Kindness is Not the Same as Love

In yesterday’s post we pondered that being holy is more than being nice. Today we do well to ponder that that being loving is not the same as being kind. Here too we live in a reductionist culture that has tended to reduce love to kindness. The results are often quite problematic as we shall see.

Kindness is a very great thing and has an important place in our relationships. Kindness is evidenced by goodness and charitable behavior, a  pleasantness, tenderness and concern for others.  According to Aristotle, kindness is an emotion manifesting itself by the desire to help somebody in need, without expecting anything in return. Peter Kreeft defines kindness as “sympathy, with the desire to relieve another’s suffering.” [Envoy Magazine, Vol 9.3, p. 20]

However, as Kreeft himself notes,  it is a very great mistake to equate kindness with love. Kindness is an aspect of love, but it is necessarily distinct from love. For is sometimes happens that love, which wills what is best for the other, may deem it best not to remove all suffering. A father, in fact may impose punishment on a child out of love. Kindness generally seeks to alleviate suffering and negativity. Love understands that suffering often has a salvific role. My parents disciplined me out of love. Had they been merely kind to me, I would likely have been spoiled, undisciplined and ill-equipped for life.

Paradoxically the more we love the more we will often see mere kindness diminish. Consider how kind we can be to strangers. We may sometimes give money to strangers with little questions asked. But if a son or daughter asks for money we may often want to know why and, even if we give it, we will frequently lecture them about being more responsible with their money. The interaction may be less kind, but it may also be more loving for it seeks to end the problem rather than merely relieve the symptom of the problem.

The good eclipses the best – And herein lies the danger of reducing love to kindness. In simply seeking to alleviate the suffering of the moment or to give people what they want, many deeper issues go unresolved and worsen. Welfare has created a slavish dependence for many in our culture. And it  is not just the poor in our cities. There is corporate welfare, and many other subsidies and entitlements that too many can no longer go without.  Rather than addressing the root causes of poverty, dependence or poor economic conditions and bad business models,  kindness interrupts love’s deeper role and treats only the suffering of the moment. In this sense the merely good (kindness)  replaces the truly best (Love). True love gives what is best, not merely what is immediately preferred.

Further, Many false expectations are centered in the exaltation of kindness over love. Generally this is manifest in the fact that suffering of any kind is seen as obnoxious and even the cause for legal action. It has also led to our demands for comfort to go on steroids. Demand for euthanasia flow from this sort of thinking as well.

A final and very terrible effect often flows from mistaking mere kindness for love is that it disposes many towards atheism. Here I simply want to quote Peter Kreeft because he says it so well

It is painfully obvious that God is not mere kindness, for He does not remove all suffering, though He has the power to do so. Indeed, this very fact — that the God who is omnipotent and can, at any instant, miraculously erase all suffering from the world, deliberately chooses not to do so —  is the commonest argument that unbelievers use against him. The number one argument for atheism stems from the confusion between love and kindness. [Peter Kreeft, Envoy Magazine, Vol 9.3, p. 20]

Kindness is a very great attribute and it surely has its place. But we must carefully distinguish it from love. Exalting kindness over love amounts to a denial of the wisdom of the Cross. Kindness focuses on comfort and alleviating suffering and this is a very great thing. But love is greater thing for it wills what is best, not what is merely desired.

Please note this is not a blog against kindness, only an attempt to distinguish and to subsume kindness under love. But kindness is an important and necessary virtue. This video is a beautiful story of how kindness is also tied to sacrificial love.

28 Replies to “Kindness is Not the Same as Love”

  1. I’ve never really given much thought to the origin and deeper meanings to the words “kind” and “kindness.”

    I don’t know that I would go along with Kreeft’s definition, which seems to border on the utilitarian. In any event, upon reflecting on the terms, beyond the usual idea of being nice and sympathetic, etc., it occurs to me that when “kind” is used as a noun it means “a group of the same nature, character, class, etc.”

    That being the case, perhaps “being kind to someone” also means to treat them the same as you would treat others, specifically, the same way you would treat yourself, since you and the other are of the same “kind,” i.e. human. That is, it is a form of “doing unto others as you would have them do unto you,” i.e. the Golden Rule, which might be said to be part of justice and fairness, even if not charity (love).

  2. So true!

    From personal experience, human emotion (mine or that of my children) often complicates initial acts of love and can deteriorate into unkind words, actions or even barriers.

    Sadly complicating this process is the issue of various personality disorders often involved within families whereby emotions are skewed.

    Hopefully, clarity will follow with time and prayer when this occurs but it’s not easy to be a parent with adult children or for that matter just being human.

