In years past, my wife and I spent a lot of time visiting her Uncle Chuck and Aunt Betty. Betty likes antiques, so in the bathroom of their guest suite, there is a beautiful chrome vintage scale, clearly designed by the same people who designed the ’57 Chevy.
If you weigh yourself on the scale, you will discover a pleasant surprise. Even though you have been on vacation, ingesting vast quantities of paper-wrapper fried-food garbage, the scale will inform you that you have actually LOST weight since you left home. Down three pounds, down four pounds, maybe even down five pounds!
Sadly, when you return home, the truth will emerge. You have not actually lost weight; indeed, quite the opposite is true. The scale in Chuck and Betty’s guest bathroom is a lying scale. They keep it around for looks, and possibly for the momentary pleasure it brings their guests.I couldn’t help but be reminded of the scale a couple weeks back when I encountered a quotation from the book/movie Wonder. “If you have a choice between being right and being kind,” it proclaims, “choose kind.” Well, yes, at least to a certain extent. After all, knowledge puffs up, but love builds up.
However, as moral polestars go, kindness by itself is incomplete. Chuck and Betty’s scale is a kind scale. It certainly isn’t a right scale! However, even though all of us could choose to purchase scales that consistently underrate our weight by five pounds (and maybe even consistently tell us that we’re losing weight), none of us do so. We prefer the painful truth to a pleasant lie. We may even recognize that constantly feeding ourselves a pleasant lie isn’t good for us.
This being so, pitting correctness against kindness has a certain postmodern ring to it. Being kind is always better than being right if and only if no one is actually right. If there is no absolute truth, inflicting your subjective (and unkind) truth on somebody else is obviously a poor second to being nice to them. However, if absolute truth exists, somebody’s about to go smash on it, and there is no nice way to warn them, you probably should warn them anyway.
Obviously, the above example has some flaws to it. “Sternly warning somebody about danger is the kind thing to do!”, someone will object. However, the objection only reveals the flaw with the kindness v. correctness dichotomy in the first place. It is possible to be both right and kind, just as it is possible to be neither, because (outside of our societal postmodernism) rightness and kindness aren’t actually opposed.
Instead, a much more powerful and useful distinction appears in Scripture, in the distinction between seeking the good of the other versus seeking the good of the self. In 1 Corinthians 10:33, Paul says, “I try to please everyone in everything, not seeking my own advantage, but that of many, that they may be saved.”
Here, I think, is the true ethical test. In saying/doing this, whose advantage am I seeking, mine or somebody else’s? Selfishness, not rightness or kindness, is the true problem, and it does not map evenly against either.
It’s certainly possible to be selfishly right. All of us can think of examples. However, it is equally possible to be selfishly kind. The lying husband who says to his wife, “No, honey; that dress doesn’t make you look fat!” will probably justify his lie on the basis of kindness.
Sadly, this “kindness” won’t benefit his wife. After all, she is the one who will go out in public in an unflattering dress, easy prey for the catty comments of others, both openly and behind her back. She won’t make the impression she wanted to make. Instead, the beneficiary of the lie is the husband. Even though his wife will suffer, he has avoided a tense and unpleasant conversation, and sparing himself pain was his true objective all along.
In many ways, our society exalts selfish kindness. Even though I know the truth that will save the souls of the lost, I shouldn’t tell them about it. How dare I suggest that my neighbor is in sin! It’s rude. It’s unpleasant. It’s unkind. Instead, I should mind my own business, regardless of the disaster that will inevitably ensue.
If we follow this path, we won’t have any trouble exalting the idol of kindness above Christ. That’s a path that our society finds congenial, but it isn’t a good path, either for us or for anybody else. Only if we put others ahead of ourselves, regardless of the cost to them or to us, do we reveal ourselves as His disciples.