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.
The Extent of Christian Kindness
How much kindness should we show? 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?
"Be angry but do not sin." "Be slow to anger." 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? 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 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.