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.

The Joyful Loss of Covid Weddings

Theology for the Pandemic

Covid has reduced our lives to their simplest terms, but this reduction has allowed us to recover the beauty of a simplified life. Home cooked meals. Uneventful weekends. Sweatpants. Lots of family time. Most of our life has been simplified, including weddings. 

I’ve attended three Zoom weddings in the past few months, and they have been striking. Any fairy tale sentimentality is stripped back by a full dose of reality. The world has not stopped turning for this couple, and they are fully aware of it. People are missing–siblings, grandparents, best friends. Masks remind everyone second by second that something is amiss that even love does not overcome. But in spite of the harsh reality that there is a raging pandemic unlike anything we have seen in the past century, there is something profoundly beautiful happening during zoom weddings.

The reality check: grief and joy

Life exists in a tension between beauty and grief, hope and suffering. But Covid weddings have captured this dynamic in an elevated way as they allow grief to show up like an uninvited guest. Weddings are supposed to be the best day of your life precisely because it is a day without grief or loneliness or sadness, a day that is meant to offer supreme happiness–bliss. But Covid has knocked this idea off of it’s pedestal, and its actually a good thing. 

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.” – Revelation 21:1-4

Just after John’s vision in Revelation of the marriage supper of the Lamb, he sees the new Jerusalem, the city where God will dwell with his people in perfect wedded bliss. At this wedding death shall be no more and every tear will be wiped away. 

Weddings often feature crying; I cried when as my dad walked me down the aisle, Andrew cried when he first saw me in my dress. But these are the tears of hopeful expectation or joyful remembrance. At the Covid wedding, there are tears of joy, but also tears grief over loved ones that aren’t there, the brokenness of our world, and a day that did not go according to plan. 

But in spite of sorrow that tinges this wedding day, Covid weddings are more in tune with reality. They embody the truth that the days ahead of you will not all be easy. Your life will be marred with loss and sadness just as much as it is blessed with joy. And that is ok. 

As Christians, we don’t need to pretend that the brokenness of our world isn’t there, to sterilize a day from sadness in an attempt to imagine a world without pain. We have this perfect wedding day as our hope that we look forward to. At the marriage supper of the Lamb there truly will be no more tears or pain or grief. The beauty that we so long to create in earthly weddings will be realized and the tears will be of remembrance for the broken world that our savior has restored and redeemed once and for all. Whether we like it or not Covid weddings remind us that we are not there yet and force us focus center our attention to the purpose of the wedding ceremony: the covenant. 

The Beautiful Covenant

A covenant is a promise; two people promising to stick it out for better or for worse. Covid weddings offer an embodied experience of “for worse” in a live fashion. At my wedding, our pastor pointed out that we will probably never look this good again. We were getting married at a “for better” moment in our lives. It was easy to marry Andrew when I wasn’t exhausted all the time, when I felt like our world was stable albeit broken. But when the world is falling apart before your eyes, protests threaten your second wedding venue, or you may be deported because you are an international PhD student, you are getting married in a “for worse” time (all real examples). 

The Bible begins and ends with a wedding, and all through the middle God chooses to describe how he relates to his people as a husband loving his wife. Biblical marriage is sacramental because it points to the greater spiritual reality of the church’s ulitmate and forever marriage to Christ. In Ephesians 5 Paul says, “Therefore a man shall leave his father and mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh. This mystery is profound, and I am saying that it refers to Christ and the church.” Paul quotes Genesis 2, anticipates Revelation 21, and says that human marriage is actually about Jesus and his bride, the church. 

This is what weddings are about, and this is why people are getting married in the middle of a pandemic. I have heard about weddings being indefinitely postponed, a couple opting to wait it out. But when a wedding is about this beautiful covenant, a promise that embraces suffering with joy, it is a celebration that can’t wait. Covenant chooses to enter into a broken and beautiful relationship because it is a physical reminder of God’s promises to his people. These small weddings in a broken world are acts of faith that one day Jesus, our true groom, will make all things new. 

The Perfect Wedding

The marriage supper of the Lamb is the ultimate wedding and what every wedding on earth is testifying towards: perfect union with Christ and the redemption and restoration of all things. At this wedding grief is wiped away with joy, once and for all. 

But this hope is also something we participate in today. Jesus, the beautiful one, our savior who is acquainted with grief (Is 53:3) stands by us in our longing and sorrow. He enables us to face brokenness and despair knowing that our joy is in him rather than our circumstances. When we are disappointed or grieving he stands firm in his covenant to us, promising that he will never leave us nor forsake us.

Today, he stands beside you promising for better or for worse.