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.