“A saint is a theatre where the qualities of God can be seen.” ~ Rumi
Kindness (Greek – χρηστοτης – pronounced krey-stah-teys):The original Greek term for kindness also means integrity, excellence, or usefulness. In our day and age, we might also know it at altruism, goodness, or hospitality. It is about our connection to others.
The Habit and Theology of Kindness
Many of us are familiar with 1 Corinthians 13, Paul’s beautiful ode to love: “Love is patient; love is kind; love is not envious or boastful or arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice in wrongdoing, but rejoices in the truth” (1 Cor 13:4-6).
You may have heard this scripture at a wedding. It might draw an image to mind of how we should treat others. But do we apply these words to ourselves? Apply this passage to yourself rather than simply to someone else: Am I kind to myself? Am I patient with myself? Am I rude to myself? Do I continually resent my mistakes? Do I ruminate over what I did wrong?
If we do not know how to accept, relish, and intend kindness towards ourselves, there will be no way to offer or intend kindness to others. Jesus’ Great Commandment includes loving God, loving neighbor, and loving self. There are not just two parts to it, but three. Self-care is a Biblical commandment. ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’ (Mark 12:31). If we better understand how we connect to ourselves it will help us better understand how we connect to others. This is the essence of the Golden Rule. Caregivers can also be taskmasters to themselves, not offering the same care to themselves as they do to those they help.
The theology of kindness extends to how we treat others. It is easy to love those who love us. God’s challenge to us is to love those whom we hate: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Despite our own failings, God loves us and invites us into deeper love. Despite the pain, loving our enemies is God’s call to us. It is the only thing that can renew our world. Replacing love with hate is the essence of heaven. The deepest and most powerful kindness is being kind to those with whom we find it most difficult to be kind. It also reaps the greatest reward.
No matter if a person is a secular materialist, atheist, Buddhist, Jewish, Muslim or has no religious designation at all, we are called to love them. This also includes the hate-filled, broken and even serial killers. Christ did not say to only love some of your enemies or just some of the people different from us. God is at work in redeeming all who are broken even if it is exquisitely hard to see it. How we engage those who are broken or different from us also says something about God’s love at work in us. If we can love even those hardest to love, then our love will be a beacon of light.
Maybe if we can accept that which is best from those who are different from us, they will better accept what is best from us. Perhaps those who have declared that they have no religious affiliation might start thinking that there is something that we have that is appealing. The people who we cut ourselves off from might start reconsidering when we say to them that some of their gifts are beautiful and amazing. They are not anathema. They are our partners in the Way of Love.
The Neuroscience of Kindness
Acts of kindness produce endorphins, a neurotransmitter that helps alleviate pain. Kindness can lower stress levels, which will decrease the effects of the stress hormone cortisol. Decreased stress will also help lower blood pressure. The social bonding aspect of kindness also helps produce oxytocin in the body. This is another feel-good neurotransmitter. With so many powerful effects of kindness, it is no wonder that we are hardwired to want to give and receive it as often as we can.
Studies have shown that giving and receiving kindness will increase the production of serotonin. Serotonin helps regulate our mood in the brain. Research shows that mirror neurons respond to kindness as if you are receiving the kindness even as you are the one giving it. In other words, when a person gives kindness, their own mirror neurons simultaneously create an inner feeling as if they were receiving it themselves. This effect is known as the “helper’s high”.
Mirrorneurons are stimulated when observing another person perform a task as if you are performing the task yourself. Neurons fire exactly as if making the movement yourself instead of simply observing it happen. Mirror neuron systems in the brain allow us to understand the actions and intentions of others. The better our minds understand how others act and intend, the better we can learn from them. Unless we develop our own capacity to understand and appreciate the actions of others, we will not have the empathy necessary to engage the world in love. Mirror neurons come into play when we recognize facial expressions. You might be able to recall a time in your life where you saw someone get hurt and noticed that you cringed your shoulders as if you somehow felt the pain as well. In fact, basic emotional states expressed cross-culturally are extremely similar. Anger, boredom, worry, joy, and fear can be identified in people in vastly different cultures simply by looking at their faces.
