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Kindness Is Not the Same as Love

January 16, 2018

Many decades ago, C.S. Lewis wrote about the problem of substituting kindness for love:

We [speak] nowadays almost exclusively [of God’s] lovingness …. And by love, in this context, most of us mean kindness—the desire to see others happy …. What would really satisfy us would be a god who said of anything we happened to be doing, “What does it matter as long as they are contented?” We want, in fact, not so much a Father in heaven as a grandfather in Heaven—a senile benevolence who, as they say, liked to see young people enjoying themselves ….

Kindness, as such cares not whether its object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering.

[But] As scripture points out, it is bastards who are spoiled: the legitimate sons who are to carry on the family tradition are punished …. With our friends, our lovers and our children we are exacting and would rather see them suffer much than be happy in contemptible and estranging modes.

[Hence] If God is love, He is, by definition, something more than mere kindness …. [And] though he has often rebuked and condemned us, He has never regarded us with contempt. He has paid us the intolerable compliment of loving us, in the deepest, most tragic, most inexorable sense  (The Problem of Pain, Chapter 3).

We do well to ponder that being loving is not the same as being kind. Love should not be reduced to mere kindness, but our reductionist culture has tended to do so. The results have often been problematic. To reflect on this problem, I’d like to use some insights from an article by Peter Kreeft, written some years ago.

Kreeft defines kindness as “sympathy, with the desire to relieve another’s suffering” [Envoy Magazine, Vol 9.3, p. 20]. Kindness is certainly a good thing and has an important place in our relationships. It is evidenced by goodness, charitable behavior, 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.

However, as Kreeft himself notes, it is a great mistake to equate kindness with love. Kindness is an aspect of love but it is necessarily distinct from it, 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 no or few questions asked, but if our children ask for money we want to know why. And 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 is more loving because it seeks to solve the underlying problem rather than merely relieving the symptom.

The good eclipses the best. 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 be worsened.

Welfare has engendered a slavish dependence in some people in our country—and it is not just the urban poor to whom I refer. There are many other entitlements that some feel they cannot do without. There are numerous corporate subsidies as well that fall into this category.

Rather than addressing the root causes of poverty, dependence, or even poor 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. Kindness too often looks merely to relieve whereas true love looks to heal, something that often involves 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 sort is seen as unbearable and even a reason for legal action. It has also led to our insistence on comfort accelerating out of control. The demand for euthanasia flows from this sort of thinking as well.

A final, 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 certainly a positive attribute and 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 the alleviation of suffering, which is itself a good thing, but love is a greater thing, for it focuses on healing and wills what is best, not merely granting what is desired. Sadly, however, many prefer temporal relief to healing.

This video tells a beautiful story, one of how kindness is tied to sacrificial love and seeks to bring healing (even at great cost) rather than mere relief.

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Comments (15)

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  1. Peter says:

    I often ask things of God as my Healer. His revelation to me of His healing power and love in my own life has made sense of all my suffering. Every moment of pain and suffering is a moment of healing and purification, and is therefore not just something to resentfully accept as a trial from God, but another reason to thank Him.

    Even good earthly doctors value life over pain. That doesn’t mean they want to torture you; it means they want to fix you regardless of the cost, even the cost of pain. Plenty of medical procedures are painful, especially the serious remedies for serious ailments. Surgery could easily be described in a way that makes it sound exactly like torture, but it isn’t. It is meant to heal. The painful surgery is not the goal, it is the means to achieve the goal of healing.

    Sometimes to achieve a cure, it’s necessary for a doctor to cut you open, fix the internal problem, and bring you back to health. Most people would agree with that. No one would balk at surgery to remove a burst appendix, for example. The choices are life-saving surgery (and temporary pain from being cut) or certain and swift death.

