Friday, September 16, 2011
Kindness That Can Kill
Let’s take the time to at least dip our toes into the deep waters of understanding kindness, which is woven tightly into the ideas of mercy and love. I think that it is under the cover of kindness that many of us are able to justify a variety of un-Christ like behaviors, and excuse moral weakness as the exercise of virtue. I know for a certainty that I am guilty of this myself, and that it is a work which still requires conscious effort on my part to avoid, I have not managed to make the avoidance of false kindness an automatic spiritual reflex in my life, and so must guard against it with rigors of logic and ethical thought.
To begin with, let us take the old adage that the road to hell is paved with good intentions. I feel that this adage has the most truth when considering false kindness. To consider the same thought from another allegory let us think about our motives as a recipe. Any action we take is made up of many motives, and those motives may be mixed together. It is easy to take the doughy wrap of kindness and use it to enfold chunks of meaty self righteousness, rugged carrots of pride, warm peas of possessiveness, and maybe some herbs of charity as well. We cook up these motives in the oven of intention, and then serve it up with our actions. Now, while we have a pot pie of motive, the outer crust of Kindness makes it look wholesome, appealing, and desirable… but if we don’t take the time to cut into the pie after baking, we might not be able to tell if the meat we used has gone rotten or been undercooked. If you have not already made the mental leap... our pot pie of kindness is a Trojan Horse waiting to harm the relationship with God of those who partake of it, both our subject and ourselves. It is not that the good intention was not present, or was ungodly in itself, but that we allowed ourselves not to look closer, letting the presence of a good intention excuse any faults or shortcoming our intended act may have had.
Now, why would we do this? Surely we don’t want to injure another’s relationship with God. I can think offhand of three motives, although I do not doubt an astute reader may be able to come up with more. One might be failing to consider the risks of too much of a good thing, and acting in excess of the kindness needed. A person may simply be in error in their understanding of a situation, and acting out of good intent to ill ends. Alternatively, a person may be feeling a sense of personal guilt or ownership of a failing, and be justifying their own desire not to confront a fault as a kindness to others.
In the case of too much of a good thing, a parent child or spousal relationship springs to mind. Surely we all know the feelings of joy and fulfillment that come with protecting a loved one from harm. Helping a child learn to cross the road, staying up late with our spouse to pray and look over checkbooks to put our finances in order. Teaching a child a skill we cherish such as kite-flying or reading. Is it any wonder that when we reach the limits of these behaviors to do good, we may not want to stop? How easy to go from teaching a child to be safe and wary of harm to intervening so that our child never learns to confront risk at all. How easy to quietly sit alone, desperately trying to find a way that the vacation we promised our wife will not overdraw our savings. These motives are all too understandable, but they are not kindness, they are self delusion. Life is ever changing, and ever calling on us to confront its truths with humility and open hearts. We must allow ourselves to kneel before the greater wisdom of our Heavenly Father and accept that what we might want for others is not always what they need, or what is best for them.
The case of an erroneous understanding of a situation may be the hardest of all, as we are likely to have no opportunity to prevent an unkind action on our part, and instead find ourselves in the position of needing to apologize and offer to help make amends. Say that you learn that a personal hero of your spouse has been arrested for a serious crime. You know that the ideas of this person have greatly impacted your spouse, and their crime does not involve their area of knowledge, so you quietly toss out the magazine you read it in, trying to save them the hurt of a fallen idol. Months later, they give a big speech at word mention the idol therein, leading to an awkward reception and a feeling of a botched presentation. When they come to you for sympathy, and you must confess what you knew, it may cause pain and anguish to work though and restore trust. This is a hard line to tread, and certainly your own choices may not have mirrored the example, but hopefully the motives and thought process can be understood and sympathized with. We are beings of limited knowledge, and as much as practicable, must place our faith in God who lacks our limitations, and trust his guidance and council on what course of action is kind and right.
And then there is the sad, but unavoidable truth, of those times we use kindness to justify what we know inside are base motives. I don’t tell a friend when I know the flight her son was on has crashed, thinking a few more hours thinking he is alive will bring her happiness, hiding from myself my cowardice at not wanting to be the shoulder she leans on in her grief. A neighbor’s child is always unsupervised in the front yard, filthy, partially clothed, and often crying; I say that it is not my place to judge my neighbor, but that is just a way to absolve myself of my duty to love the child who is every bit as much my brother as the parents, because I know they will react with anger to me. I listen to my cousin rant about how my sister’s calls annoy him, and keep silent, even though I know my sister wants to improve that relationship, I think to myself I am being kind by not making my sister self conscious of an annoying habit. All of this is human nature, and understandable, but it is not kindness. I like to use what I call the single operator test if I suspect I am falling victim to this impulse. I try to ask myself, if no party in this situation other than me could act, what would be the kind thing for me to do? For ultimately, if someone else uses their free will to react with anger, fear, confusion, or any other feeling to my deeds, that is not the standard of judging my actions; it is the standard to judge theirs. When we let our desire to avoid discomfort or confrontations dissuade us from a kindness, we elevate the other party to having more authority over our lives than our Lord, for we place their judgment above his.
So, we all know that many times in life the situations are more layered, nuanced, and difficult to unravel than the examples I have given here. Can we hope to find guidance in working through more complex issues? Of course we can. I mentioned in the beginning that kindness is tied up in mercy and love. For to express and grant mercy is always a good bedrock to work from, so long as we do not fall into the above trap of using kindness to excuse cowardice, we can expect that the merciful action should always be a kindness. And love? Well, frankly I could use this as the answer to almost any question I asked, for we know that love is the bedrock of our relationship with the Lord. Rather than quoting Matthew, Mark, or Luke, let me go back to the Old Testament from with Jesus taught, and quote Deuteronomy 6:4-5: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord and thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might.” And Leviticus 19:18 “Thou shalt not avenge, nor bear any grudge against the children of thy people, but thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself: I am the Lord.” And when we are unsure what action is the path of love? Going back to my earlier examples, how are we to test our pot pie of intent and be sure it is the food of love and not malice? Why, there is a very popular scripture which helps us here quiet plainly, if we but realize to apply this test. I strongly advise reading 1 Corinthians 13 in full, but to quote verses 4-7: “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.” And so the Lord has given us a rod by which to measure when the turbulence of our thoughts may prevent us from hearing his guidance directly. Now, let us go and seek in earnestness to be kind to one another, rather than to avoid giving offence.