How God Creates True Kindness
Whoever is righteous has regard for the life of his beast, but the mercy of the wicked is cruel. (Proverbs 12:10)
How do you distinguish between a good person and bad one? It isn’t always easy to tell on the surface – people can posture to look good rather than actually be good. One important clue comes from observing whether they are compassionate to others even when they have nothing to gain. As the comedian Dave Barry noted, “Someone who is nice to you but rude to the waiter is not a nice person.”
Proverbs says that the righteous person is compassionate “for the life of his beast.” That is, the righteous man shows kindness even for creatures who are completely at his mercy. This is because kindness is deeply rooted in his character – it is his default mode of being. Conversely, the wicked person has a sort of anti-compassion; in Proverbs’ chilling phrase, “his mercy … is cruel,” which is to say, he will use those who cannot defend themselves for his own ends.
This ideal of pure kindness toward others is vividly illustrated in J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy. The mysterious character Tom Bombadil, who represents the innocence and goodness of the earth, is completely immune to the power of evil. Every other character in the story – even the noble ranger Aragorn and wise wizard Gandalf – are at risk of succumbing to the terrifying Ring of Power, which amplifies even the smallest evil desires in the hearts of those who wear it.
But Bombadil different: the Ring has no effect on him because he is righteous all the way down to the core of his being. Tolkien portrays Bombadil caring for the needs of the forest – just because that’s what trees and plants need. Bombadil saves the hobbits on their journey – just because they needed saving. Bombadil sings constantly of the beauty of creation – just because it’s worth singing about. In short, he loves the creatures around him just because of who they are in themselves. His actions have nothing to do with magnifying himself, but only in showing each creature the kind of kindness it needs.
This ideal of showing kindness to others for no other reason than to bless them is a subtle but crucial part of growing as a Christian. When Martin Luther discussed how radical God’s grace is for us, he explained it this way: If God has saved us completely by his gift, then we do not need to do good works for our own benefit, because Christ has already rescued us. We also do not need to do good works for God’s benefit, because he is already infinitely mighty, wealthy, and happy.
But if we do not need to do good works for ourselves (because Christ saves us) and we do not need to do them for God (because he is already infinitely satisfied), then for whom do we do good works? The only possible answer is that we do them for our neighbor for his own sake. We love our neighbor – just because he’s worth loving.
This is a tremendously liberating message, yet one that I find hard to hold in the forefront of my mind. The fact is that I am constantly doing good deeds out of mixed motives – partly for others, but also partly for my sense of self-importance, or out of fear of not being good enough, or out of a desire to be perceived as noble, or out of anxiety of needing to prove myself to God.
But Christianity gives us a better way. It says that, with Tom Bombadil, you can stop worrying about yourself altogether. God is pleased with you because of what Jesus has done for you, and that frees you to think about other people for their own good. You can show them the kind of kindness they need without giving a fig for what that kindness does or doesn’t do for you. Having been showered in the kindness of God, you can now give kindness away to your neighbor for no other reason than that he’s worth loving.
God, please show me how free I am because of what Christ has done. Help me to think less of myself and more of others, to love them for their own sake. By your Spirit, transform my thinking today. In Christ’s Name, Amen.