Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be put away from you, with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you. Therefore be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.
This text is so rich that we could take almost any of its phrases and dwell on it for hours. But I have decided to gather our thoughts around the simple commandment in verse 32, "Be kind to one another."
Five Aspects of Christian Kindness
As I have pondered these verses it seems to me that they tell us five things about Christian kindness:
- the extent of Christian kindness,
- the depth of Christian kindness,
- the pattern of Christian kindness,
- the instrument of Christian kindness, and
- the source of Christian kindness.
Let's look at these one at a time. And as we do let's pray that the Spirit of God would honor his Word by causing us to be changed by it.
1. The Extent of Christian Kindness
How much kindness should we show? This is addressed in verse 31. Christian kindness is so extensive that it replaces, "All bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander . . . with all malice." The word "all" is used twice: at the beginning, "all bitterness," and at the end, "all malice." These are part of the old corrupt self that must be put off. And kindness is the opposite new self that must be put on. Paul is still giving specific illustrations of the principle in verses 22–24.
Anger and Kindness
But the question rises whether all wrath and anger should be replaced by kindness. Bitterness, yes. Outbreaks of clamoring belligerence, yes. Rumor-mongering and evil speaking behind backs, yes. Malice, yes. All these, no exceptions, all these must go. But what about wrath and anger?
We spent the whole evening together two weeks ago trying to sort this out. Verse 26 says, "Be angry but do not sin." And James 1:19 says, "Be slow to anger." And Mark 3:5 says that Jesus looked on the Pharisees with anger. Does the kindness of Jesus always extend to the Pharisees? Is it kind to say to them, as Jesus does in Matthew 23:27, "Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you are like whitewashed tombs"? Is it kindness when he says in Matthew 23:15, "Woe to you scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for you cross sea and land to make a single proselyte, and when he becomes a proselyte, you make him twice as much a child of hell as yourselves"? Was it kindness when Jesus made a whip of cords and drove out the money changers from the temple and turned over their tables (John 2:15, Matthew 21:12)?
If you walked up to Jesus after he had done these things and said, "Jesus, that was unkind of you to say that to the Pharisees," what would he have said? There are two possible things he could have said. He could have said, "Sometimes a heart of love and a passion for the truth don't express themselves in the form of kindness." Or he could have said, "There is a sort of kindness that can be hard as nails and tough as leather." Which do you think he would have said: "Kindness is big enough to include whipping and woes"? Or: "Kindness is one form of righteousness, but not always the best one"?
As I have looked over all the uses of the word "kindness" in the New Testament, I think we would honor the the special tenderness of the word more by saying that Jesus was not being kind to the Pharisees. He was being severe with them. And Romans 11:22 separates the kindness of God and the severity of God. So kindness is not an absolute virtue. It is not always the most loving thing to do. It may involve a compromise with evil so serious that in the long run it hurts more people than it helps.
The Imprecise Extent of Christian Kindness
So when Paul says in Ephesians 4:26 that we should be angry but not sin, and then says in verses 31–32, get rid of anger and be kind, what I take him to mean is this very thing: All inner bitterness and malice must go. Their eruptions in slander and brawling must go. But when it comes to emotional indignation and you perceive that the teaching of Christ is disobeyed and the glory of God is diminished and the good of the church is in jeopardy, then, under the sway of the Holy Spirit, you must choose: shall I give vent to my anger in severity because the cause of truth and holiness is at stake, or shall I mortify my anger with kindness because there is too much of self in it?
Both are possible in the path of righteousness. And so the extent of Christian kindness is not precise. It may be wider or narrower than we think. This is a call for deep self-examination in the light of Holy Scripture and the deceptiveness of our own heart.
2. The Depth of Christian Kindness
The point here is that Christian kindness is not merely an external change of manners; it is an internal change of heart. Verse 32 says, "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted. . ." Christian kindness is tenderhearted. If the heart is hard on the inside and the manners are meek and polite and helpful on the outside, it is not Christian kindness.
