Love Is Kind

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… love is kind. 1 Corinthians 13:4

If you’re like me, you’ve seen memes on Facebook declaring that “kindness costs nothing.” But of course kindness is often costly. Kindness requires that you have another person’s best interests in mind rather than their approval or admiration. The question is, “What is good for this person?” not “How can I get this person to like me?” Love is careful not to assume it knows what is best for another. That’s why patience—allowing others to make their own choices—has to come first. But kindness cares more for the well-being of the beloved than for their friendship or attachment. So kindness may, in fact, do things that the beloved perceives as unkind—at least in the moment.

We see this dynamic best in the way parents discipline their children. Keeping in view the well-being of the child, they may forbid activities that could seriously endanger the child—activities such as playing in the street or starting fires or throwing knives. The child may perceive the parent as unkind, but in fact the parent is showing genuine love and kindness for the child by preventing them doing something dangerous.

What about friendships, however, where the relationship does not include the unequal power dynamics of parent and child? Can kindness still be perceived as unkind? Of course it can. For example, you might warn your friend against making a risky investment, even though pundits and economists are describing it as safe. Or you might do all you can to dissuade a friend from committing to a relationship that you and other friends can see is plainly doomed. Or you might advise your friend that he endangers his own soul by continuing unrepentant in sin.

Kindness extends beyond mere warnings or advice, however. You might attend a protest for racial equality but find that people of color regard your advocacy as officious or patronizing because you are white. Kindness makes sacrifices for the good of the beloved, including bearing their recriminations, their misunderstandings, and even their hatred. This is the way God treats us, and he expects us to treat others the same way. This does not mean that you become a doormat and simply accept the ill treatment of others. But it does mean that you might withhold the exercise of your power and choose to appear weak rather than endanger the good that will come of doing what you know is right.

Kindness offers help but does not insist that its offer be accepted. Remember that Paul is describing love, which is always other-centered, never self-centered. Love must start with patience. You must respect the autonomy of those you love. Yes, it feels good to be needed, but as soon as something feels good, it becomes a temptation. Beware the seductive power of what feels good! Helping so you can feel good is not kind or loving. As Anne Lamott says, “Help is the sunny side of control.” If we ignore the autonomy of those we love, we risk creating a codependent relationship punctuated by continuing failures and rescues. Indeed, if we ignore their autonomy, our love will come to look an awful lot like hatred, and our sense of being in control will become increasingly unsatisfying. True kindness leaves the ones we love in control. They determine what help they will accept and how they will use it. Of course, this does not mean simply enabling them to do as they please. The offer of help may come with conditions, and there may be milestones that must be reached for help to continue. The goal of help offered in kindness is independence not dependence.

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Love is Patient

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Love is patient…. (1 Corinthians 13:4)

When Paul embarks on a description of the characteristics that distinguish love from other virtues, he begins with patience. This seems at first counterintuitive. What has patience to do with love? Shouldn’t he begin with doing good and being generous? We commonly think of patience as waiting without getting upset. So if I spend an extra 15 minutes at the doctor’s office waiting to be called but don’t get angry, it’s because I’m patient. This is certainly an aspect of patience, but I don’t think it is what Paul has in mind when he says, “Love is patient.”

The King James version has “Charity suffereth long,” and I think the concept of long-suffering gives us a clue to why Paul chose patience as the first characteristic of love. Today the concept of suffering almost always has to do with experiencing pain, but it was not so when the King James version was translated. It meant “to let, to allow.” So when Jesus said in Mark’s gospel, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” (Mark 10:14 KJV), he meant let them come. Jesus instructed his disciples not to control access to his presence. He had a genuine open-door policy, and he meant to see it enforced.

Therefore, patience is not primarily about waiting. It is about letting events take their course. It is about not trying to control what happens. Since love is other-centered rather than self-centered, it means specifically that love does not try to control other people. It allows people their own agency. It does not seek to manipulate, coerce, or cajole others into behaving as you want. Rather, it lets people make their own decisions, take their own actions, and suffer their own consequences.

This exactly describes the way Jesus behaved toward the rich young man who came to him asking how he could have eternal life. Jesus begins by giving him the standard religious answer: follow the rules, and you will live. But the man is not satisfied. He tells Jesus that he has kept the Law since he was a boy. Then Mark tells us, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.” It is this love that motivates Jesus to tell the man about the one thing he still lacked. And it is because of that same love that Jesus watches the man walk away sad. Jesus does not do any of the things we are tempted to do for those we love. He does not pursue the man and try to talk him into making a different decision. He doesn’t lower his standard for entrance into the kingdom so the young man could meet it. He doesn’t try to trick him into changing his mind. He lets the man be sad. He lets him walk away.

