Kindness leads to life

Have you heard of the BELLS challenge?  Michael Frost, Australian missiologist, wrote a simple book entitled “The Five Habits of Highly Missional People” (a free copy here) to help followers of Jesus grow in habits, simple everyday activities, to grow more proficient in witnessing God’s Kingdom to the people we interact with.  The habits are:

  • Blessing others – showing acts of kindness, to cultivate a heart of generosity.
  • Eating together – sharing meals with those I interact with, to grow in hospitality.
  • Learning Christ – intentional study of Jesus’s works, words and person, to grow Christlike.
  • Listening to the Spirit – intentional waiting on God, to grow in discernment of God.
  • (Being) Sent – daily reflecting how I recognize my participation in God’s mission.

The reality that each of us have to face is this: if I live like I lived yesterday, I will have the same witnessing power that I had yesterday.  And for me – I assume for many of us – this is a sobering thought.

Our habits reveal our faith, but conversely, our faith is also shaped by our habits.  That’s why Frost identified these simple, everyday, easily doable habits which increases our witness of Christ and His Kingdom.

People long for Kindness

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Our world is a harsh place, and humanity is a vulnerable condition. Because of our imperfections we lack, we suffer, we cause harm.  We are in need of care, of help; we are in need of kindness.

Sadly, modern man strives for independence; especially Western society aspires to not elf-sufficiency, to be strong and not need anything or anyone.  But humans are flawed, and when we fail, we have lack, we hurt or cause harm.   We rely on the kindness of others: to receive what is undeserved.

Relationships flourish in kindness

What makes human relationships flourish?  This was what Drs. John Gottman and Robert Levenson have studied in their “Love Lab” for the past four decades.  In the process of observing how newlyweds interact with one another, and again recalling them six years later, they grouped these couples into two groups based on their interaction

The disasters showed patterns of aggression and criticism in their relational dynamics. Their relationships deteriorated quickly over time and was characterized by contempt, criticism, and hostility.  In contrast, the mastersdemeanor towards one another was characteristically warm and inviting – even during conflict.  The masters learned to create an atmosphere of trust and intimacy that made the relationship safer and more comfortable.

Based on these findings and follow-up studies Gottman deduced that the key indicators in marital success (with about 94% certainty!) come down to two characteristics: kindness and generosity.  Indeed, “love is kind” (1 Corinthians 13:4), and “love is the bond of perfection” (Colossians 3:17).

In an environment of kindness people thrive, because in the care and compassion cultivates true connection and cooperation in trust.  In contrast, the absence of kindness breeds distrust, fear and shame, causing the other to withdraw and withhold him-/herself – the very opposite of thriving.

Our God is kind-hearted

Humankind is like the rebellious son who foolishly packs his bag and walks out the door, believing he can enjoy living life all on his own.  Our sin-infested world is harsh, and we were never meant to be independent – we will lack, we will fail.  But, as the tale of prodigal son so beautifully illustrates, it is the knowledge of “the kindness of God that leads us to repentance” (Romans 2:4).

We are – and will always be – in need of God’s kindness, as the Psalmist rightly sings:

Psalm 145:8-9, 14-16 (CEV)

You are merciful, Lord!
You are kind and patient
and always loving.
You are good to everyone,
and you take care
of all your creation…

When someone stumbles or falls,
you give a helping hand.
Everyone depends on you…

Jesus also taught us to rely on God’s kindness, to freely and shamelessly be dependent on Him: “Give us this day our daily bread, and forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.” (Matthew 6:11-13)

Our God is kind, moved with compassion, to console and care for his creatures.

Jesus is kindness personified

The greatest sign of God’s kindness is the sending of His son Jesus.  Paul refers to the incarnation of Christ as the time “when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour appeared” (Titus 3:4).  Indeed, Jesus embodies and personifies the kindness of God!  He “went about doing good, healing all who were oppressed” (Luke 10:38).  Like his Father, Jesus healed “the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:36), without expecting anything in return as we see in his healing of the 10 lepers (Luke 17:11-19).

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But the apex of God’s kindness is the substitutionary suffering and death of Christ on the cross, who although “He was despised and rejected by men… He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows… He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The punishment for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed…” (Isaiah 53:3-5).  Indeed, God so loved the world: He had compassion on us, His enemies, and showed kindness in the sending His only Son to forgive our debts and deliver us of oppression!

