Kindness is meant to be one of Christianity’s most attractive and observable characteristics. As the Apostle Paul put it in Colossians 3:12:
As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.
Paul could have simply said, "Be kind." He instead chose the evocative language of clothing ourselves, which tells us that our kindness toward others should be as instantly observable as the very clothes we wear.
In the early centuries of Christianity, the Church faced ongoing cultural antagonism and occasional state-sponsored persecution. There were many obstacles to the Church’s growth. In spite of that, it grew like wildfire. Why?
How could Christianity spread so virally in such a challenging social and political climate? We believe that the Holy Spirit was driving the growth of the Church (Acts 1:8; 9:31; 1 Cor. 3:6), but what initially drew people to Christianity in such astounding numbers? We have ancient evidence outside of the Bible that tells us part of the answer.
A few centuries after Christ, an anti-Christian Roman Emperor named Julian wrote about why so many people were flocking to Christianity. Julian was raised in the Christian faith but turned away from it as an adult. When he became emperor, he worked to resuscitate the historic Greco-Roman religion that his ancestors had practiced. Julian did not like the growing influence of Christianity, especially within governmental circles.
In one of Julian’s letters, we find a remarkable statement on Christian kindness. Though Julian was antagonistic toward Christianity, he acknowledged how powerful Christian influence was on the populace. He could see that the public viewed Christian leaders with admiration. Julian wanted pagan priests to embrace a similar outlook so that people might be won back over to paganism.
In a letter to the pagan high-priest of Galatia, Julian speaks about Christians (whom he snidely calls 'atheists' and 'Galileans'):
Why do we not observe that it is their benevolence to strangers, their care for the graves of the dead, and the pretended holiness of their lives that have done the most to increase atheism? I believe that we ought really and truly to practice every one of these virtues. And it is not enough for you alone to practice them, but so must all the priests in Galatia, without exception. . . it is disgraceful that, when no Jew ever has to beg and the impious Galileans support not only their own poor but ours as well, all men should see how our people lack aid from us. Teach those of the Hellenic faith to contribute public service of this sort ... -Julian, Letter to Arsacius, High Priest of Galatia, ca. 362 AD. (Ramsay MacMullen and Eugene Lane, Eds. Paganism and Christianity: 100-425 CE, Fortress Press, 1992).
How extraordinary that an opponent of Christianity would so openly concede the positive reputation of Christian leaders and the value of their benevolent influence!
Julian's ancient letter challenges us to think critically about the nature of our influence in 2018. What would it look like for Christians to live in such a way that even our most enthusiastic detractors would aspire to follow our example?
How would the world change if Christians had such a widely-acknowledged reputation for kindness and compassion, as they did in Julian’s time? What would it look like for the Church to truly live out Paul's words and clothe ourselves with kindness? How would our families, friendships, and communities change?
What do you think?
*Portions of this post adapted from my book, Paul and His Team (Moody Publishers)