    In the matter of eternal life, all the more reason to let the Healer of our souls inside us and repair our wounds from sin. God pulling out sin and vice by the roots may leave us gasping and crying from the trauma of spiritual ‘surgery,’ but the answer to that problem is the same as the answer to all problems: God. He has a wonderful bedside manner. Turn to the Holy Spirit for comfort and peace. He knows it hurts, and He hurts with you. And remember that pain is only temporary:

    ‘I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, God’s dwelling is with the human race. He will dwell with them and they will be his people and God himself will always be with them [as their God].
    He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there shall be no more death or mourning, wailing or pain, [for] the old order has passed away.”’ Revelation 21:3-4

    • RAY - PORTSMOUTH - UK says:

      A stunning – and beautifully, oh-so-true comment Peter. Thank you.
      As I have tried to confess on this blog a number of times over the last few years, I have had the ‘painful’ inner surgery on my sins from our loving Father, God, on many an occasion. Extremely uncomfortable at the time – but oh my! – How good it feels when the pain has gone and the cancer has been ripped out!
      Praise the Lord – and God bless you Peter and all on here.

      • Peter says:

        Ray, you are exactly right! I always feel more whole, more free, and more peaceful afterwards. I am easily the most peaceful and free to love God, my neighbor and myself that I’ve ever been.

        Within the last several years, God has removed the despair and fear and pain lingering from my childhood, brought me back to my sisters, moved me halfway across the country, curbed my anxiety, led me to my fiancee, and many more things too numerous to mention. I can’t even remember all the problems He’s solved for me! It seems that every day my life is fuller than before, and best of all, He continually reveals something new about Himself. Many of those revelations were through this blog.

        I’ve still got a long, long way to go, but I can look at it with hope and trust knowing that the Father is taking me along His Way, and will keep me from straying as long as I keep my eyes on Him.

        “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and God of all encouragement, who encourages us in our every affliction, so that we may be able to encourage those who are in any affliction with the encouragement with which we ourselves are encouraged by God.” 2 Corinthians 1:3-4

        By the way, Ray, I’ve seen your testimony since I started reading Msgr’s blog! And though it’s unlikely we’ll meet on earth I pray we’ll meet in heaven. 🙂

        • Gerardo says:

          Peter and Ray,

          Your witness is inspiring.

          Although I’m a cradle Catholic, at 47 years of age I’m barely beginning to absorb the beauty of Catholicism’s Deposit of Faith.

          THANK YOU Msgr. Pope!

  2. Peter J says:

    Love is patient, Love is kind….

  3. for you says:

    I know exactly what you are saying here but may I respectfully add something?
    That suffering is not always discipline and discipline is not always suffering. I have known suffering and seen others suffer so severely that they felt as though they were being punished and by God. But there is a suffering in this world that is unjustly inflicted by others or is entirely by circumstance that is no part of Godly discipline or anything to do with what is Good. We live in a world fallen where sin and corruptions abound, still God can turn any evil to Good and will always do so for those who Trust in Him, even in their suffering. Also, God knows our hearts and exactly what we need, sometimes when we need correction or a nudge in the right direction He will allow some suffering as a reminder but then again He may reveal Himself in miracles and wonders and revelations… He knows and we can Trust Him to know. His yoke is easy and His burden is light.

  4. Maria - says:

    Thank you for a good lesson for our times when the culture makes having
    ‘fun ‘ as the goal of life – kids often told or asked if they had ‘fun ‘ , in any activity as to that is what justifies all such .

    Book of Job that invites us to ponder the mystery of suffering might have a good lesson in this aspect as well.
    Job, when praying for his children after the occasion of their gatherings is mentioned as praying for his sons , not the daughters ; he is also mentioned as a noble and righteous man – in accord of the tradition of the times that likely did not see women /daughters of equal worth as the sons .
    Thus , even though the enemy seems provoked as usual by envy , God allows the enemy his role , with the good to come from same as always – Job being good and thus open to The Lord when He comes to him .
    Thus, we know that there might be such a role of the enemy in a good bit of all manner of suffering and thank God that we are also in times when more persons in ministries try to help many to discern the ways to uproot same .