Marked by kindness

The kindness which Jesus Himself modelled to us, He also commanded us to do emulate.  And in showing kindness to all – even our enemies! – we will be identified as “Sons of the Most High, who is kind to the ungrateful and the wicked” (Luke 6:35).  Like our Master, our kindness is a mark of the Father.  Our acts of kindness therefore are a witness to our God, and a witness to our allegiance to Him.

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You might ask “Almost every religion inspires kindness to others.  How does a Christian’s good deeds point to God?”  This is a thoughtful question one should consider.

Firstly, we recognize that the source of our loving-kindness is not of ourselves. As Christians we recognize that we are fallen, that our capacity to care and show love is limited.  That is why Jesus taught his disciples to “abide in Me, for apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5).  In Paul’s words, kindness is a fruit of Christ’s Spirit (Galatians 5:22) – we become kind persons who naturally do kind deeds through intentional fellowship with our kind Saviour.  “As we behold him, we become like him” (2 Corinthians 3:18).

Secondly, the goal of our kindness is to point to God’s kindness.  Jesus taught his followers to “not sound the trumpet in the street” when showing kindness (Matthew 6:2); the goal of giving is not to receive praise, not to make us feel good, but to point to God.  Likewise, the motive for forgiveness is “as God in Christ forgave” (Ephesians 4:32) – again pointing to God’s kindness in Christ.  As we give and forgive, we look for opportunities and ways to point to God, “that men may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in Heaven” (Matthew 5:16).

Kindness brings us home

Our world is a harsh place, at times even hostile.  The lie of self-sufficiency causes isolation, the reality of insufficiency causes fear and shame.  But God is kind, who generously gives to those in need, eager to guide the lost and restore the fallen, graciously forgiving the sinner.  To this end Jesus invites us to show the same kindness to even our enemies, that we may be known as children of God. That even our enemies may come to know the kindness of God which leads us to repentance (Romans 2:4)

 

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Our Lonely World

Earlier this week the legendary actor Robin Williams was found dead in his own home.  He apparently committed suicide, an act aptly described by reporter Andrew Solomon as “A crime of loneliness” [1].  In the Reuters news article about his death, Alex Saphir writes what many of us think: “His tragic end stood in stark contrast to the many on-screen characters he portrayed who encouraged those around them to tap into their own inner vitality, a wellspring of creativity to which he himself gave full vent in films such as “Good Morning, Vietnam” and “Dead Poets Society.” [2]  Not many people knew of Robin’s deep struggle, since loneliness by its nature is rarely observable to others.

Being lonely and loneliness are two separate things; solitude and isolation are not the same.  One can be alone in a room without feeling lonely, yet many of us have experienced the feeling of loneliness especially in a crowded place.  It is a well-known fact that around 10% of older people feel chronically lonely [3], understandably so due to immobility, mental decline and friends passing away, etc.  But a 2010 Mental Health Foundation report found that today loneliness is more prevalent among young people. [4]

This is extremely worrisome since loneliness is detrimental to one’s mental and physical health.  In one study 42% of people linked depression to their loneliness. [5]  Low self-esteem, hopelessness, paranoia and anxiety are commonly associated with loneliness. Lonely people often indulge in behaviors that are harmful to themselves, such as over-eating, binge drinking, risky sexual relations and drug use; these sensual behaviors numb the pain of social isolation.  Furthermore, feeling lonely can literally break your heart [6] – thus it is not strange that loneliness in itself increases the probability of an early death by as much as 45% [7].

Our society is lonely and consequently hurting.  Our society desperately longs for connectedness, intimacy and belonging – that is the way we were created by God.  Loneliness is not a sign of weakness or spiritual immaturity – it simply speaks of a legitimate desire created by God that is not appropriately met.

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In your face(book)

Although at least one Canadian newspaper article referred to loneliness as “the disease of our time… an epidemic… with millions effected”  [8] in 1982, the problem is much more prevalent today.  Social media gets the brunt of the blame for making relationships superficial, as studies show that the more time one spends on Facebook the more lonely, less sociable and less happy one becomes. [9]  In her acclaimed TED Talk Connected, but alone?, MIT professor Sherry Turkle argues that electronic relationships has the potential to leave one empty and alone, since we present idealized versions of selves through filtered images and edited conversations, so we have online relationships with constructs of others, not the real self.  This leaves us with the feeling that everyone is projecting but no one is hearing us.

