On pursuing kindness, human and divineWritten by Subby Szterszky
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“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?” (Micah 6:8)
It would be fair to say that kindness has become one of the most prized and talked-about virtues in contemporary society. Inspiring quotes on Twitter and Instagram regularly remind us to be kind. Blogs and TV commercials urge us to make the world and our lives better through acts of kindness.
All of which is a wonderful thing. Kindness is one of the most appealing of human qualities, enjoined by God and finding its source in him. Its popular embrace, especially in a cultural moment of polarized outrage, is an extremely welcome development.
But as with other virtues, there’s a risk of reducing kindness to an attractive sentiment that falls short of its practical implications. By contrast, the divine and human kindness portrayed in Scripture is far more beautiful and beguiling, and goes beyond just keeping a positive attitude and being nice to people.
The book of Ruth: a study in kindness
Although set in the dark era of the judges, the book of Ruth is one of the sunniest and most uplifting narratives in all of Scripture. A pair of recently widowed women, Naomi and her daughter-in-law Ruth, return to Israel with no money and no prospects. In fact, as an immigrant from Moab, Ruth is doubly – or triply – disadvantaged. Despite this, she devotes herself to Naomi and Naomi’s God, and to caring for her bitter mother-in-law with unflagging energy and optimism. This draws the attention of Boaz, a well-to-do relative of Naomi who undertakes to help the two women. In due course, Ruth and Boaz marry and become ancestors of King David, and ultimately of Jesus.
The story of Ruth is conspicuously free of any discourse about sin or judgment. Instead, the tone remains positive and focuses on the central theme of kindness, expressed by the Hebrew word hesed, which pops up several times in the short narrative. There’s the kindness of Ruth to Naomi, of Boaz to Ruth, and of God to all of them as the ultimate author of the events in their story.
However, the word hesed can also be translated as steadfast love or loyal love, which brings an added dimension to the kindness on display in the book of Ruth and elsewhere in Scripture. As Sarah Bowler summarizes in her discussion of Daniel Block’s commentary on Ruth, hesed has three distinct qualities.
First, it is expressed primarily through actions, rather than words or emotions. Second, it shows genuine, proactive care for the needs of others. Bowler quotes Block here: “No one in the book demands that God meet their needs or asks for some divine intervention on his/her own behalf. True covenant faith is expressed by concern for the welfare of others.” Third, hesed demonstrates devotion above and beyond what is expected or deserved. Ruth leaves everything – her family, her home, her gods – and devotes herself to caring for Naomi, who was not always the easiest person to care for.
The lofty beauty of divine kindness
Like all human virtues, kindness has its source in God’s character and reflects the fact that humans are made in his image. In the vast majority of Old Testament occurrences, hesed is used to describe God’s kindness and goodness to humanity and to the rest of his creation.
The Psalms, in particular, are packed with references to God’s hesed, most often translated as steadfast love. David describes it with poetic grandeur, as filling the earth and reaching beyond the heavens – which, given our present knowledge of the scope of the cosmos, makes it even loftier than David could have imagined. In addition, the Psalms speak of birds and animals, orchards and vineyards, grain fields and forests, all rejoicing in God’s kind care and provision for them. The most concentrated praise of God’s hesed is found in Psalm 136, with its 26 repetitions of “his steadfast love endures forever,” grounding all of God’s creative and redemptive acts, from beginning to end, in his kindness.
This divine kindness is also exemplary in that it extends to those who in no way deserve it – which encompasses all of fallen humanity. In the New Testament, Jesus commands his followers to love their enemies, so that they may prove to be children of God who resemble their Father, “for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35).
Jesus himself committed the ultimate act of kindness, dying for sinful people who didn’t ask or desire him to do so. In light of this loftiest of kindnesses, the Apostle Paul encourages believers to “be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you” (Ephesians 4:32).
The marriage of truth and kindness
There’s a common perception in the broader culture, as well as among many Christians, that kindness means always being nice, always being agreeable and never causing offence. But that’s not the example modelled by Jesus, who was the perfect embodiment of both divine and human kindness. Jesus was unfailingly kind and compassionate, but he also didn’t shy away from challenging wrong ideas or behaviour. He denounced the Pharisees in no uncertain terms, calling them a brood of vipers. He told people whom he’d healed and forgiven to stop sinning in the future.
