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 what is merely good (i.e. kindness) replaces what is 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 become immoderate. Demands 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.
Finally, just to reiterate. Kindness is not separate from love, but it must be subsumed to love which is wider and deeper. If kindness is in fact subsumed to love, it can be very beautiful and powerful. If it is detached from love or ignores love’s wider and deeper call, kindness can literally kill. Here is a video that beautifully illustrates kindness tied to sacrificial love.