    The fact that Job’s wife became indignant early on with him might be an indication too that the attitude towards women in Job’s time might have been an area of less than what God desired for them in marriage as well.

    Once The Lord appears and shares the truth of His magnanimity towards all His creation , Job seems transformed , seeing himself as part of the loving creation of The Father , may be repented for his own attitudes towards some of the poor , including women may be , forgave the friends who accused him of wrong doing and his heart becomes may be more of what God desired for him .

    Job’s daughters being the ones that are named at the end and the mention of them getting the same inheritance as the sons – is not our Father the ‘First Feminist ‘ ever – knowing how women esp. have an adversary – a truth that tragically has played out all through history , in varied ways as well .

    And the misplaced so called ‘kindness ‘ is behind often fatal choices that invite in the enemy into many a life in our times as well whereas we see in
    The Mother one who is invited to stand in and participate in The Passion , thus to gain trusting love in The Father for all her children , as the help not to fall for such enemy ploys !

    Thank you and God bless !

  5. Francis Earl says:

    GOD IS LOVE AND LOVE IS GOD…

    LOVE IS PATIENT! GOD WITHHOLDS DIVINE JUSTICE.

    LOVE IS KIND! GOD DECREES DIVINE JUSTICE.

    YES, LOVE IS MORE THAN KINDNESS.

  6. Richard Connell says:

    In our being, in that we are made in the image and likeness of God, we are reflections of God, but God is not a reflection of us–and especially not a reflection of our fallen nature. If I had the power of God, and sent many people to hell, it would be as the Las Vegas shooter killed so many people. Not so with God. When God sends people to hell it is done in His goodness, His justice, and His mercy. Maybe that is something that people don’t understand about God and should know.

    There are many devotions to Jesus, Mary, and the Holy Spirit. I never hear people speak, in the world or in Catholicland (Catholic radio and Catholic internet), of a devotion to God the Father. I would like to be part of a devotion to God the Father.

    • Susan says:

      Israel is the chosen bride of God the Father, while the Church is the bride of Jesus Christ. When will this dichotomy end?

  7. petrichor says:

    I was raised by a strict Mother who was more intent on raising a responsible adult than to be kind. I was drilled in “Eph 6:1” but she forgot or never knew “Eph 6:4” . I grew up to be like her, responsible but harsh. Because of her I had no desire to marry or have children to put through “boot camp” as she did. She herself said she tried not to be as strict as her own mother, but despite her best attempts, she didn’t. I did marry late in life, and I am relieved that God did not bless us with children.

    • Mary says:

      I am so sorry for you that it was difficult under your strict mother, however, if you watch the story of many of the saints such as Bernadette, Fatima children and others
      you note that each of them were raised quite Similarly. I am sure you are a wonderfully holy and good person who one day will see your mom again and be able to revel in her love for you and you for her. God Bless.

  8. Peter says:

    I know exactly what you mean, Richard. I’ve been trying to be a more devoted and attentive son to the Father lately as well. Jesus wants us all to know His Father and come at last into our Father’s house.

    There’s no doubt your desire to know the Father better is an inspiration from the Holy Spirit, so I’d take that desire and run with it. Jesus is the best example of being a devoted Son to the Father, so (no big surprise!) the Bible will be our best resource.

    I’ve also gotten a lot out of what I’ve read from St. Catherine of Siena’s Dialogue with God the Father. It can be found online for free.

    The Father will bring us prodigal sons to Himself in His own time, if we allow Him to. And by His grace, we will. I’ll pray for you.

  9. Laurens de Lange says:

    Revelation 3:19. 19 Jesus the true says: As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten: be zealous therefore, and repent.
    Sometimes when I turn the phase around and ask the people: So how much do you think God loves you, if you are not rebuked and chastened exactly by suffering, if He takes all the suffering away from you? Well He Himself says that the more he loves you, the more he rebukes you. So standard they become angry at me.