However, the 2010 Mental Health Foundation report also states that social media is an obvious benefit to rekindle and maintain relationships where face-time is not possible due to immobility (due to long-term sickness or a new-born baby), or in a situation where family and friends relocate.  This is an important factor in perceived social isolation (a.k.a. loneliness): people who live and grow up in an environment that constantly changes do not put down deep relational roots, nor do they learn how to build deep and meaningful relationships.  Factors that aggravate this relational disconnect include increased working hours, work-related travel, and especially family break-ups.  The family break-ups again points to another important factor of societal loneliness: people are afraid to be hurt in close relationships when they have been betrayed, abused, rejected or shamed in the past by one with whom they have been vulnerable.  In such cases skillful, patient love must facilitate healing for trust to be regained.

So our lonely world is made of Facebook “friends” who pretend to talk while no-one is listening and others who cannot meet one another due to immobility or distance, the ones who perpetually uproot and relocate and the ones who set up fences because of past hurts.  Ours is a detached, broken, vulnerable society raising insecure, unloved and angry children who are disconnected and unsure of their identities.

How do we respond to this as Christians?  Isaiah 61:4 speaks prophetically of a people saved and healed by God, who in turn will build up a broken down society, bringing complete restoration to “devastations of many generations.”  Thus we ought to be restored relationally, and then rebuild society relationally by the loving power of God.

What does the Bible teach about God’s answer to loneliness?

  1. Marriage as God’s solution to loneliness

Genesis 2:18-20 “Then the LORD God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper fit for him.” Now out of the ground the LORD God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name. The man gave names to all livestock and to the birds of the heavens and to every beast of the field. But for Adam there was not found a helper fit for him.”

Surprisingly, God is the first to mention loneliness in man.  He states “it is not good that man should be alone…”  This is profound, since this loneliness predates the rebellion of man and the devastating effect of sin entering the world and human nature.  Adam had a perfect communion with God, and yet God says “man is alone… this is not good.”  Adam’s desire for a mate is part of Adam’s sinless perfection before the fall; the longing for Eve is good and appropriate. I never tell a single person that their relationship with God should be sufficient, because God said the opposite.

But then God leaves Adam until he himself recognizes his own loneliness by observing the bliss of companionship among the animals he governs.  Then God made Eve and brought her to Adam.  In fear of some old lady reading this with a poodle on her lap, or a farmer with his German Sheppard in the front seat of his truck next to him, I must mention that Adam’s loneliness was not satisfied by all the animals in the world – his loneliness was only cured in another human being.  Nor could Adam’s job solve his need for human companionship.  Eve was the answer God had in mind.

God’s first cure for loneliness is a spouse. (Read a previous blog On marriage and our culture for more the design of marriage and the challenge within our culture).

  1. Family as God’s solution to loneliness

 

Psalm 68:5-6 “Father of the fatherless and protector of widows is God in his holy habitation. God sets the lonely in families…”

God’s plan for mankind has always been families.  As the Perfect Father (Ephesians 3:14-15) He embraces those rejected from society, those who are vulnerable and marginalized. He adopts them into His loving family, giving them a safe place where they find identity and belonging in a loving environment.

Not only does God adopt us as children into His heavenly family, but He also places the outcast, the vulnerable and the lonely in families on earth.  This is a simple way of rebuilding society and stilling the pains of loneliness – whether by formal, legal adoption or merely by a radical inclusion of people into your home and heart.  Follow God’s example and seek out the lonely widow in your street, the single mothers in your community, the neglected neighborhood children, the fitness-freak bachelorette or the burger-eating computer-game-bachelor, and draw them into the family of God by bringing them into your heart and home. Let God place the lonely into your family and friendship circles, and let’s love them as Jesus loves us.

(For more on how to practically show love as Jesus did, read a previous blog on Known by your love. )

 

  1. Friendship as God’s solution to loneliness

Ecclesiastes 4:9-12  “Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!   Again, if two lie together, they keep warm, but how can one keep warm alone?  And though a man might prevail against one who is alone, two will withstand him—a threefold cord is not quickly broken.”

A third way in which God solves loneliness is by means of friendship. This friendship is not merely an emotional connectedness or recreational filler.  As seen in the Ecclesiastes text above, Biblical friendship implies partnership and sharing, co-dependence, mutual support and protection, and communion.  This is the shared life of friendship David had with his mighty men while living as mercenaries during King Saul’s reign. This is the shared life of friendship Jesus enjoyed with his disciples while on earth.