Imagine for a moment someone smiling at you. Do you feel joy? Perhaps it will make you smile as well. This is an example of mirror neurons at work. In this “helpers high” our mirror neurons play a role in us feeling joy and love when we offer joy and love to others. It is a natural euphoria because we are hardwired to feel the very love that we offer to others. This is especially the case when we see the cues and expressions from them of their joy and love of receiving our affection.
God’s gift to us of mirror neurons allows us to understand and appreciate the fruits of the Spirit working in others because we are hardwired and feel the same fruits of the Spirit working in us. Love is hardwired into our being and God has made it feel glorious to share it with others as it is being shared simultaneously in ourselves through our mirror neurons.
As you know them by their fruits, so too will the fruit of the Spirit be known in you vicariously. That we can know others are fruitful is a testament to the fact that we are hardwired to know and appreciate God’s goodness. It is not only the goodness of others that we can recognize, but also goodness working in us.
Perhaps this is why Jesus said that the Law and the Prophets can hang on God’s will expressed in the Great Commandment: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the first and great commandment.And the second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself’” (Matthew 22:37-39). The second is like it because it is based on love, for God is love. God’s will is first and foremost about bringing our life and will into unity with love. We can focus our union with God through union with love. It is God’s will that we live a fruitful life. And a fruitful life infused in the knowledge of our connection with God is an immeasurable gift.
The Neuroscience of Hatred
Hatred often causes people to want to fight. The neuroscience of the fight response involves many things. Rage will cause muscles to tense, breathing to become fast, and cortisol to be dumped into the system so that quick energy can be created. Rage raises the heart rate. Pupils become dilated. Rage makes access to the frontal cortex more difficult. It is harder to think with our more executive reasoning. When enraged, we believe that threats must be contained, and this becomes our preoccupation. The amygdala plays a role in governing what is considered a threat and what is not considered a threat.
When our emotional response is disproportionate to the stimulus, this process is called an amygdala hijack. Just like a hammer might only see nails, if we allow ourselves to stop thinking with our prefrontal cortex and instead succumb to seeing the world as threat, then we may opt to fight against it. Anger is often the result of fear. If we see that we are angry or have hatred, we might want to ask ourselves, what is it that we fear? If we see someone else with hatred, we might also ask what it is they are afraid of.
Through love, large parts of the cerebral cortex that govern judgment get de-activated. This is exactly the opposite of hate. Through hate, the brain works to calculate revenge and judgment. Numerous studies have shown that the neurology of hate “involves the premotor cortex, a zone that has been implicated in the preparation of motor planning and its execution.”[i] Hatred mobilizes the motor system for defense or attack.
This is why the Lord’s Prayer calls us to forgive others daily: “Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who have trespassed against us”. Hatred toward the other prevents us from loving them. We get locked into our own poison. Regardless of what the hated person is doing, the reality of our hate is within us. It prevents us from feeling love ourselves. That is why one of the most profound though challenging commandments of our Lord is to love our enemies (Matthew 5:44). Neurologically hate actually harms ourselves more than the person or object of hatred because we poison our bodies through a cascade of destructive neurochemicals. Stress hormones, high blood pressure, and intense ruminating are not good for us. Forgiveness is then truly a gift to not only the one whom we hate, but also to ourselves so that we can break the cycle of destructive neurological poison.
While the cycle of neurological poison within us is destructive, it also wreaks havoc on the physical world. Trauma and hatred are perpetrated from one generation to the next, often in an unconscious loop that devastates the most vulnerable amongst us. When children are faced with adverse childhood experiences due to neglect, abuse, and hatred, their lives are often stunted and cut short. Majority populations will often scapegoat minority populations displacing fear through anger and tension. Cycles of hatred and revenge actually live out in our bodies though are part of our social fabric. Different groups will possibly both hate and fear one another. They will isolate from one another. This trauma lives in us in through the effects of chronic fear and anger and plays out in the world. Forgiveness of ourselves and others, along with acts of reconciliation, are the only ways to break free from the cycles of revenge and hatred in our families, communities, and world.
And where hate directed at the outside world creates pain, self-loathing and shame directed inwardly produces pain, too. Shame is sometimes defined as anger turned inward. Anyone who has felt shame knows that it has a real effect of deep pain.
“Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. Do not judge, and you will not be judged; do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven” (Luke 6:36-37)
Reflections to Strengthen Kindness
Kindness is tangible. Below are real actions that build up God’s kingdom:
- The Corporal Works of Mercy
Jesus listed some very specific actions we can take to offer mercy and kindness to others. He told us: “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” (Matthew 25:34-36). The kindness we offer to others is kindness directly to our Lord. Through the Corporal Works of Mercy, we are also drawn into awareness that our kindness is directed to Christ in-the-flesh. When we offer kindness to others while seeing Christ in them, then our neural circuits are strengthened toward integrating our self as part of all things. Rather than simple actions, when our kindness is done in knowing that we are serving the living God, then all that we do is an expression of prayer. And in doing kindness, God blesses us with feelings of euphoria through our mirror neurons.
- Forces for Good:
To ask why someone is hungry in the first place is more powerful than only giving food to the hungry. Keeping people from sickness is more powerful than visiting them when they become sick. Unless we can change the underlying systemic problems of the world, then we are only addressing the symptoms and not the root causes. Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant in their book Forces for Good detail six of the best practices of some of the largest and most successful nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity.[ii] We might think of ourselves as small, but each of us is infinitely powerful. Remember the Butterfly Effect. If we can help the organizations we belong to follow these same habits, then we can change the world.
Advocate and Serve:To have high impact, organizations need to work with the government to make systemic change in addition to their acts of service.
Make Markets Work:Organizations need to embrace that the private sector and business models are not enemies. Having wealth is not a bad thing if we use our resources to help build the kingdom of God.
Inspire Evangelists:Meaning, emotional experience, and shared core beliefs will help inspire the organization to draw more and more people into its mission.
Nurture Networks:Collaborating with others is necessary. We cannot see others doing similar work as a threat, but instead, we need to see them as allies in a larger mission.
Master Adaptation:As science, culture, and systems change, we can adapt with them in learning, listening and responding.
Share Leadership:The more opportunities there are to raise up individuals, the stronger the organization.
These ideas apply extremely well to a church. No matter what nonprofit, organization, system or group that we belong to, these six practices will make them stronger. Take some time to think about how your church or the groups you are involved with are using these six practices or could use them better. Which areas could you engage your church or organization more powerfully? Take some time to reflect on your ideas below and with whom you could share them with:
- Love your Enemies:
“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,so that you may be children of your Father in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:44-48).
If we all asked this question of ourselves every day and took it seriously, we could change the world in a heartbeat:
Who is someone that I consider an enemy and in what way will I love this person today?
For Group Discussion or Personal Reflection:
Try this: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think of a time when you most felt God’s kindness working through you. If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind. Do this for at least a minute allowing yourself to relive the experience. Now with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels. Perhaps you feel a sense of joy, gratitude, sense of accomplishment, and connection? Where in your body do your feel these sensations? Describe below how it feels in your body to let God’s kindness work through you.
Keeping the sensations in mind from the previous exercise, through what one habit will you let yourself go deeper to feel and relish in God’s kindness working in and through your body?
Try this with caution. Do not retraumatize yourself. If a memory comes to mind that is too challenging use a different memory: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think of a time when you felt hatred. If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind. Allow yourself to briefly relive the experience. After fifteen seconds and with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels. Perhaps you feel a sense of tensed muscles, jaw clinched, heat, furled brow, nostrils flaring, agitation, and anger? Is your heart racing? Describe below how it feels in your body to suffer from hatred.
What is one source of my hatred? What scripture, resources or tools from this book can I use to overcome it?
What one habitual and settled tendency with my spouse, friends, family, or community is stuck in a cycle of hatred and what specific changes would create more systemic kindness?
What one specific and measurable goal to create more of God’s kindness do I have that will help overcome an ingrained practice of hatred at an organization, church, or political group that I belong to?
~ Pray ~
God, I am Yours. I say yes to kindness.
I will challenge and overcome my hatred.
I surrender to Your kindness.
[i]“Neural Correlates of Hate,” National Center for Biotechnology Information, accessed August 13, 2019, https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2569212/.
[ii]Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant, Forces for Good, (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2012), 37.