Kindness: A Central Character Trait with Eternal Significance

“When I was a young man I admired clever people. Now that I am an old man, I admire kind people.” –Abraham Joshua Heschel

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“Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you.” Ephesians 4:32

“Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a battle.” -Anonymous

During their first missionary journey, Paul and Barnabas came across a crippled man in Lystra (Acts 14: 8-18). In brief conversation the servants of God observed that the paralytic had the faith to be healed. Paul looked at him directly and called out, “Stand up on your feet!” The man immediately jumped up and began to walk.

Of course the people who witnessed this miracle were astounded and, as was the habit of many in the ancient world, assumed that the miraculous power demonstrated in the apostles was a manifestation of the gods. They immediately assumed that Barnabas was Zeus—the father of gods and the patron god of Lystra—and that Paul was Hermes, a chief spokesman of Zeus. So the people of Lystra who would normally have brought sacrifices to Zeus at his temple in the city, decided to turn their worshipful gaze and sacrificial offerings to Paul and Barnabas. Even the priest of Zeus brought sacrifices to the apostles. In response, the Apostles tear their robes and rush into the worshipping crowd, shouting, “Stop this, we are men just like you!”

Paul would go on to admonish the crowd to turn from their worthless idols and follow after the living God.

In his passionate appeal, the Apostle Paul notes that in the past God allowed nations that did not know him to “go their own way.” Paul further exhorts that God did not leave himself without testimony to these pagan nations. He showed kindness to them by sending rain from heaven, crops in their seasons, giving plenty of food, and filling their hearts with joy (v. 17).

Among many things interesting to note in this story rich with grace and transformational power, is the fact that the apostle notes four ways that God demonstrated his kindness to those nations that did not know him. Paul didn’t emphasize God’s power or holiness or transcendence, but God’s kindness. It is as if the apostle had determined that kindness was the first characteristic that the people of Lystra should learn about the living God.

And it just might be that kindness is the first characteristic that the surrounding, increasingly cynical world, should see in the church, Christ’s body on earth.

Later in his evangelistic career (approximately 57 AD), the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to Roman Christians, telling them that any act or word of unkindness is, essentially, a momentary forgetting of the kindness of God. (2: 1-4). After pressing the church about the hypocrisy inherent in being seized by a judgmental spirit—condemning in others the very things they do themselves—Paul argues that such hypocrisy demonstrates “contempt” for God’s kindness, tolerance and patience. It seems unkindness also reveals a convenient forgetting of the fact that it was God’s kindness that led every believer to repentance.

And it just might be that kindness is designed to be a dominant characteristic of all servants of God.

Near the end of his ministry on earth, Paul writes his disciple Timothy, and describes the ideal characteristics of the Lord’s servant. If you haven’t already guessed, early in his list, after noting that the servant must not be quarrelsome, the Apostle tells Timothy that the Lord’s servant must be “kind to all.” Of course, this is a kindness demonstrated not only to like-minded Christians, not just to people we like or respect, not just people that are kind to us, but a kindness to all—including ideological opponents and enemies (see Exodus 23: 4,5).

Kindness is not an easy sell in a society too often driven by consumerism, sensual-ism, and egoism (see 1 John 2: 15-17), but it is imperative for those serious about following Jesus Christ and reflecting God’s glory.

Paul D. Patton, Ph.D., is a professor of communication and theater at Spring Arbor University in Michigan. He has graduate degrees in Guidance and Counseling, Religious Education, and Script and Screenwriting, and a doctorate in Communication with an emphasis in theater arts. He has been married to his wife Beth for over forty years and has three daughters (all actresses)—Jessica, Emily, and Grace, three sons-in-law, David, Joe, and Eric, and four grandsons, Caleb Rock, Logan Justice, Micah Blaze, and Miles Dean.