I am convinced that the single greatest mistake that parents make with their children is in ignoring their child’s agency. They seek to control their child for any number of reasons—because they find their child’s misbehavior embarrassing, because they fear what may happen if their child makes bad decisions, because their own parents used deceit and manipulation to control their behavior. Of course, parents are legally responsible for their children, and they need to exercise a certain level of control. The aim of parenting, however, is the freedom and independence of the child. How can the child learn the self-discipline necessary to become an independent adult if the parents are always stepping in to impose artificial consequences or averting the natural consequences of their child’s behavior? It is only natural, then, that the child eventually reaches an age where they resent their parents and rebel against them. Our culture tends to consider this progression a natural part of growing up, but it is actually the result of a faulty concept of parenting that does not begin with the patience of love.

Before Paul says “Love is kind,” which introduces our own agency in doing good for others, he insists that love recognizes and honors the agency of others and does not try to subvert it or diminish it. Love begins with letting other people be and allowing them to decide and act in ways they think best. This is the love God has for us, and it is the same love he requires of us toward others. Love is patient because God is patient.

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Love Your Enemies

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“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  Matthew 5:43-48.

Love can mean so many things. I might say, “I love my wife,” or “I love my kids,” or “I love tacos.” In each instance I mean something different by “love.” So what does Jesus mean by “love” when he commands his disciples to love their enemies? I think this passage offers some clues.

I have written elsewhere that the core of love is respect. By that I do not mean esteem. Respect does not have to regard a fellow person as good, but it must regard them as a person, capable of making decisions, keeping promises, and adhering however imperfectly to their own standards of right and wrong. Love regards every person as bearing the stamp of their Creator. Since every person is made in God’s image, there is within each one a template for being the person God intended. Love seeks to activate that template. Love is an advocate for the image of God within each person. Of course, there are some people who seems to us irredeemably evil, the image within them so fractured and tarnished by willful rebellion that every kindness, every good turn, seems wasted on them. Yet it is not often up to us to make that determination. Jesus calls us to love even the most wicked, not with affection or admiration, but with respect for their humanity. He calls us to treat them with the same impartial kindness that God has toward both the evil and the good, giving sunshine and rain to both, neither favoring the good with better weather nor punishing the wicked with darkness and drought.

This call goes against our own inclination and even against our sense of fair play. Should not the wicked be punished? Should not the righteous be blessed? Should we not love those who love us and hate those who hate us? How can we uphold justice in the world without opposing those who cause injustice? Indeed, we must oppose injustice yet do so in love. As Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a sermon about loving your enemies, “Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate, only love can do that.” So if we want a more just world, love is imperative; we have no option but to return love for hate.

So far this has been theoretical. How do we apply it to real enemies? How do we apply it to President Donald Trump?

I would like to propose a few guidelines by which you can measure your own behavior to consider whether it is loving. Most of us are unlikely to be in a position to actually do anything of real value for Trump or anyone in his administration. We all have attitudes and opinions, however, which we express with words. Our words reflect what is in our hearts. If it is love, then our words, even toward the President and his associates, will be loving.

The Issues, Not The Man

Stop ad hominem attacks. This includes name-calling and character assassination. Every day I see posts on my feed, not just memes but well-researched, thoughtful articles about Trump’s policies (or lack thereof), yet the comments are nothing but acrimonious names or supposed descriptions of Trump. I see him called “idiot,” “piece of shit,” “knuckle-dragger,” and  “orange cheeto,” I see speculations on the size of his brain or whether he has testicles. There is no way that such remarks can be construed as loving. You may be angry at Trump’s policies, his shameful behavior, or his many, many lies. Fine. Attack his policies and behavior, and expose his lies. It is loving to correct error and declare the truth. It is loving to advocate for the oppressed and excoriate their oppression. It is not loving to denigrate the oppressor.

Wish Him Well

Some Facebook friends have expressed a wish that Trump would die or fall ill or be declared unfit to serve as President. Some have hoped he would be assassinated. Such desires do not spring from love but from hate. Jesus implied that hate was the moral equivalent of murder (Matthew 5:21-22). Love never rejoices at the misfortunes that befall an enemy. It is unfailingly kind. Of course, the best one can wish for an enemy is a sufficient change to make them a friend. I do not know if Trump is capable of such a change, nor does it seem likely, but it is something to pray for.

Pray For Him

By this I mean sincere prayers for wisdom in governing, decorum befitting a President, and all the other graces and competencies that would make him a better President and mitigate the ridicule to which he is subject. Of course, a certain amount of ridicule goes with being President. When Obama was President, he even made fun of himself. Trump, however, desperately needs a sense of humor, and that is surely something to pray for. I know it’s hard not to want him to fail, but failure is not bad just for him; it’s bad for the United States and even for the world. So pray for his success—not the success of bad policies, but for wise policies to succeed. Pray that he will take his duties seriously and consider the repercussions of his words and actions before tweeting.

Of course, there are other things you might do, but these should give you an idea of the direction love wants to go. Love your enemies.

 

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