None of these were lapses of kindness on Jesus’ part. Quite the contrary, they were displays of kindness married to the truth that people needed to hear for their good, even when they didn’t want to hear it. Kindness isn’t always pleasant or painless. But in any case, allowing people to continue in patterns of sin that will ultimately destroy them is no kindness at all, but only cruelty.
Jesus is the great physician of souls, and like all kind and good doctors, he sometimes needs to wound in order to heal. Or as David put it, “Let a righteous man strike me – it is a kindness; let him rebuke me – it is oil for my head; let my head not refuse it” (Psalm 141:5).
Kindness should never be divorced from the truth. To paraphrase Tim Keller, “Kindness without truth is sentimentality; it supports and affirms us but keeps us in denial about our flaws. Truth without kindness is harshness; it gives us information but in such a way that we cannot really hear it.”
The healing power of human kindness
Rosaria Butterfield is a former lesbian academic who became an eloquent Christian author and speaker. At one point in her pre-Christian career, she wrote a critique against an evangelical Christian group in her local paper, and watched as both the fan mail and the hate mail began to roll in. And then, she received a two-page reply from a local pastor, its tone warm and inquisitive, asking her honest questions, making it clear he wasn’t attacking her even though he disagreed with her.
“It was the kindest letter of opposition that I had ever received,” Butterfield recalled. At first, she didn’t know what to make of it, but eventually she reached out to the pastor and his wife and became friends with them. “They talked with me in a way that didn’t make me feel erased,” she observed, noting that her friendship with the couple was a key step on her journey to faith in Christ.
Over the past few years, social media has become littered with toxic, polarized arguments about politics, religion, science, sexuality, entertainment, and most anything else people can find to argue about. This online behaviour mirrors a deeper fragmentation in society as a whole, and is sadly present among Christians as well as non-Christians. The church for its part has also been plagued with its own shameful stories of abuse, not only physical and sexual, but also emotional and spiritual.
It’s small wonder there’s an outcry for kindness across the social spectrum, to bring back decency and civility to a decidedly uncivil cultural environment. The prophet Micah’s ancient injunction to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God is more relevant and Instagram-worthy than ever.
For followers of Jesus, kindness is a fruit of the Holy Spirit, produced in the heart by the Lord himself. But God has also wired the capacity for kindness into all of his human image bearers, as a reflection of his own. He has made it one of the most attractive and appealing of virtues, and put in our hearts the desire to pursue and experience it. He has infused it with potential to heal lives, relationships, and even society as a whole.
According to Paul, God’s own kindness is meant to lead us to repentance (Romans 2:4). It’s meant to melt our hearts, thrill our affections and spark our resolve to love and trust him. And since repentance is a lifelong pursuit, it’s incumbent on believers to keep meditating on God’s kindness, to keep turning it over and over in our minds and imaginations, to let it keep doing its work in us.
In the end, we want and need the kindness of God, and of our fellow men and women, to inspire our own. We want and need to be instruments of healing on a personal and societal level, and to please our God who is the source of all kindness.
Sources and further reading
Daniel I. Block, Judges, Ruth: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, (The New American Commentary), Holman Reference, 1999.
Sarah Bowler, “3 characteristics of ‘hesed love’ in the book of Ruth,” author’s blog, November 20, 2014.
Leila L. Bronner, “Ruth and lovingkindness,” My Jewish Learning, accessed June 10, 2019.
Barry H. Corey, “The radical call of kindness: Why the church must recover Christian compassion in an age of incivility,” Biola Magazine, Summer 2016.
Will Kynes, “God’s grace in the Old Testament: Considering the hesed of the Lord,” C.S. Lewis Institute, 2010.
Derek Leman, “Introduction to Ruth as a book of chesed,” The Hebrew Nerd, January 6, 2017.
Russell Moore, “Kindness is not weakness,” Chrisianity.com, August 20, 2015.
Veronica Neffinger, “Why kindness is not the same as being nice,” Crosswalk.com, September 7, 2016.
Amber Penney, “What does kindness look like?” Christianity Today, June-July 2002.
Frank Powell, “8 ‘Christian’ virtues that aren’t really Christian and the alternatives that actually are,” Relevant Magazine, February 9, 2017.
Dwight A. Pryor, “Abounding in hesed,” Jerusalem Post Christian Edition, January 7, 2010.
Stephen Witmer, “Kindness changes everything,” Desiring God, September 4, 2016.
Subby Szterszky is the managing editor of Focus on Faith and Culture, an e-newsletter produced by Focus on the Family Canada.
© 2019 Focus on the Family (Canada) Association. All rights reserved.
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