All of us have someone in our lives that we really don’t know how to love . . . or at least we don’t know how to love them well or we don’t know how to love them all the time. Both Scripture and modern research narrow it down to this: when you don’t know what to do, be kind.
Make or Break Relationships
Researcher John Gottman has studied relationships for more than 30 years in some of the most creative and comprehensive research we have available. Recently, he compiled his findings and said that the difference between relationship masters and relationship disasters comes down to kindness.
It turns out that simple kindness is the most important predictor of satisfaction and stability in relationships. So if you don’t know how to love someone, start here: be kind.
The Bible says it this way: Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you. (Eph. 4:32)
Kind ≠ Nice
What does it mean to be kind? Kindness consists of the actions that come out of compassion—being tenderhearted and then doing something about it. Kindness means that we reach out to say—with words and actions—"you matter.”
I think it’s important to say, especially here in the American South, that being kind is not the same as being nice. Kind is active; nice is passive. Nice often comes from fear—fear of rocking the boat or of saying what we really think. Kind comes from love—the kind of love that will find something to do to express itself.
We’re familiar with what unkindness looks like in our relationships. Sometimes it looks like being mean—words that hurt, glances that feel like blows. Sometimes it looks like neglect—when we’re too tired, too distracted, too lazy to pay attention to the people we care about.
The Bible tells us that Jesus when Jesus had conversations with lepers, he would reach out and put his hands on them. Leprosy was a contagious disease that left people with open sores; everyone knew not to touch lepers. But Jesus did. That’s kindness, not niceness.
Kindness is King
Bishop Desmond Tutu tells about the decision he made to go into the ministry as a young black boy during the worst of Apartheid in South Africa. He recalls walking down the street with his mother as a man in a black suit and a white collar around his neck came toward them. It was an Anglican priest. Everyone knew what should happen next—Desmond and his mother would have to step off the sidewalk into the dirt to let the white man pass.
But that’s not what happened. The man stepped off into the dirt and even tipped his hat at Tutu’s mother as she passed—on the sidewalk. Bishop Tutu said that was the first time he ever saw his mother treated with respect by a white person. Even though he had no experience with the Anglican Church, he decided at that moment that he wanted to be like that white man in the black suit and the white collar. That’s radical kindness.
Often, touching stories about kindness go viral. I especially love the ones when a stranger surprises someone with a new car or a large tip. But what about kindness for the people we live with? The people we do life with? Sometimes they are the ones we most struggle to treat with kindness.
When I was 15 years old, my parents caught me breaking an important family rule. I went to bed that night mad, crying and grounded for a week. My punishment meant that I would be grounded when the youth group went on our big trip to Six Flags. That was a big deal in my small town!
When I woke up the next morning, my mom served me breakfast with a smile. While I was moping around later, she said, “Let’s go get some fabric and make a skirt together for you.” On Thursday, she made my favorite lunch. And on Friday, when I was wailing that it was so unfair that I couldn’t go on the youth trip, she rubbed my back while I cried.
She never said, “You should have thought of the consequences when you broke the rules.” She just let me be sad. She neither ended by grounded early nor rubbed my plight in my face.
She was just kind.
It’s the Little Things
Day-to-day kindness, not grand gestures, are what really matter. As a counselor, I will often hear a spouse say, “I would take a bullet for you.” However, the other spouse often responds, “I don’t want you to take a bullet for me. I want you to be there for me when I come home from a bad day of work or when I’m up with the baby in the middle of the night.”
In our last house, we had a refrigerator that gave us a choice between crushed ice or cubed ice. I prefer cubed ice. Craig prefers crushed ice. It took me awhile, but one day it occurred to me that every time I put my glass in the dispenser, I got cubed ice. Do you realize what that means? It means that every time Craig got ice, he moved the switch to his preference and then he moved it back. Every time.
Sure, our relationships occasionally need a grand gesture. But mostly what we need is small, everyday kindness toward the people that we love. Sometimes that looks like giving when we could insist on getting or making eye contact and listening when someone is trying to tell us something that is important to them. It looks like saying affirming words to someone who is struggling. It looks like not repaying grumpiness with grumpiness but offering a smile.
Love is Kind
We are following God’s example when we are kind. So let’s practice being kind to the people we are closest to—and then let’s take it on the road. This is the essence of the missional life: to make God’s kindness known by being kind and by sharing how we have benefited from the kindness of God. That’s how it comes full circle, that’s how it changes our lives and bit by bit, that’s how it changes the world.
Note: When a relationship is characterized by abuse or addiction, the sort of kindness we’ve defined here may not always be appropriate. It’s not that you shouldn’t be kind. Rather, you will need to learn to mix kindness with strong boundaries.