This is friendship that satisfies the hungry heart and answers the relational call of loneliness.  This is the friendship that is ”closer than a brother.” (Proverbs 18:24)

  1. God with ’s indwelling Sprit as solution to loneliness

 Isaiah 7:14 “He shall be called Immanuel” – God with us”; Hebrews 13:5 “He will never leave us or abandon us.”

In most Western cultures Christmas is one of most joyful times because it brings families, friends and communities together is a time of celebration.  Yet Christmas time is the worst time for countless many people since their loneliness is accentuated by the family festivities of everyone else, resulting in the highest suicides occurrences in any calendar year in the West.  This is especially sad since the birth of Christ is about eradicating loneliness and hopelessness in the world[10]: “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel [meaning ‘God with us’]” (Isaiah 7:14; compare John 1:14-15).  In Jesus God again walked with man as God walked Adam at first.

And not only was Jesus Immanuel, God with the disciples and people in Israel during his short life on earth as a first-century Jewish man, but he promised his abiding presence with his disciples as they left continued his work of discipleship everywhere they go, until the end of time (Matthew 28:20).  So that promise remains for us – God dwells in us as believers through his Spirit living in us (Romans 8:9-11; Colossians 1:27).  We are never alone – he promised to never leave us or abandon us (Hebrews 13:5).

This changes the way Christians experience loneliness, because even though we feel lonely at times, like Adam we feel lonely in the loving fellowship of God our Father.  Being lonely with God means I can share my loneliness with God.  Or in the words of Peter, I can cast my burden of loneliness on him, because I know he cares for me (1 Peter 5:7).

And this loneliness is at times a good thing since it seems that God deals best with us when we’re alone, as we see in the life of Jacob, alienated from his family by his deceit, but God met him at the river bank.  Jacob became Israel – he was never the same again, because he wrestled God alone (Genesis 32:24).  The same can be said of Jesus, when he felt lonely and scared the night before the crucifixion and his disciples fell asleep:  He needed to carry that burden alone, and again the next day being forsaken by everyone, he carried the burden the Father entrusted to him alone, and it changed all of history (Matthew 26:39; 27:46).

In your loneliness know that you are never alone – God is with you. So “draw near to God, and we will draw near to you” (James 4:8).  Share all your loneliness and desires with him.  Allow him to heal you, so that you can rebuild your society with the loving power that overflows from your times with him.

[1] Solomon A, A Crime of Loneliness, The New Yorker, 14 August 2014, http://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/suicide-crime-loneliness

[2] Saphir A., Dobuzinskis A., Sinha-Roy P., Comedy great Robin Williams hangs himself at home, Reuters, 12 August 2014, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/08/12/us-people-robinwilliams-idUSKBN0GB28520140812,

[3] Jopling K., Barnett A., Alone in Crowd – compilation of articles, June 2014, p2, available at http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/wp-content/plugins/download-monitor/download.php?id=195

[4] Griffin J., The lonely society report, Mental Health Foundation UK, 2010, available at http://www.mentalhealth.org.uk/content/assets/PDF/publications/the_lonely_society_report.pdf

[5] Hall J.N., Loneliness and Mental Health – The Most Terrible Poverty, Campaign to end loneliness, 26 June 2014,

http://www.campaigntoendloneliness.org/blog/the-most-terrible-poverty-loneliness-and-mental-health/

[6] Hainer R., Loneliness hurts the heart, Health Magazine, 10 August 2009, found online at http://edition.cnn.com/2009/HEALTH/conditions/07/27/moh.healthmag.lonely.heart/

[7] Merz T., Loneliness Young people are lonely – but social media isn’t to blame, The Telegraph 25 Jul 2014, http://www.telegraph.co.uk/men/thinking-man/10985175/Young-people-are-lonely-but-social-media-isnt-to-blame.html

[8] Whittaker S., Loneliness – A disease of modern times, The Montreal Gazette, 25 September 1982, available at http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1946&dat=19820925&id=QX8xAAAAIBAJ&sjid=C6UFAAAAIBAJ&pg=1477,1513416  

[9] Greig A., All the lonely Facebook friends, Daily Mail, 12 September 2013, available at http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2419419/All-lonely-Facebook-friends-Study-shows-social-media-makes-MORE-lonely-unhappy-LESS-sociable.html

[10] Rogers A., God’s answer to loneliness, http://www.lwf.org/site/News2?abbr=for_&id=10071, viewed 12 August 2014