I want to clarify niceness is not kindness. There’s a big difference. By kindness, I’m not talking about when you buy a stranger coffee or when you bring in your neighbor’s trash cans or when you tell someone they have food in their teeth. These are nice random acts. But kindness is not a random act. It’s a radical life.
Kindness is not limited to grandmothers or Boy Scouts. Kindness is all over the Bible, plentiful in both Testaments. But you won’t find niceness in the Bible once—nor the word nice, for that matter. Kindness is fierce, brave and daring. It’s fearless and selfless, never to be mistaken for niceness. They’re not the same and never were. Kindness is neither timid nor frail.
Niceness is kindness minus conviction. I think we should scrub “nice” from our vocabulary. We need to stop telling children to be nice and instead tell them to be kind, and then tell them the difference. Niceness is about being polite and politically correct. The call to kindness is a call to sacrifice, to embrace discomfort, to put action behind our words. Niceness is circumstantial but kindness is a way of life.
Without a doubt, Christians have a reputation for being judgmental, self-righteous, hateful, and mean-spirited in the eyes of many unbelievers. But why do you think so many Christians are unkind and vicious toward their fellow Christians with whom they disagree?
I believe we have a lot of fear. Fear of being overrun by “liberal” Christians, fear of not having our candidate win, fear of losing ground on biblical standards, fear of softening America’s Judeo-Christian heritage, fear of those more tolerant to religious pluralism and on and on. And so we respond to fear with fighting. Standing for our dignity and in defense of the convictions we hold, Christians often lead harshness toward those who don’t hold to the same convictions they do.
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. Christian leaders have been known to whip up their supporters into a frenzy over the antics of their political, media, or theological “enemies,” inside and outside the church. Plus, it’s far easier to lob accusations and criticisms from a distance through social media than it is to have a conversation.
I also lay part of the blame on Christians’ finding it more convenient to mimic cultural norms than creatively and biblically being countercultural in how we engage with each other. We are quick to follow suit with the trends of what seems to be working in the general culture, and our attempts to grab power in politics have particularly made us polemical on some issues.
I wrote this book 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 in our particular tribes to admire our toughness and raise our own profile. This has gotten us almost nowhere in the cause of the gospel, our Christian call to be redemptive voices to that which is broken. Our increasingly shrill sounds across the aisle may be done in the best of intentions, protecting our view of what Christianity should look like, but they are not strengthening our witness.
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, not kindness.
What should a Jesus-follower do when they see a so-called “Christian” attacking another Christian with vitriol or slander?
Crassly, kindness works. It works because it was the biblical model for our engagement with each other as the people of God and with the world. Jesus-followers need to be voices of virtue to others when Christians are attacking each other.
There need to be pastors and professors and authors and bloggers fanning the flames of kindness as the antidote to our vitriol and slander. 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.
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. Paul got this when he said to Jesus’ followers in Rome that God’s kindness leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4). Repentance, more than anything else, changes lives. And kindness leads us there.
Christians need to hear that 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. I want Christians to hear that they should not 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. Christians who are in it for the long haul in the new world order we’re entering (post-Christian and religiously plural) need to grasp that 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.
One thing I suggest as a practical way to live a life of kindness is to become more involved in the culturally unfamiliar, to actively engage with those who are unlike us. If we reach outward, open ourselves to “common good” conversations and collaborations with people who might otherwise oppose what we stand for, it’s going to be a lot harder for us to be criticized or even penalized for what some believe are out-of-date principles.
When we are in the cultural crosshairs, I want leaders in our cities and in the public square to say, “That’s the church that works with the city helping undocumented children. That’s the Christian college partnering with HIV research or helping to draft a policy for urban educational reform. That’s the campus ministry hosting conversations with voices of differing perspectives.”
Absent these collaborations, we could be defined merely as anti-this or anti-that organizations rather than as organizations that stand for. We don’t need to be part of the arsenal. We need to be part of the dialogue. When we act this way, we will be less on the defensive and more in a position to be heard and understood, though not necessarily agreed with. And though at times we need to fight to hold our ground, the benefits of opening ourselves to civil conversations outweigh the risks of shutting out other voices.
2) Another practical way to live a life of kindness is to be creators of goodness and beauty. My ongoing desire is for Christians to create more beautiful things through music and the visual and media arts, as writers and performers and storytellers and movie producers. And let’s extend our creative work beyond the bordering streets of our organizations. If God is the author of all things beautiful, we become his fragrance as we fan the flames of imagination and invest in the many arts: written, culinary, spoken, visual, dance, digital, and on we go. This is the way of kindness.
I am convinced we have more and more to contribute to the arts. Just think of what would happen if we extended beauty and goodness beyond our own organizational walls. Just think what would happen if we reached across the gallery to collaborate with artists with radically different frames of reference. What if suburban parochial schools rented a city theatre for a play or leased space in the arts district for a gallery? What if a suburban church and an urban church combined their choirs so that the performers truly looked and sounded like Revelation 7’s gathering of every tongue and tribe and nation?
We can be communities that attract artists and intrigue those who love beauty regardless of their perspective on faith. When we do this, we are making our edges soft without tampering our centers. The way of kindness means we generously explore beauty and goodness.
3) Another practical way to live a life of kindness is to approach the growing opposition in our day by leading with humility. Something’s changing in our culture. And I say this not as a fighter or a right-winger. I was never a member of the Moral Majority. I don’t always see eye-to-eye with friends who belong to the NRA or who have harsh views on immigration.
So when I say something’s changing, I’m saying this from a measured perspective. What has happened in the last few years is staggering. And a part of the reason why Christians are increasingly less tolerated is that our conversations are in-house, and we’re not making connections to the wider world as intentionally as we could. We need new and more conversations that build bridges and not walls. The call to kindness is a call to sacrifice, to embrace discomfort, to put action behind our words. Niceness is circumstantial but kindness is a way of life.
www.frankviola.com. Used by permission of the author.