I was loading my newly purchased gardening supplies into my car when two earnest teens approached me and volunteered to return the cart I was using. I accepted their offer, thinking they had use of it, but they informed me they were just doing a random act of kindness. As it turned out, they’d accepted a challenge in youth group to spread kindness through a host of suggested activities: compliment five people, hold the door for someone, wave at a stranger, etc. They had decided to make that parking lot the base of their operations that morning. They were considerate and carefree, and I wished them well as they cheerfully rolled the cart away. Yet, as I drove away, I found myself wondering what—and hoping that—the youth minister had more in mind with the kindness project than keep the youth entertained for a few hours.
There was nothing wrong with what they were doing. In many ways, the experience of being on their own without adult supervision allowed them to gain some valuable social interactions as young adults. I had no complaint with them or their youth leaders. I just wondered about the nature of their kindness project. Was it to respond to a challenge or just to give them something to do on a Saturday morning? Was there a larger purpose? Were their actions really kindnesses or were they pleasant, courteous social interactions with random strangers? I realized I was hoping for more for their morning of encountering strangers. I wondered how the youth leaders might help them debrief this experience, especially if it might lead to an opportunity to discern what it means to be polite and nice versus what it means to be kind.
Kindness and being nice are not the same thing. Niceness is a social convention, a politeness. Something that is nice brings pleasure. It is often fleeting and ephemeral. Kindness may mean being nice. But being kind does not always mean keeping things nice. Sometimes, being nice does not mean having to be truthful, particularly if that truth is not particularly rosy or encouraging. Kindness, though, may mean that a difficulty must be faced, that a problem needs to be surmounted. It can mean offering helpful correction. There is a graciousness to kindness that makes it more than just a social convention. Kindness, after all, is a virtue.
For the Christian, virtues, or the fruits of the Spirit, are nurtured through divine grace. Virtues are those interior qualities that characterize our disposition and actions. Practicing kindness has to start somewhere, but there is more to it than doing some random act for a stranger. It is a call to cultivate Christlike character. It is a call to deeper discipleship. It’s not just a matter of the things we do as Christians. It’s also about the manner in which we do those things as an expression of our love and dependence on God. We don’t just do kind things; we do them in kind ways.
Kindness is central to the fruits that Paul lists in Galatians 5:22–23: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. To bear fruit, kindness must be practiced, nurtured along with the other virtues. And while I am sure it is argued that none of the fruits of the Spirit can be extracted easily on their own, I am often struck that I seldom see kindness off on its own. In his exposition on love in 1 Corinthians 13, Paul again precedes his mention of kindness with patience. And lyrics to a song by Paul Field I first encountered on a retreat to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne has kindness nestled in the midst of esteemed Christian attributes: “Be righteous. Speak truthfully in a world of greed and lies. Show kindness. See everyone through heaven’s eyes.” If kindness is to be part of our character, it must be deeply rooted, supported, and encouraged by other virtues.
Kindness does have to start someplace. The teens I encountered were stepping out in faith to discover what it means to try being kind to those who least suspect it. They were doing it with the support and the encouragement of a youth leader who had challenged them. Unloading my potting soil and fertilizer at home, I realized how unkind my internal questions might be in the scheme of things. And, as I dug around in the soil the rest of the afternoon, repotting plants, I began praying for them and for me. I repented for my uncharitable attitude and I prayed for them that they might, in time, grow in Christlike kindness towards others. It seemed the kindest thing I could do.