For God's Sake, Be Nice!
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“It's nice to be important, but it's more important to be nice.” —Author Unknown
It gives most of us a pleasantly smug feeling to pass around cynical stories about Christian judgmentalism in those poor other people. My late cousin Morris Venden used to share a classic about a blue-nosed saint who accosted a teenager in the foyer of church. The girl had received a $2 glass-bead necklace from a relative, and was surreptitiously wearing it underneath her Sabbath dress. But this gendarme from the jewelry police division spotted the trinket, reached out, and pulled it loose, snapping the chain. “We don’t wear those around here!” she thundered. The beads clattered on the tile and rolled underneath the rack of witnessing tracts; the disillusioned kid did a U-turn away from God, never to return. So the story goes.
And because you and I don’t personally wear a badge from the JPD, or the Cheese Patrol, or the Ban the Bass Guitar Society, we feel simultaneously indignant and justified. It’s always that other generation, or some other uptight faction that locks our churches in stagnant go-away paralysis.
I’m a 59-year-old Adventist Christian who’s been invited to reflect here on just one word and one math formula. I teach trig and calculus at a nearby community college, so I feel equipped to handle the percentages in this oft-quoted analysis:
"If we would humble ourselves before God, and be kind and courteous and tender-hearted and pitiful, there would be one hundred conversions to the truth where now there is only one."1
The key word, of course – KINDNESS. If we could simply learn to demonstrate more kindness, well, we could tack on two zeroes to most of the math in our churches. Instead of three baptisms – three hundred. Wow, that works. Membership growth: move the decimal over two places. In the kindergarten division, take the current enrollment and use scientific notation to multiply by 102. Choirs with eight members would suddenly have eight hundred, but since offerings would have multiplied a hundredfold, the church could easily afford an additional 792 robes. A parking lot holding thirty cars would need to re-strip and get ready for a Dodger stadium overflow lot of 3,000. And so the theory goes.
Would this math actually work? In Christianity in Crisis, penned two decades ago by cult-watcher Hank Hanegraaff, he debunks the recent misguided health-and-wealth theology where tuxedo-clad preachers invite their flocks to “invest” in giving the preacher even more tuxedos. And the promise is: God will give you back whatever you put in my plate – a hundred times over! As Hanegraaff wryly observes, all one must do in testing this self-serving gospel is to do one loop through the megachurch parking lot. Is it nothing but Rolls-Royces and six-figure electric Teslas? Or do these sincere saints drive the same used Corollas as the rest of us?2
On the other hand, if heaven is actually promising us even the possibility of 100-to-1 success if our churches commit to a vibrant culture of kindness, this would be evangelism of the highest order. We are often consumed with outreach and special events and the renting of tents – which is all well and good. But if quiet, unabashed friendships and kindness can both win and hold people, we would be shortsighted indeed to not give kindness our highest efforts.
Our title invites us to be kind for God’s sake. Why? Does God care if we treat one another well? Is God anxious that our churches be filled like war-zone hospital wards with aching, hurting people who are desperate for a kind word, a gentle touch, a forgiving email?
I was recently bathed in the kind synergy of a Facebook group which coalesced around a friend whose cancer diagnosis was terminal. Despite the grim realities of this news, it was a wonderful – and, I pray, continuing – society of kindness. Friends wrote in to offer prayer; hope-filled Bible verses were brought to our minds. People made sacrificial gestures: Anything I can do, man . . . ANYTHING. Please, just say how I can help.
When I wrote in to express my own feeble two cents, I was reminded of a moment of kindness in Mark 2. Jesus is ministering in a crowded living room in Capernaum and a suffering soul seizes his grand opportunity. You know the story. His four friends can’t worm their way through the crowd, so they climb up onto the roof and lower their paralytic friend down into the midst of the sermon.
Now, Jesus is not a doddering saint; He is a young, vibrant, strong Galilean carpenter without a streak of gray in His beard. But as He sees this stranger’s pathetic condition, Jesus’ tender heart is moved. And He says – now note this – “SON, your sins are forgiven.”
Here’s why I notice that phrase. In my occasional mission trips back to Thailand where I grew up, I’ve picked up a bare smattering of the language. But in the Thai New Testament, Jesus addresses this feeble specimen of humanity with a tender colloquialism: luuk uey. It basically means “sweet child,” the kind of thing a parent would say to a whimpering child or a toddler.
And in this exchange between two completely grown-up men, I find the heart of Jesus. He is kind. He treats people with elegant grace and winsome love. His spirit is moved by the infirmities – even the self-inflicted wounds – of those He seeks to win. In Becoming a Contagious Christian, Bill Hybels proposes that Jesus relates a triple crown of parables in Luke 15 – lost sheep, lost coin, lost prodigal boy – for one purpose: to demonstrate God’s passion for people who need rescue. “This particular day Jesus was so upset over the discussion the religious leaders were having about who matters to God and who doesn’t, that He said, in effect, ‘I’m going to clear this up once and for all. I never want there to be confusion on this again. I’m going to tell you not one, not two, but three stories – rapid fire – to make sure everybody understands who really matters to God.’”3 And so kindness becomes the net with which Christ reaches out to draw hurting people into His healing family.
