“When one persists in righteousness, and seeks to do what’s kind; it’s certain that abundant life, and honor they will find.” (Proverbs 21:21)
This is the twenty-first in a series of posts on Proverbs, which I am translating into common meter. The following contains my rendering of Proverbs 21, preceded by a brief reflection.
I am a sucker for kindness. And I don’t think I am alone. There is something that happens when we observe or experience kindness that weakens our defenses and, if only for a moment, softens our hearts. For those with eyes to see, examples abound. Here is a stranger hurrying to help an elderly man who stumbles in a parking lot. Here a coach embracing her young players after losing a game. Here a shopper encouraging a harried clerk who has been berated by an angry customer. Here a walker stopping to listen to a neighbor.
Kindness is a foundational Christian virtue, shown by intentional and voluntary acts of friendship, generosity, and thoughtfulness. While other virtues such as compassion, humility, and patience can also manifest themselves in action, they can also be passive. So, for example, a Christian can feel genuine compassion for a person but not necessarily act on the feeling. Not so with kindness, which by its very nature requires action.
One measure of the importance of kindness is seen in the destructiveness of unkindness. I hardly need to mention the division caused by those in the public sphere who use vitriolic words and actions. Nor the harm caused by those in private relationships who direct their selfishness and anger at the people around them. Nothing could be further from the heart of Christ than unkind words and actions. For he is the one about whom it is written, “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” (Matthew 12:20)
Genuine kindness carries with it the power of life. In Proverbs 21:21, Solomon tells us – “When one persists in righteousness, and seeks to do what’s kind; it’s certain that abundant life, and honor they will find.” Who among us hasn’t felt this power when we have been the recipient of unmerited kindness? Perhaps we failed in some responsibility or task and received a hug rather than condemnation; or perhaps we were depressed and received words of encouragement; or perhaps we lost our way in the darkness and were given a light.
But there is yet a greater power in kindness – which is the power to change us into kinder people. This is the story of Jean Valjean told by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables when Bishop Myriel first provides the ex-convict Jean Valjean shelter for the night and then gives him silverware that Valjean has stolen from his house. Valjean is so moved by the kindness of the bishop that his life is transformed into one of kindness towards others. It is a good illustration of the words of Sophocles, “Kindness begets kindness evermore.” Sometimes seeing kindness in another may be all we need to discover it in ourselves.
I remember a time when I was the recipient of unmerited kindness from a neighbor. The late 1960’s and early 1970’s was a season of great social unrest reflected in the hippy counterculture – a global youth movement that tested the limits of incumbent social mores, particularly those of sex, drugs, and music. Communal living was common, and many hippies eventually moved from cities to rural areas where they could live in harmony with nature. For many countryfolk, the influx of hippies with their long hair, different customs and beliefs, and even language, was perceived as a threat. No wonder that the young people were often met with suspicion and hostility. There were, of course, exceptions – people who treated the newcomers with kindness. I was fortunate to live down the road from one such person.
I have written previously about buying abandoned farmland in Palmyra, Maine in the early 1970’s with the idea of living closer to the land. I was not a hippy although being from ‘away,’ living in a tent, and having long hair no doubt pegged me as one to the locals. My closest neighbors were a middle-aged couple and their son who lived in an old farmhouse on a hill above my property. The wife, Juanita, was a true native, having lived her entire life within a five-mile radius. If she had any concerns about hippy ‘out-of-staters’ moving in, she didn’t show it. She could easily have ignored me, but to my surprise showed kindness after kindness. It wasn’t long until I was invited to Saturday dinner of homemade baked beans and fresh rolls made from scratch. This quickly turned into a standing invitation. When I got a teaching job that fall, Juanita insisted on washing and ironing my shirts. And though I was able to shower at school in the morning (having no water or electricity in the cabin I eventually built), she insisted I use their only bathtub to wash over the weekend.
After a while, I discovered that Juanita was a Christian – attending a small Baptist church in a neighboring town. She did not wear her faith on her sleeve, but simply revealed it by her many kind acts. I don’t recall her talking about her faith as such except to extend an invitation to go to her church (an offer that regretfully I never took her up on). She did say that she never argued matters of faith with others – a reticence that I found most refreshing. And even though I got the sense that her church had a strict fundamentalist bent, she had nonetheless acquired the heart of Christ for the outsider. Hers was a great example of the quote from Frederick W. Faber (author of ‘Faith Of Our Fathers’), “Kindness has converted more sinners than zeal, eloquence, or learning.” For over time, Juanita’s kindness was a powerful witness to me of an authentic faith.
