The kindness in a child’s heart is a beautiful thing to see. When my girls have friends over to play, almost every time I have to step in and stop them from giving away one of their favorite dolls or necklaces simply because their friend admired it. One day, when one of them had a friend over, she came to me holding the solid gold baby bracelet her Nanny had gotten her when she was born. “Can I give this to Lilly? She was looking in my jewelry box and said it was pretty and I never ever wear it and she would really like to have it.” It took some explaining, but I finally convinced her that it was a very special bracelet with memories attached to it and Nanny’s feelings might be hurt if we gave it away, and helped her find a different bracelet to give to Lilly. She knew the bracelet was special, but in the moment all that mattered to her was making her friend happy. Her heart was inclined to kindness toward her friend, even at cost to herself.
Kindness can be a hard word to pin down. Mary Kassian and Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth explain this in their book, True Woman 201:
“The main challenge in understanding the meaning of the word is the fact that it’s one of a series of terms that overlap and are not clearly or consistently distinguishable in meaning—in Greek, Hebrew, or English. Kindness can’t be isolated from the qualities of affection, sympathy, friendliness, patience, pleasantness, gentleness, tenderness, generosity, and especially goodness.” (P. 162)
To help narrow down this lengthy list of overlapping almost-synonyms, consider these words from Randy Alcorn’s book If God is Good: “C.S. Lewis points out that kindness as such ‘cares not whether it’s object becomes good or bad, provided only that it escapes suffering.’ But love cares for the welfare, not the momentary preferences of the one loved. This explains why a kind stranger might buy children ice cream, while their parents—who love them far more—might not.” (P. 167) And finally, in her Revive Our Hearts radio program, Nancy DeMoss Wolgemuth, with help from a quote from Jerry Bridges, gives us one more view of what the word kindness actually means: “The word that is translated ‘kindness’ in the fruit of the Spirit is a word that has to do with having a kind heart attitude or disposition toward others. . .Jerry Bridges. . .says, ‘Kindness is the inner disposition created by the Holy Spirit that causes us to be sensitive to the needs of others, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual.’”
To try to sum all of these definitions into one that we can understand a bit better, I will contend that kindness is the inclination of the heart to want to give to someone that which would bring them pleasure or happiness.
You see a desire or need in someone, and your heart wants to do whatever it takes to meet that desire or need. Sometimes, as Alcorn stated with Lewis’s help, the thing that might make them happy in the moment might not be for their ultimate good, but a kind-hearted person will probably want, at least for a moment, to give it to them anyway.
Let me make a true confession here: Sometimes I struggle to be kind to my children.
I know, I know–I’m probably the only mom out there who has this struggle, but I do, and more often than I’d like to admit. The fruit of kindness is a fruit that seems to have stunted growth in my life at times. I find that the kindness-fruit in my heart wants to be conditional; it’s far easier for me to be kind to my children when they are being well-behaved, happy, and getting along than when they are being cranky, disobedient, and arguing over who gets to sit in the recliner. I tend to subconsciously use my kindness as a reward for good behavior. If they have worked hard all morning, shared the school table with no shoving books back and forth, and kept the living room clean, then it is my joy to surprise them by running across the street to Dollar General to buy a box of Popsicles to have after lunch. When I see one of my little ones trying hard to finish the chore assigned to him, but having trouble lifting the heavy laundry basket, my heart is soft toward him and I don’t even hesitate to step in and kindly help him do a hard task. But when their attitudes go south, mine tends to react accordingly and kindness all too often gets buried under impatience and a harsh tone of voice. My heart just doesn’t always bend kindly to children who are being blatantly selfish and whiny.
Yet kindness is included in the list of fruits given us by the Spirit of God, which tells us two things: it is an important quality that should be evident in the life of a believer, and we can’t expect to muster it up on our own, since it is the Spirit who grows this fruit in us.