  3. This is another post to share with my children. You really have a gift for distinguishting with great clarity what we can confuse so easily. Thank you.

  4. A kind heart cannot tell the truth if it will offend.

    A loving heart tells the truth kindly, no offense intended.

  5. “A father, in fact may impose punishment on a child out of love.” I have been wondering about this idea since I have been reading the parables in Luke recently. I noticed that in the story of the Lost Son, the father, moved by “compassion”, embraces the son upon his return and distinctly does not punish him (to the disgruntlement of the older brother and often the reader). The same koine word (translated as “compassion”) is the motivation for the Good Samaritan to extend himself in an extreme way to help the wounded Jew. I wonder if we might have a Genesis 3 aversion to being too kind because we feel we might be taken advantage of, so we call it “prudence”. Might people say “I’m doing this because I really LOVE you”, while in their hearts they say “now I have a reason not to have to be kind”? How can we reconcile the image of God in the Lost Son story with this assertion that kindness is inadequate? Just a thought.

    1. And then again, maybe not. Once again, I often think you make interesting points but they are often out of balance. That is, you take a point of balance and make it the whole point. You psychoanalysis could be possible in a certain individual case but it seems you apply it to correction in general, which haredly seems just or right. The parable you cite on the Prodigal Son is one parable, but it needs to be balanced with many other parables where Jesus talks of judgement and even hell. Jesus instructs the Church to discipline its members (Matt 18), Hebrews 12 links correction to love, Paul rebukes frequently and calls for Church discipline (1 Cor 5, inter al.) Are all these just acting out of “Gen 3 Aversion” or trying to excuse themselves from being kind? Again, your remarks may have some validity in a certain case but they seem to be without proper distinctions and to be unbalanced.

      1. I’m not saying it applies to all cases, merely trying to push your point a little further. It certainly provokes us to ask “What is my real motive?”

      2. I’ll add that in light of the recent discussion about Genesis, (wherein many were inclined to insist upon a literal/historical interpretation of the creation stories and to suggest that merely metaphorical interpretations were errant) it raises the question “How do I ‘balance’ a difficult saying like this without ‘watering it down’?”

  6. I think much of the confusion between kindness/niceness and charity/love arises from today’s lack of a formal code of manners. Good manners provide a framework within which one is able to express true charity and love.

    1. To clarify: manners provide a framework in which one may be truly charitable and loving while still respecting the person.

  7. It seems “kindness” is an act similiar to friendship. Kindness can be an act of mercy. Kindness is opposite to meanness. A person can be kind without having love as the basis for the kindness. Kindness could be contrued as a virtue.

    Love is of a different nature. Love is a gift from God. The Law of Love is reciprocal in concept. “GOD IS LOVE,” is not simply a claim or a statement on a bumper-sticker. It is a revelation of the TRINITY. This is because love by its definition “is an intense affection for another person, or attachment to another person based on regard or shared experiences or interest (American Heritage Dictionary).” Therefore the lover directs his love at his beloved (i.e. Cupid & His Arrow). This means God the Father gives His love to His Beloved Son, Jesus, and the Son freely returns the love because the Holy Spirit proceeds from both the Father and the Son, and is a seperate “Subsistence, Hypothosis,” meaning person, who is called “LOVE.” It is a love from the Father which is twice returned, thereby completeing the perfect equal sides of a triangle, which represents the Trinity called the Godhead. “God is Love, and he that dwelleth in love, dwelleth in God, and God in him; 1 John 4:16

    The Imitation of Christ; by Thomas Kempis has a definition of love (Bk 3: Interior Conversion), in chapter five titled “On the Wonderful Effect of the Love of God.” His lenghty definition does not include “kindness.” Here are some excerpts from Chapter 5: (3) Love is a strong force. It carries a burden and does not feel it, it makes all that is bitter taste sweet. Nothing is sweeter than love, nothing higher, nothing stronger, nothing larger, nothing more joyful, nothing fuller, nothing better in heaven or on earth; for love is born of God and can find its rest only in God above all He has created. (5) Love is everwatchful; it rests, but does not sleep; though weary, it is not tired; restricted, yet not hindered. (7) Love is swift, sincere, pious, joyful and glad; it is strong, patient, faithful, wise, forebearing, courageous, and is never self-seeking. Love is cautious, humble and upright, not weak. It is sober, chaste, firm, quiet, and keeps guard over the senses. Love is submissive and obedient to authority; devout and thankful to God. Love always trusts and hopes in God.

    It was Love that rode that donkey into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday; It was Love that mounted that mean and rugged Cross; It was Love that died for us so that we too may know the true meaning of Love.

