I confess to being one of the many Americans heartened by Ellen Degeneres’s defense of her friendship with George W. Bush and the fun they had at a football game a few weeks ago. In an increasingly polarized era where it’s harder to find common ground with fellow citizens, a celebrity’s simple recommendation to be kind delivers refreshing relief from the roar of insults and slander we hear everywhere else.
I’ve been reflecting on the cultural response to Ellen’s friendship with a former president—the outrage among some sectors of society that she’d hobnob with someone insufficiently progressive to merit her personal kindness, as well as the affirmation she received from other Americans who cheer on her efforts to treat everyone with civility and kindness.
Both these responses tell us something about how some people in our society view kindness. On the one hand, some believe kindness should not be granted unless the recipient proves deserving. Only the worthy should receive it. On the other hand, some believe kindness is owed to everyone in the form of politeness and civility, as an act of patriotic grace to our fellow citizens.
The Christian view of kindness is different. We are to show kindness even to people who may be deemed “unworthy” of receiving it, but this kindness cannot be reduced to a spirit of civility, a bland attempt to “be nice” to people. Niceness and kindness are not the same thing. Kindness requires intentional action.
King David’s Kindness
In 2 Samuel 9, King David shows unexpected kindness to one of Saul’s descendants, Mephibosheth. Jonathan’s son was “injured in both feet,” and in response to the king’s action, Mephibosheth described himself as a “dead dog” who from that day forward was welcomed to the table of the king as if he were one of his sons.
What strikes me in the account of Mephibosheth is how it begins. David asks if there is anyone remaining from the family of Saul that he could show kindness to for Jonathan’s sake. Showing kindness was an initiative. David’s kindness wasn’t the result of compassion he felt upon coming across Mephibosheth. No. He sought out the opportunity to show kindness. He looked for a recipient to bless. David wasn’t just “nice” or “polite” or “kind” as a king; he intentionally looked for someone else who would receive his kindness.
Even more striking, this action runs counter to what you’d expect from a king solidifying his reign. Rather than take revenge against the last of Saul’s family, David takes this approach instead, on account of his love for Jonathan. He asks not if there are more enemies to destroy but if there is anyone else who might receive his kindness. Benevolence toward the unexpected and undeserving—that’s what kindness looks like in Scripture.
Kindness Is Tough
We are swimming upstream these days when we look for opportunities to show kindness. In a culture where bullying is confused with strength and where insults fly from so many elected officials as a sign of “toughness,” we might fall for the lie that showing kindness is the wimpy way of compromise.
On the contrary, it is the strong person who can return good for evil, a blessing for a curse, and a compliment for an insult. The strong one is able to show kindness to the point of vulnerability; the insecure cannot abide any action that would threaten their tough exterior.
Of course, kindness can be taken advantage of. Scholars debate how the Mephibosheth story ended. Some believe the beneficiary of David’s kindness turned on him later in life, while others claim he was framed as part of a plot against David. But let’s not miss the larger point: David did not show Mephibosheth kindness in order to receive his unflagging loyalty, but on account of Jonathan. His initiative in showing kindness was not motivated primarily by Mephibosheth at all; it came from his love for Jonathan.
Seeking to Show Kindness
If Christians are to be salt and light in a society marked by division and debate, then we will need to push back not only against those who say kindness should be reserved for “the deserving,” but also against those who would water down kindness to nothing more than an attitude of “niceness.” What if, instead, we were like King David, taking the initiative: Who might I intentionally show kindness to today? Even more: Is there someone unexpected who I could bless?
What makes possible this intentionality of showing kindness is love—not merely love for the recipient, but for the person on whose account it is shown. David sought out Mephibosheth on account of his love and commitment to Jonathan. Likewise, we show kindness to others on account of our love and commitment to Jesus. It’s Jesus’s love that motivates us to show kindness to the undeserving. So, for Jesus’s sake, be kind.