So how do my children prune away the weeds choking out the kindness in my heart and help kindness-fruit flourish in me?
The single biggest way the Spirit uses children help me grow in kindness is by forcing me to face my own unkind tendencies.
I can see their reaction when I speak unkindly to them. A shoulder slumping, a happy face turning sad. These are the children I carried in my own body, I nursed through the night for months, I fiercely defend against all danger, and I have just pierced their heart with my own unkindness. It brings immediate repentance, immediate pain that I would have caused them to hurt. I wish I could say it took only one time of seeing the effect of my unkindness for me to pull all the unkind weeds out of my heart and show only kindness-fruit to them from that point on, but that’s sadly not true. Seeing my sin so immediately reflected in their faces, however, has a powerful effect on me, and by the grace of God, I am slowly eliminating the weeds around the tree of kindness-fruit in my heart.
Some have hearts that tend toward tenderness and kindness more than others. These are the sweet people who see a child misbehaving and the first words out of their mouths are, “Oh, bless his heart!” Then they want to give him a lollipop to distract him from his temper tantrum. Loving and investing in children will give them ample opportunity to nourish the kindness-fruit growing in their hearts, because their hearts are just naturally warm toward children. These are the folks who are probably already signed up to work in the nursery before volunteers are even requested. Others—and let’s just be frank, I’m included here—don’t immediately feel warm fuzzies when we see an angry, pouting child. Instead of “Bless his heart” I’m more inclined to think, “He needs a good spanking.” That’s why it’s crucial for me and anyone else in this camp to spend time investing in the lives of children, even when it’s difficult for us.
Much like love, kindness requires a radical dying to self. When the kindness-fruit is ripe, I will respond kindly to one who speaks harshly to me, instead of adopting the same harsh tone in my response. I will remain kind even when a kid or two had me out of bed most of the night. I will be kind to the child who interrupts me for the fourth time when I’m trying to actually finish a sentence in a rushed conversation with a friend, instead of snapping at them all four times. It’s not that difficult to die to self and remain kind during a one-time short interaction with a child. It’s a different story altogether when you live with these children or spend great amounts of time with them on a regular basis. They will inevitably suffer from your unkindness once or twice or a hundred times. And sadly, we can probably all think of children who seem to only ever hear unkind speech from their parents or family members. While remembering that these fruits are grown in us by the Spirit, we must also remember that we are responsible to put to death the deeds of the flesh. So while it’s true that my natural inclinations are not to ooze kindness toward cranky kids, that in no way means it’s acceptable for me rest there.
I must die to myself, water the seeds that the Spirit has planted, and be diligent to weed the garden of my heart.
A big way the Spirit uses children to help remove those unkind weeds is by showing me myself in them, and showing me how God’s kindness toward me, His daughter, is perfect. My kindness fades away in the face of their sin. God’s kindness never wavers in the face of my sin. When my children sin against me, I am inclined to react harshly in an effort to bring them to repentance. When I sin against God, it is His kindness that brings me to repentance. My kindness is conditional, given freely if I am treated well and withheld if I am not. God’s kindness is steadfast, unconditional, given freely because of His own character, not dependent on my behavior. How astonishing is His mercy! In the face of my sin, He continues to lavish me with the good gifts of His loving-kindness. Even I, sinner though I am, do show kindness to my children much of the time, and that is just a shadow, a tarnished image, of the perfect Father who shows perfect kindness to His children all of the time.
Matthew 7:11 “If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father who is in heaven give good things to those who ask him!”
Ephesians 2:4-7 “But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved—and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.”
Titus 3:4-7 “But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit, whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
Luke 6:35 “But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil.”
The heart of Christ was tender and kind toward the weak and helpless—especially children–and we are called to be like Him. As we spend time with children, even when we might not feel particularly tender toward them, He will graciously remove those weeds of selfishness and impatience and soon some kindness-fruit will be ripe and beautiful. And we might even go buy them some Popsicles.