that impacts the world. I’d rather talk about the power of kindness to change lives, ours and others’. Paul got this when he said to Jesus’ followers in Rome that God’s kindness leads us to repentance (see Romans 2:4). Repentance, more than anything else, changes lives. And kindness leads us there.

Kindness is not a virtue limited to grandmothers or Boy Scouts. We devalue its power when we think of kindness as pampering or random acts. Kindness doesn’t pamper, and it’s not random. It’s radical. It is brave and daring, fearless and courageous, and at times, kindness is dangerous. It has more power to change people than we can imagine. It can break down seemingly impenetrable walls. It can reconcile relationships long thought irreparable. It can empower leaders and break stalemates. It can reconcile nations. Kindness as Jesus lived it is at the heart of peacemaking and has the muscle to move mountains. It’s authentic and not self-serving.

Don’t sell kindness short.

Kindness enables us to negotiate in a time when negotiating is dying and friendly discussions are yielding to rancor. Kindness — the higher ground — helps us find middle ground and common ground.

The greatest leadership influence lies ahead for those who walk the way of kindness in an increasingly fragmented and skeptical society. It’s a path that will help us to be stronger leaders, more winsome neighbors, healthier husbands, better mothers, truer friends, more effective bosses and faithful disciples.

Kindness is strong yet humble. Kindness is honesty and looks like truth with love. The psalmist David believed this, writing, “Let a righteous man strike me — that is a kindness; let him rebuke me — that is oil on my head” (Psalm 141:5).

This is our challenge: living from a Christ-centered core that spills out into a life of kindness. It’s a life with a firm center and soft edges.

For many of us, venturing into the way of kindness will be hard. It’s countercultural. It’s risky. It’s sometimes unwelcomed and awkward. It’s admitting our own messiness and imperfections on the journey.

The Old Testament prophet Micah once asked on behalf of Israel, “With what shall I come before the Lord?” (Micah 6:6). Micah answers his question with a few hollow suggestions that are in fact external religious rites, each of increasing value. Burnt offerings of calves? One thousand rams? Ten thousand rivers of oil? Our firstborn sons?

None of these is sufficient. Rather, the Lord’s sole reply of what he requires is a simple threefold response of obedience: “To do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, ESV).

Love kindness. We don’t “just do” kindness in some Nike-esque way. We are to love kindness. Perhaps the Scriptures so often use the term loving-kindness to make sure we don’t separate love from kindness.

“Love kindness” is the partner of “do justice.” If doing justice is the firm center, then loving kindness is the soft edges. Both are what God expects of us, not one or the other. And we do both of these with equal passion while walking humbly with God.

Love kindness. We need this more than ever. It’s time for us to love kindness and in so doing rediscover the revolutionary force of this fading Christian virtue.

“To love kindness” seems like it should be an easy task for us — who doesn’t love kindness? Kindness is easy to show to the coffee barista when she gets our latte right. Kindness comes naturally to our family so long as there’s harmony. But kindness is much harder to show those we might have previously ignored, avoided, judged or condemned. Kindness is a tougher road when we live in tension with colleagues or in our marriage. Try walking the way of kindness then. Kindness is not intuitive. But Jesus calls us to demonstrate the power of kindness to everyone we come across. Neighbor or stranger. Wife or son. Colleague or enemy.                                          

More profoundly, kindness calls us to the risk of encountering people with disease, those living outside of grace and even those who would threaten to harm or destroy us. What does kindness look like when we extend it to our enemies or the outcast, the bullied or the lonely, the unsavory or the unlovely? What does it look like to be kind to the persecutors of Christians and not just the persecuted?                                

Jesus nevertheless calls us to the way of kindness — selfless, humble, vulnerable, open, risky and faithful. He has called us to extraordinary kindness. Kindness opens us to adventurous relationships and the joyful journey we otherwise would miss.                                                   

The good news is that kindness has the potential to be contagious. When otherwise inconsequential, indifferent, marginalized, proud, stubborn, condemned individuals receive our genuine kindness, true connection with God can begin. And often they who have received our kindness then pay it forward.                                                   

The way of kindness is the revolutionary way Jesus called us to live. The way of selfless risks. The way of staggering hope. The way of authenticity. The way of profound love. The way of becoming the “kind” kind. I’ve got a long way to go, but I want to grasp the power of kindness the way Jesus intended it to be lived.

As a university president, I care about how the rising generation lives out the way of Jesus in an increasingly polarized and mean-spirited culture. So I’m posing the idea of living the way of kindness, a way that is mercy filled, reverent and God fearing. Kindness is a dimension of God’s common grace through us. It’s a civility grounded in gentleness and respect. At the same time, kindness is neither milquetoast nor weak. It is fierce and passionate. The God-authored spirit of kindness in us has the power to upend the enemy and season the world around us for the good. Kindness as Jesus lived it presents the highest hope for a renewal of Christian civility, a renewal needed now more than ever.                                                  

As my friend and Biola trustee Bryan Loritts (M.A. ’98) said to me, “We’ve tried legalism, and that has proven inept and unattractive. Some are trying a warped form of love that renders us saltless. The only thing that works is a life that embodies grace and truth lived out in relationship with others.”                                        

I call that kindness — a life with a firm center and soft edges. It’s a life that calls us to risk. A life that calls us to hope. A life that calls us to love. And the life Christ invites us to follow.


Barry H. Corey is the president of Biola University. This essay is excerpted from his book Love Kindness: Discover the Power of a Forgotten Christian Virtue, Tyndale House Publishers, March 2016. Learn more at lovekindnessbook.com.

 

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  • Phil McCutchen June 30, 2016 at 11:24 AM

    Barry:

    So glad you wrote about your father. He was the kindest man I've ever known. He was unashamedly affectionate.

    I'll never forget having lunch with him one day while he was on staff at Park Street in Boston. The Gay marriage conversation was just starting in earnest in our area at the time. As we talked, your dad reached across the table and held both of my hands for what seemed like forever. I am sure the patrons thought we were a couple. You know, I didn't really care what they thought because I was so in need of kindness that particular day. A week rarely goes by in this vitriolic world that I don't consciously draw strength from the kindness of Hugh Corey.

    BTW: I am praying for you in light of the challenge you are facing with SB1146.

    Also, I would be honored to have you speak to our congregation whenever you are back in the area.

    Grace & Peace

    Phil McCutchen

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