The idea behind "tenderhearted" is that our insides are easily touched. When your skin is tender, it doesn't take a very hard touch to make it feel pain. When your heart is tender, it is easily affected. It feels easily and quickly.
When you stop and think about it, it is remarkable that this is commanded by the apostle. You can't just decide to be tenderhearted and turn it on like a faucet. It is a deep character quality. Where does it come from? How can we obey this command to make our kindness to each other deep and heart-felt, not superficial and cool? We will see as we move on.
3. The Pattern of Christian Kindness
Two patterns of Christian kindness are given for us in the text. First is the forgiveness of God. Second is the love of Christ.
The first we see in verse 32: "Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ forgave you." So when kindness calls for forgiveness, the pattern is the forgiveness of God in Christ.
The second pattern is seen in 5:2, "Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us." So when love expresses itself in kindness, the pattern is the love of Christ giving himself up for us.
Four Qualities of God's Forgiveness
What do these two patterns of kindness teach us about being kind to each other? Let's take them one at a time. What does the pattern of God's forgiveness teach us about our own? Four things come to mind:
- God's forgiveness takes sin seriously and so should ours. Forgiveness is not flippancy toward sin. It sees it and names it—and then covers it. God forgives what he hates. When I called a man recently to apologize for something I had said and seek his forgiveness, he didn't say, "It makes no difference." Or: "I didn't hear it." He said earnestly and warmly, "Forgiven, and forgotten." And I got the deep impression he really meant it.
- God's forgiveness reckons with a real settling of accounts and so should ours. Every sin that has ever been committed will be justly punished—either in hell or on the cross. God never sweeps one little lie under the rug. Someone always pays. So when kindness calls us to forgive a wrong that has been done against us, we are sustained by the truth of God's holiness. That wrong is going to be dealt with: either the person who committed it against us will trust Christ in the end, in which case the wrong they committed is punished in the wrath that was poured on Christ when the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all (Isaiah 53:4–6); or the person who committed the wrong against us is not going to trust Christ in the end, in which case the wrong that they committed will be punished in the sufferings of hell. And in neither case should we fear to forgive as though there were no settling of accounts in the universe.
- God's forgiveness was costly and so is ours. It cost God his Son. And it will cost us the sweet taste of revenge and the pleasure of savoring a grudge and the pride of superiority.
- God's forgiveness is real and ours should be too. There is no sham in it. When he forgives, we are really restored. Nothing is held over our heads for later blackmail. It is gone: "As far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us" (Psalm 103:12). And so we fall short of our divine pattern if we forgive a wrong but secretly plan to keep it in the back of our minds for a later touché. When we forgive, let us really forgive one another, as God in Christ forgave us.
That is the pattern of God's forgiveness and four things we can learn from it in pursuing the path of kindness. The second pattern for our kindness is the love of Christ in 5:2, "Walk in love, as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us." What does the pattern of Christ's love teach us about our own? Out of all the things we could say let me just mention three.
- The love of Christ for us is undeserved, and so we shouldn't insist that people earn our love and our kindness either. Jesus said in Luke 6:35, "Love your enemies, and do good . . . and you will be sons of the Most High; for he is kind to the ungrateful and the selfish." None of us has ever qualified to be loved by Jesus Christ. Freely we have received it; freely we should give it (Matthew 10:8).
- The love of Christ for us is holy and ours should be holy. The aim of the love of Christ is the holiness of his church: "Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her . . . and present her to himself in glory . . . that she might be holy and without blemish" (Ephesians 5:25–27). And therefore we should put away all notions of love that are driven by mere sentiment and emotion. Love aims at the holiness of a man and a woman, not at their approval or their worldly happiness. Christian kindness is not a strategy to avoid conflict. It's patterned on the love of Christ and aims to promote holiness.
