The Emptiness of Cultural Kindness

Kindness seems to be everywhere these days. It’s posted on yard signs and granola bars, t-shirts, and posters for your home. Though kindness is not new, BE KIND! has become a warm greeting in a culture that prides itself on tolerance, acceptance, and affirmation.

A few months ago, Ellen Degeneres fell from her two-decade-long reign as the queen of kindness for apparently, well, being very unkind. Kindness was her motto, encouraging everyone to “Be kind to one another” as the parting message of every episode. But for someone who has made millions selling the idea of kindness, her brand of kindness has proved to be empty after her show was canceled due to reports of the toxic, racist, and abusive work culture she set. 

When our national face of kindness proves to be deeply unkind, we have to wonder, does the kindness that our culture celebrates have any value? Or is it lacking, pretending to do and be good while unable to produce any good or loving changes in our world? In a culture that is hungry for kindness but often finding cultural kindness to be empty, we must look to scripture and the author of kindness to teach us what kindness truly is. 

True kindness is always rooted in love. 

Cultural kindness is more about tolerance, enduring differences without complaining, and being nice than it is about love. It asks us only to be pleasant to those whom we are different from, but it does not call us to love them. When kindness is without love, it can quickly become insincere, something we do because we are supposed to. But kindness without love is not kindness at all, but rather an imitation, a fake that supposes love for another, but is merely an act.  

This is the problem with cultural kindness. I can be nice and tolerate someone while hating them at the same time, and this is what we see in the case of Ellen. Her public persona of kindness turned out to be mere niceness. She played at being kind, but in reality, was unkind, and the fruits of her labor were abuse, division, and hurt. Though cultural kindness puts on the facade of love, at best it a bland tolerance of other people, at worst, it is hatred with a smile. 

In contrast, biblical kindness, real kindness, is always rooted in the steadfast and self-sacrificing love of God. He is righteous in all his ways and kind in all his works (Ps 145:17), He is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and abounding in loving-kindness towards his people (Neh 9:17), with everlasting kindness, I will have compassion to you (Is 54:8). In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word chesed, which means loving-kindness, is used to describe how God relates to his people. It is also this loving-kindness that he desires from his people in response to his own. As he says in Hos 6:6, For I desire steadfast love (kindness), not sacrifices, the knowledge of God and not burnt offerings. God makes it clear that niceness—burnt offerings and sacrifices that go through the motions of devotion without love, do not delight him. Rather, he desires earnest love and knowledge of who He is. 

Unlike cultural kindness, chesed captures the steadfast and sacrificial love of God who does not abandon a people who are radically different than he is, who anger him, who test and fail him again and again. True kindness, therefore, must be rooted in this kind of covenantal love that endures at all costs. Our kind God does not merely tolerate us. He does not endure us with distaste. He loves us with a fierce kindness that is more committed to our own well-being than we are. 

True kindness is not always agreeable.  

Godly kindness is rooted in the covenantal love of God who pursues the flourishing of his creation. But real human flourishing comes when humanity lives in accordance with what we were created for: submission to and obedience of our Creator. Because God’s covenantal love always has the aim of changing a sinful people into a holy nation, godly kindness is not always agreeable. 

To be kind in our culture means that we rarely disagree. It has been argued that our culture is rapidly losing its ability to disagree with others and maintain friendship. We live in a nation in which outrage trumps listening and understanding, and disagreement means dismissal. When the January 6 attack on the capital occurred, my Facebook page was flooded with statements saying something along the lines of, “If you don’t condemn what happened today, we are no longer friends.” While the condemnation of the events was valid and the comments were intended to declare their disapproval, they demonstrated how culture responds to disagreement: we cancel. 

When cultural kindness meets disagreement or injustice, it responds with cancellation. Cancel culture is cultural kindness’s attempt at justice. Though there is goodness in the desire to make right what has gone wrong, kindness without love leads to justice without love. We are content to settle for dismissal because our kindness was never more than niceness; it was never motivated by wanting to know another or be known, never fierce enough to engage in hard conversations, to call something wrong or work towards restoring a broken person. 

Not so for the biblical kindness— God’s kindness is meant to lead us to repentance (Rom 2:4). Godly kindness confronts in love so that we might be conformed into his image. Because he loves us and wants us to flourish, God’s steadfast loving-kindness will challenge us, tell us when we are wrong, and change us. This is why the Psalmist says let a righteous man rebuke me, it is a kindness (Ps 141:5). It is in kindness when he corrects, rebukes, and convicts us because he loves us enough to see that we might become mature and complete, lacking in nothing (Jas 1:4) and receiving the our inheritance as his children. The people of God should never be marked by mere agreeableness, but rather embrace the kindness that is not content to allow us to stay in sin, that permits suffering so that we might depend on him more, and that speaks the truth in love (Eph 4:15).

Moreover, where cultural kindness leads to cancel-culture “justice”, godly kindness that is rooted in love leads us to restorative justice through truth-telling, repentance, forgiveness, and reconciliation. This is the fruit of the kindness of God and what Paul is getting at when he says, behold, the kindness and severity of God (Rom 11:22). He is not interested in niceness, he is interested in bringing many sons to glory, and in his kindness, he will surely do it. 

God’s ultimate kindness in Christ.

But when the kindness and love of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us generously through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs having the hope of eternal life (Tit 3:4-7). 

In his eternal kindness, the Father sent Christ to extend the ultimate kindness: our salvation. But in Christ he also enables us to be transformed into his likeness through the Spirit who produces godly fruit in our lives like kindness (Gal 5:22). This is the calling that is placed on his followers, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, and meekness (Col 3:12). To clothe ourselves in kindness means that we care about knowing another person rather than being superficial. That we care about their well-being, are willing to endure with them when things get tough, to sacrifice for them, and disagree to speak the truth in love for their sake. 

In John 8 a woman is caught in adultery. It was a crime deserving death and he community was ready to stone her. But Jesus showed her kindness. He showed her love and mercy thought they could not have been more different. He didn’t reject or condemn her for her choices or beliefs. He knelt beside her and protected her. He reminded the crowd that they too were sinners. But he also didn’t say that her actions didn’t matter. He called her into repentance and obedience when he said, Go and sin no more (8:11).

May we grow in this kind of godly kindness in a world that desperately needs the kindness of our Savior.

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