In yesterday’s post, there was a critique of a flawed moral perspective that sets up a false dichotomy between mercy and moral teaching, and between love and the law. As noted yesterday, well-ordered love and mercy must be rooted in truth. The greatest mercy is to keep people out of Hell and to save them from all the suffering that comes from sin.
Jesus exhibits this in His person, for He who is love insists on moral uprightness, faith, and acceptance of His truth without compromise. No one loves us more than Jesus does and yet no one warned of Hell and judgment more than Jesus did. Love and law are linked; God, who loves us, says, “This far, but no farther.” He does this not because He is mean or wants to take away our fun. He does this because He loves us and does not want sin to destroy us and Satan to drag us to Hell.
Yet many today think that calling sin what it is, is unkind, unmerciful, unloving, mean-spirited, and so forth. Never mind that mercy cannot exist unless sin and wrongdoing exist. To deny these is to deny the need for mercy.
In today’s post, following up on yesterday’s, we do well to ponder that being loving is not the same as being kind. In other words, love should not be reduced to mere kindness. But we live in a reductionist culture that has tended to reduce love to kindness. As we shall see, the results are often quite problematic. To reflect on this problem, I want to use some insights from an article by Peter Kreeft, written some years ago.
Kindness is a very good thing and has an important place in our relationships. Kindness is evidenced by goodness and charitable behavior, by pleasantness, tenderness and concern for others. According to Aristotle, kindness is an emotion manifesting itself in the desire to help someone 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 it sometimes happens that love, which wills what is best for the other, may deem it best not to remove all suffering. For example, a father may impose punishment on his child out of love.
Kindness generally seeks to alleviate suffering and negativity. But 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-prepared for life.
Paradoxically, the more we love, the more we see mere kindness diminish. Consider how kind we can be to strangers. We may sometimes give money to strangers with few questions asked. But if our children ask for money we may want to know why. And then even if we give it to them, we may lecture them about being more responsible with their money. The interaction may be less kind, but it may be more loving, for it seeks to end the problem rather than merely relieve the symptom.
The good eclipses the best. And herein lies the danger in 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 can even 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 feel they can’t do 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 desired. Kindess too often looks merely to relieve whereas true love looks to heal, something that often involves some painful choices.
Further, many false expectations are centered on the exaltation of kindness over love. In our culture, this is manifested in the fact that suffering of any kind is seen as obnoxious, and even the reason for legal action. It has also led to our demands for comfort getting out of control. Demand for euthanasia flows from this sort of thinking as well.
A final and very terrible effect often flows from mistaking mere kindness for love: it disposes many towards atheism. Here I will simply quote Peter Kreeft directly, 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 good 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 good thing. But love is a greater thing, for it focuses on healing and it wills what is best, not merely what is desired. But, sadly, many prefer relief to healing.
Kindness is an important and necessary virtue, but it is not an absolute one and it must be governed by love and right reason.
In the divorce/remarriage debate and in many other issues such as same-sex unions, euthanasia, and so forth, we must insist on what is right, and do so in love. But, sadly, some will never see what we do as loving, for many have reduced love to kindness, and kindness to mere affirmation. Sometimes the most loving, the most merciful answer is “no” to those who demand that we affirm what is wrong. Sometimes the most loving, the most merciful thing to do is to point to the Cross, for by it we are saved, and apart from it we are more miserable and lost.
Do not allow others to “shame” you by calling you unmerciful or unloving. Tell them, “I love you too much to lie to you.” And do not allow others to simplify Jesus, either, by reducing Him to merely being kind. There is a place for kindness, but love must sometimes overrule it. And Jesus is love. He, who is the Way, the Truth, and the Life, surely loves us too much to lie to us.
This video tells a beautiful story of how kindness is tied to sacrificial love and seeks to bring healing (even at great cost) rather than mere relief.