- The love of Christ for us was sacrificial and self-denying, and ours should be too. This is basically the same thing we said earlier, namely, that the love of God was costly. But it is good to say it again. Because every one of us knows that the hardest thing about Christian kindness is to show it when it hurts. I have never forgotten the kindness shown to me by Frau Dora Goppelt in 1974 during the weeks following the unexpected death of her husband, my Doktorvater in Germany. It is a miracle of grace when the pain of loss is so great that you don't know if you can last another day, and yet you reach out in kindness to a foreign student and reassure him that three years of labor will not be lost with the death of his mentor.
A miracle of grace! That brings us to the fourth thing that this text teaches us about Christian kindness. We have seen the extent of Christian kindness in replacing all bitterness and malice and slander. We have seen the depth of Christian kindness in tenderness of heart. We have seen the pattern of Christian kindness in the forgiveness of God and the love of Christ. Now we look at:
4. The Instrument of Christian Kindness
What do I mean by the "instrument" of Christian kindness? I mean to ask, What is it that we must employ or exert in order to become kind and tenderhearted?
A Passive Verb
The answer is hinted at in the form of the verb in verse 31. Literally it says, "Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander be taken away from you." The verb is passive. This is a hint that the instrument of our kindness is not simply ourselves. If left to ourselves, we will no more be able to get the bitterness and malice out of our heart than we can lift ourselves by our own bootstraps. It doesn't lie within us.
They must BE TAKEN from us. "Let all bitterness . . . BE taken away from you." Someone else is at work here besides us. It is the same thing we saw in verse 23: "BE renewed in the spirit of your mind." (Another passive verb!) There must be a renewing power or person. There must be a power that takes bitterness and malice from my heart and makes me tenderhearted and kind.
The Holy Spirit and Faith
And we know what that power is (who that person is!) because Galatians 5:22 says very plainly, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness . . . " If the Spirit of God does not come into our lives to do a supernatural work, we may be able to spruce up the outward manners of kindness, but the poison within will remain. Of that Paul says, "Let it BE taken away." This is a cry for the work of the Spirit to conquer the old self and clothe us with the new.
But the question is not fully answered. We must still ask, What is the instrument with which I appropriate the power of the Holy Spirit? And the answer is faith. The Spirit flows in the channels of faith. Paul cries out in Galatians 3:2–3, "Did you receive the Spirit by works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun with the Spirit, are you now ending with the flesh?"
And our answer should be a resounding, NO! I am not trying to overcome my bitterness and wrath and anger and clamor and slander and malice in the power of the flesh! I am looking to the Holy Spirit to bear his fruit in my life. How am I looking? What am I doing? I am doing what I did to receive him in the first place: I am believing. I am trusting.
Which leaves one last question: What must I believe, in order to see the Holy Spirit conquer the bitterness and anger and malice of my heart and make me tenderhearted and kind? That is the fifth thing that our text teaches us about Christian kindness.
5. The Source of Christian Kindness
The text tells us what we must believe if the Spirit of God is to conquer unkindness in our hearts. Three things:
- We must believe that Christ died in our place. Verse 2: "Christ loved us and gave himself up for us, a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God." That is simply an awful sentence—that the slaughter of his Son smelled good to God!!! There are in this sentence realities so great and so awful and so wonderful and so devastating that when we believe them, they are the power of God unto sanctification and a great uprooting of unkindness.
- We must believe that God has forgiven all our sins. Verse 32: " . . . forgiving one another as God in Christ forgave you." In order to be kind, you must be forgiven. In order to be kind, you must believe that you are forgiven for all the sins you have ever committed and will ever commit. To know and believe that every slap in God's face has been forgiven freely in Jesus Christ breaks a Christian's heart and makes it lowly and tender and kind.
- Finally, we must believe that we are loved by God. Verse 1: "Be imitators of God, as loved children." As LOVED children! Child of God, you are loved by God! Believe this with all your heart, and you will behold a miracle in your own life—the fruit of the Spirit, the gift of God!
Brothers and sisters in Christ, let us believe these things, and be kind to one another! Amen.