Kindness does not get a lot of emphasis in the Bible, often relegated to a supporting role, a single virtue among many. For example, Paul tells us that “love is patient, love is kind, … .” (1 Corinthians 13:4) This of course is the way of Christ who places love at the heart of the great commandment – “Love the Lord your God … and Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Matthew 22:37, 39) Over and over, we are admonished to love each other, to love our neighbor, even to love our enemies. However, I believe that the commandment to love others has worn a bit thin by over-familiarity. For it is the sheer breadth and scope of love that is also its weakness. It is asked to carry so much meaning that it can lose its punch. Not only are we to love everyone, but it is multifaceted as we see in the sweeping description in 1 Corinthians 13:4-7. I wonder how many of us have become so overwhelmed with the commandment to love that we have come to believe that simply not harming another person is love?
Kindness, on the other hand, is much more focused and practical. A kind person is sensitive to the needs of others, and speaks or acts out of that sensitivity. We all know this instinctively. Think about someone you know who is kind. No doubt he or she has a focus on others and selflessly responds to their needs in practical ways. Nothing is ever too hard. For a follower of Christ, I would argue, being kind to others in increasing measure is the truest sign of one’s faith. Although one doesn’t have to be a Christian in order to be kind, one must be kind in order to be a faithful follower of Jesus.
Pat and I visited with Juanita a few weeks ago on a short visit to Maine. She is now blind, her husband long deceased. She still lives in the old farmhouse on the hill, although mostly alone during the day. And yet, she has been a faithful witness through the power of kindness. She is for me an embodiment of Jesus’ blessing on those living out an authentic faith in the kingdom of God. “You are the light of the world. A town built on a hill cannot be hidden.” (Matthew 5:14)
1 A ruler’s heart is like a stream,
the Lord moves by His hand;
It pleases Him to channel it,
the way that He has planned.
2 A person thinks their way is right,
since that’s how they’re inclined;
But it’s the Lord who weighs the heart,
and what is in the mind.
3 To do what’s right and virtuous,
will certainly suffice;
For God they’re more acceptable,
than any sacrifice.
4 When arrogance and unchecked pride,
are all that grow within;
The harvest of such wickedness,
is unrepentant sin.
5 The plans devised with diligence,
will bring prosperity;
But those conceived too hastily,
will lead to poverty.
6 A fortune made by telling lies,
will vanish in the air;
Such wealth is like a wisp of smoke –
a death inviting snare.
7 The wicked will be swept away,
by violence they incite;
For they refuse to do the things,
considered just and right.
8 The guilty lead a way of life,
that’s crooked to the core;
But everyone who’s innocent,
is upright, just, and pure.
9 Much better with a rooftop nook,
and solitary life;
Than sharing an entire house,
in conflict with a wife.
10 The wicked crave for what is vile,
and do not empathize;
Their neighbors see no grace in them,
no mercy from their eyes.
11 To see a mocker disciplined,
is how the naive learn;
But through instruction is the way,
the wise come to discern.
12 The righteous God observes the house,
where wicked people dwell;
He brings them into ruin as,
He sounds their final knell.
13 Now those who do not hear the poor,
or listen when they cry;
Will one day cry out loud themselves,
but hear not a reply.
14 A gift conferred in secrecy,
will soothe a person’s rage;
A hidden bribe will calm one’s pique,
and strongest wrath assuage.
15 The righteous feel a surge of joy,
when justice is displayed;
But evildoers seeing it,
are terribly afraid.
16 Whoever wanders mindlessly,
from pathways that are wise;
Will surely come to rest with those,
who’ve passed to their demise.
17 Those living lives for pleasure’s sake,
will end in poverty;
Those loving wine and olive oil,
will riches never see.
18 The wicked are a ransom for,
the righteous and the fair;
The faithless and the traitor for,
the upright everywhere.
19 Much better in the wilderness,
and solitary life;
Than living with a quarrelsome,
and irritable wife.
20 Within the dwelling of the wise,
choice food and wealth abound;
But foolish people gobble up,
whatever is around.
21 Whenever someone acts for good,
and all that’s right and kind;
It’s certain that abundant life,
and honor they will find.
22 The one who’s wise can go against,
the mighty and their lair;
Demolishing their confidence,
in what they trust and care.
23 Whoever keeps their tongue in check,
by speaking with control;
Will surely keep calamities,
from troubling their soul.
24 The haughty and the arrogant,
have “Mocker” for their name;
They act with overbearing pride,
without a hint of shame.
25 The cravings of the indolent,
will bring them deadly harm;
Because they do not labor much,
or even raise their arm.
26 For all day long the indolent,
desire what they lack;
The righteous though will always give,
while holding nothing back.
27 The Lord detests the sacrifice,
of every wicked soul;
So how much more when offered up,
with evil as its goal.
28 The ones who falsely testify,
will perish by the score;
But those who listen carefully,
speak words that will endure.
29 The wicked put a bold face on,
to hide what isn’t pure;
The upright think about their ways,
to make their pathways sure.
30 There is no wisdom, hope, or plan,
no insight that is stored;
No word or thought that can prevail,
or stand against the Lord.
31 The horse is dressed to go to war,
to fight and never flee;
But always it’s the Lord alone,
who gives the victory.