“In a world where you can be anything, be kind.”
One job of preachers is to call out when we’re nodding and smiling but not actually applying things to our lives.
Honestly, I think a lot of us read this and think, “Yeah, they should be more kind.”
Grammatically, of course, this does not address “them.” The subject of the sentence is “you understood” (thank you, Mr. Knox). So it would read, “In a world where you can be anything, [you] be kind.”
It’s talking to us. It’s reminding us. It’s exhorting us.
What does it want us to do?
First, let’s distinguish between “nice” and “kind.” I’m not a big fan of “nice.” “Nice” generally strikes me as superficial. It’s difficult to be superficially kind. I don’t know if kind works at a superficial level. Nice tends to be about how we want others to perceive us, whereas kind requires a commitment to care about the other person. Grace is kind but we don’t tend to associate it with being nice. When I speak harshly to someone and, instead of snapping back in turn, they ask, “Are you okay?”–which I’m not–I would not label that as “nice.” They show me grace by being kind, by caring about how I am and why I am behaving this way, rather than retaliating.
Kind is paying enough attention to see what someone might need from us, even if they don’t ask. Kindness is doing good to people to whom no one else pays attention, to people who might even make us look bad if we associate with them. Nice doesn’t do that. Nice might say “hi” to the person holding the sign asking for help, but nice doesn’t stop and enter a conversation, make eye contact, ask for a name and remember it. Kind does that.
In a world where you can be anything, be someone who stops to talk with a person holding a sign asking for help.
Yes, I know. So many objections. Some of them reasonable and well-argued. But that’s what I’m telling you, kindness doesn’t make those arguments. Kindness doesn’t dig a trench to fight over why I shouldn’t help someone. Kindness sees with different eyes.
We can’t be kind in the abstract or from a distance to people with whom we have no connection. If I feel bad that Syrian refugees are suffering, that doesn’t make me kind. I might imagine that it does. I might take that as part of my picture that I hold up for myself and say, “Oh, Mike, look how kind you are! You feel bad for people.” (Or “badly,” if I want to imagine myself both grammatical and kind.)
Again, I’m not looking to quibble on this. It’s a good thing to feel bad(ly) when we see others suffer, and sure as heck better than feeling indifference or superiority or that insidious “somehow they’re getting what they deserve and I, here not suffering, am also getting what I deserve.” Yeah, that one is grotesque. I’m not naysaying a soft heart. I’m just discussing how being kind is reflected, always, in action, in choice, in volition. By their fruit, you will know them. By our fruit will we know ourselves, if we’re honest and in this for more than appearance. I hope we are.
In a world where you can be anything, be someone who looks for opportunity to affirm others, who looks for strengths to call out, not weaknesses to exploit or mock. Look for good in people that they can’t see and call their attention to it. Again, kindness thinks about the other, not just myself. In a world where you can be anything, encourage, affirm, appreciate, empower. Don’t flatter, compliment. Don’t be creepy about it. Don’t get offended if they don’t take it the way you want them to. Kindness understands that in this moment it’s about them. If you affirm something about which they feel sensitive, a sore spot or an area in which they’ve been criticized or feel insecure, they may not know how to take it. They may try to fend off the affirmation, or argue, or dismiss it.
“Well screw you, I was trying to be nice!”
Guess what. Kindness doesn’t say that. Nice does. Because nice wants to look nice and be recognized for it. Kind knows that some of the most impactful affirmations get some of the worst initial responses. Kind understands that wounded people don’t always trust motives, don’t always believe a compliment or take it at face value. Sometimes they can’t. I don’t know how many times I’ve said something I hoped would encourage and the other person turned it around to be a put down* (and, in fairness, I’m kind of a master at this, myself). Sometimes that means clarifying; other times, we just need to let the seeds grow and look for more opportunities. When you tell someone who feels stupid that they are smart, you set off some serious dissonance. This is good, because that ugly thought needs to go, but now there’s an internal battle going as the negative voices attack the intruder, the kind word. And maybe you.
“But Mike,” someone objects,” this is complicated. I just wanted to…”
Be nice. I know. That’s what nice says. I’ve said it. Absorbing someone’s lashing out for trying to love them is one of the kindest things you can do. It’s not rewarding, certainly not initially.
It is, however, loving. Kindness asks more of us.
One more. In a world where you can be anything, be the person who takes the side of the bullied. Standing up to and confronting bullies might be a different word and blog post that goes beyond “kind.”** Refusing to bully is kind, especially when you feel pressured to join in. So is looking for those who get bullied or abused and letting them know you see them, you hear them, you validate their hurt.
This especially matters when the bully denies wrongdoing or the world seems committed to affirming the bully, which, to an injured person, sounds a whole lot like “What happened to you doesn’t really matter. What really matters is them!” This takes many forms. We’re seeing a lot of evangelical leaders caught in/confessing abuse recently. I shudder to think how many more haven’t been stopped. I seek to be about grace, but do you wonder what it sounds like to a person who has been abused when the discussion focuses solely on “How soon can we get this [abusive] person back into ministry?” What does this sole focus on help for the abuser say to those still getting abused?
Kind sees that. Kind hears those words as a person trying to survive and recover would hear them. Kind reaches out, speaks up, embraces and offers ears to hear, space to scream, validation. Nice might say, “Well, all sin is the same and we all sin” (a theological twisting of Scripture, by the way), but kind says, “That was evil and you have every right to feel this rage; God doesn’t expect you to stuff it down or repent of your emotions from being abused.” Kind understands that healing is messy. Nice doesn’t want mess. Kind enters in and wears a raincoat and waders, if necessary. Kind is in.
In a world–okay, sorry, I have to do this–in a world in which you can be anything: cool or indifferent, self-centered or self-serving, superficial or self-righteous or nice,
And may God change us, all of us, as we try.
* This is a separate category from “You thought that was an affirmation when you told the stranger/co-worker/waitress ‘Hey, Baby, nice hips’ and she glared at you.” If you don’t have that one figured out yet, we should talk privately; you may have some ground to cover before “kind.”
**This is a powerful form of love, of course.