We must first ask ourselves what kindness is. Words, which we are using
constantly, soon cease to have much distinct meaning in our minds. They become symbols and figures rather than words, and we content ourselves with the general impression they make upon us. Now let us be a little particular about kindness, and describe it as accurately as we can. Kindness is the overflowing of self upon others. We put others in the place of self. We treat them as we should wish to be treated ourselves. We change places with them. For the time self is another, and others are self. Our self-love takes the shape of complacence in unselfishness. We cannot speak of the virtues without thinking of God. What would the overflow of self upon others be in Him, the Ever-blessed and Eternal? It was the act of creation. Creation was divine kindness. From it as from a fountain, flow the possibilities, the powers, the blessings of all created kindness. This is an honorable genealogy for kindness. Then, again, kindness is the coming to the rescue of others, when they need it and it is in our power to supply what they need; and this is the work of the Attributes of God towards His creatures, His omnipotence is for ever making up our deficiency of power. His justice is continually correcting our erroneous judgments. His mercy is always consoling our fellow-creatures under our hardheartedness. His truth is perpetually hindering the consequences of our falsehood. His omniscience makes our ignorance succeed as if it were knowledge. His perfections are incessantly coming to the rescue of our imperfections. This is the definition of Providence; and kindness is our imitation of this divine action.
Moreover kindness is also like divine grace; for it gives men something which neither self nor nature can give them. What it gives them, is something of which they are in want, or something which only another person can give, such as consolation; and besides this, the manner in which this is given is a true gift itself, better far than the thing given: and what is all this but an allegory of grace? Kindness adds sweetness to everything. It is kindness which makes life’s capabilities blossom, and paints them with their cheering hues, and endows them with their invigorating fragrance. Whether it waits on its superiors, or ministers to its inferiors, or disports itself with its equals, its work is marked by a prodigality which the strictest discretion cannot blame. It does unnecessary work, which when done, looks the most necessary work that could be. If it goes to soothe a sorrow, it does more than soothe it. If it relieves a want, it cannot do so without doing more than relieve it. Its manner is something extra, and is the choice thing in the bargain. Even when it is economical in what it gives, it is not economical of the gracefulness with which it gives it. But what is all this like, except the exuberance of the divine government? See how, turn which way we will, kindness is entangled with the thought of God! Last of all, the secret impulse out of which kindness acts is an instinct which is the noblest part of ourselves, the most undoubted remnant of the image of God, which was given us at the first. We must therefore never think of kindness as being a common growth of our nature, common in the sense of being of little value. It is the nobility of man. In all its modifications it reflects a heavenly type. It runs up into eternal mysteries. It is a divine thing rather than a human one, and it is human because it springs from the soul of man just at the point where the divine image was graven deepest.
Ask me some time ago — two or so years — about God and my reply would have quickly turned to the problem of evil and the problems it creates for any conception of God. The existence of consciously, conscientiously willed evil — such as the Holocaust, the abuse of a child, the torture of individual, the slaughter of innocence — presents certain difficulties for the believer. “How can such evil exist in a world with an omniscient, omnipotent, perfectly benevolent being? Either this being is not omniscient and simply doesn’t know about the evil, or is not omnipotent and unable to prevent it, or is not completely benevolent and unwilling to stop it. In any case, then, this being might be many things, but it is certainly not God as we commonly think of the term.” There are various philosophical ways to wiggle out of this, some more satisfying than others, but more difficult in some ways than the problem of evil is the problem of good, the problem of kindness.
In a strictly material, evolutionary sense, what meaning does altruism hold? Whence comes pity, or even more confounding, empathy? One can make a convincing argument for the material logic of kindness among one’s own family or even clan: it’s a question of preserving one’s genetic line. But why with comparative strangers?
Theism offers an explanation: the secret impulse out of which kindness acts is an instinct which is the noblest part of ourselves, the most undoubted remnant of the image of God, which was given us at the first.
The reading is from Father Frederick Faber’s Spiritual Conferences, excerpted here.