In chapter nine of his own epistle, Matthew tells this same story of the paralytic. He follows with the story of how Jesus resurrects Jairus’ daughter. On the way to do that, He encounters a woman who has experienced twelve years of agonizing menstrual bleeding. Even involuntarily – our Savior is so wired for kindness that mercy flows from Him even when He doesn’t know it – He is able to feel sorry for her and to miraculously dry up her issue. He then heals two blind men. Ten minutes later he casts a demon out of a suffering victim.
And then in verse 35, it seems that Jesus looks out over this vast congregation where, sure enough, some math-professor-of-pain has multiplied all the cots by a hundred. He goes through towns and villages and there are just swarms of people. Huge piles of pain, and throngs of misery. And Matthew, the tax collector (who probably knew something about large numbers on 1040 forms) quietly observes: When He saw the crowds, Jesus had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd.
But the “kindness litany” goes much beyond this ICU setting. True, Jesus overflowed with miracle healing power. But when He came upon hungry crowds, He fed them. People harassed by Satan were set free. Mothers anxious for a blessing for their children received it. Two sisters grieved with loss over the abrupt death of their brother had him restored to their arms. When people needed confronting, He generally did it graciously. He nudged people about their sins with warm-hearted parables.
It is clear that Jesus envisioned His church in His world this way: a living sanctuary of kindness. A place where waterfalls of tenderness and geysers of grace keep all of us wet and rejoicing at all times. In Acts 6, the fledgling church was so aware of this high priority that it’s one of their first acts: selecting seven men to be on the Kindness Committee and organize the distribution of MREs and the care of widows. It was such a paramount concern they felt moved to put the Holy Spirit’s imprimatur of ordination on their choices.
Is it possible that we are really called, then, as the classic quote by Ellen White suggests, to become pitiful? Not smarmy, hand-wringing, obsequious people like Charles Dickens’ fictional Uriah Heep who was always bowing and scraping and moaning piously about how very ‘‘umble" he was. Instead, God needs a church of people who have a Christlike level of being piti-full, overflowing with kind sympathy and unselfish, classy acts of warm hospitality.
I can vividly recall a fall day in Washington, D.C. when I was visiting with fellow missionary veteran Royce Williams. He was from a different generation – I attended a Christian high school with his kids in Singapore – but we were now peers in gospel media work. Somehow a woman scarred with moral blemishes and a lifetime of misfortune came upon us, and began to pour out her tale of woe.
I was inspired, first, by Royce’s patient listening. He absorbed her sad story, nodding and clucking sympathetically. But partway through the lonely litany, he put his hand on her arm. “Let’s pray,” he murmured. “Right now. Let me take your burdens to Jesus.” And without planning or ulterior motives or anything but Christlike instincts borne of a lifetime of service in the ICU of kindness, Royce offering healing with his simple prayer as the woman sobbed her way toward a new start.
I was invited to speak at a singles retreat once, and it was an eye-opener. Most attendees were abruptly single as a result of death or a busted marriage, and I was struck by how quickly a person’s life advantages can be obliterated when a straying husband hits them with divorce papers. One such woman went from being a physician’s wife, pillar in the community, comfortably ensconced in a palatial estate . . . to barely eking out a minimum-wage living and sharing a fleabag apartment.
One such woman – and I segue here to a parallel story – was basking in prosperity. She wanted for nothing. And day by day, as her Lexus glide path took her past a neighborhood church, she shook her head in faint derision. Poor chumps who need the crutch of religion. Good thing I have so many no-limit credit cards, and Susie’s doing great at Yale.
A few months later, she, too, was among the world’s suddenly bereft. Her litigated share of the divorce pie wasn’t what she had hoped, and all at once, she was a woman in need. Her soul was bare and her cupboards as well. She had no marketable skills and the only car she could afford badly needed a tune-up.
Finally, with the embarrassed air of a prodigal daughter, she crept into the parking lot of that church where all the saps attended. And yes, the preacher did share with her the good news of Calvary. But there was more. Much more. And it was all KINDNESS.
There was a food bank she could draw upon as she struggled to get back on her feet. She had unresolved issues with her shattered marriage; well, there was a Tuesday evening class where she could dialogue and cry together with new friends whose compassion was not an act. She really didn’t know how to use a keyboard or resolve the intricacies of Excel, but this church had weekly training sessions that gave a floundering lady a new skill and a certificate just three months later.
It even turned out that Manny, Moe, and Jack – yep, all three of them – were bonafide members of this congregation. They actually had a working ministry of fixing up sputtering cars. There were three loaner cars people could borrow in the interim, and in short order, her little Corolla was humming nicely and driving her to a better-paying job.
And all the way there, she could hear it playing on the local Christian radio station: They will know we are Christians by our love.
1. How do we spiritually learn to have the “eyes of Christ” and see the intrinsic worth of unlovable, perhaps irritating or undeserving people?
2. How can the church learn to be a haven of kindness if many of its members – who aren’t going anywhere – are personally entrenched in attitudes of intolerance and icy disdain?
3. The “hundred to one” motif sounds both noble and unrealistic! Is it really worth a major shift in evangelistic emphasis if perhaps only a few lonely souls gravitate to this new Kindness Center?