  8. I really enjoy these topics, Monsignor. Our understanding of the virtues is lacking today. We have, at best, a superficial understanding of them and they often get distorted.

    I hope you will consider weaving into topics on virtue, our behavior in new media and forms of electronic media. When I first started blogging in 2006, I told a young and very virtuous priest I knew to give me feedback if anything ever came to his attention that troubled him in my blogpostings.

    Some months later, I was challenged on something. Half the Catholic blogosphere was posting the thing, which I will not mention here to not distract from the main point. His email to me, by some standards would not have been considered overly kind, but it wasn’t nasty either. It is never easy to offer corrections and admonishments, especially when you don’t know how someone may take it. Bottom line: Father was disappointed, and he let me know it.

    I fired back a hasty response – which was not overly kind – justifying my post. Then, I left work for the day to head over to my parish for the start of 40 hours devotion. Sitting there somewhat indignant at what I was challenged on, I think I lasted only 5 minutes in front of the Blessed Sacrament before the point he was trying to teach me, penetrated. I was mortified when I realized how I compounded it with the hasty reply. I did the email equivalent of “mouthing off” to him.

    This priest, not a diocesan, but religious order priest who was doing a pastoral year at my parish, had a habit of going into his confession outside of posted hours whenever there were people in Church. He was a very popular confessor during his stay and I can tell you that when a priest does this regularly, people respond. I sat there for over an hour begging God to bring him to his confessional, but it wasn’t meant to be. Rather, I was left to stew in it overnight until Saturday afternoon confessions.

    I made my confession to him the next day, explaining in detail all that had come to me in adoration.

    To this day – four years later – I think one of the greatest acts of kindness that priest did for me – was to challenge me and discourage me from making those particular kinds of posts. My blogging, which is far from perfect and still loaded with lessons to learn, changed dramatically with that event.

    I would welcome blogposts which compare and contrast the “lower online behaviors” sometimes seen in the blogosphere and other new media, with Sacred Scripture, the CCC, and the writings of the saints. I can go into greater detail to put the above in context and offer several areas to target, but prefer to do so through private email. If interested in discussing further email me: TeDeumBlog (at) gmail (dot) com.

  9. I should have stated at the conclusion of my story, that what the priest did for me wasn’t just a great act of kindness, it was a great act of love. If he didn’t care about me, and those reading my blog, he wouldn’t have bothered to trouble himself with challenging me.

  10. The ultimate kindness is the charitable _act_ that we receive on Ash Wednesday when we are told: “Turn away from sin and live the Gospel”, but of course any rebuke nowadays is usually considered intolerant and asinine by the haughty. Instead, we are told in today’s West to tolerate anything and let our brother and/or ourselves go down in flames. I am especially thinking of Luke 16:19-31.

    As an adult catechumen I was exorcised, on my knees, alone, before the altar, over the course of four Sundays in front of my parish. That was an act of true kindness. Many other popular conceptions of kindness are pablum.

  11. Msgr.,

    I agree with you that the kindness, alone, can be turned on it’s head for evil purpose (eg. “mercy killing”). And certainly, we cannot seek kindness as an end in itself; St. Paul, rather, describes it as an attribute to love in 1 Cor 13.

    But I think, in general, it gets you about 90% of the way toward understanding what it means to love your neighbor. “Love is patient, love is kind.” And as compared to being “nice”, “kindness” is actually a very respectable virtue. Teaching my children to show kindness toward each another is much easier for them to visualize and demonstrate, than telling them to “love” their sibling. And spanking them, “out of love”, is probably a concept they won’t appreciate until they are a parent! 🙂 Kindness is contagious!

    I know you are not disparaging kindness. But, I guess I really want to emphasize that kindness in a family circle is a great way to live out the golden rule; and it is a gateway habit “to the great of these, love.”


  12. Grandpa you are preaching on this blog. Thank you Jesus! My grandpa died years ago but I think you have become my blog grandpa. I am going to start a notebook with all of your reflections. they truly have formed me to live a better Catholic life. Thank you

    1. Thank-you for your kind words. All my grandchildren’s friends call me Grandpa. I feel honored, and humbled that you have adopted me as your blog – grandpa. The blogs I write I show to my adult grandchildren to bring them to a better understanding of what being a Catholic is. Again, thank-you!

  13. GR It sounds like he is overcompensating for having unusually small genitalia. This is a common psychological phenomenon, often manifested by men hanging “truck balls” on their jacked-up rides, purchasing .50 caliber hand guns, and gossiping about people behind their backs.

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