Words to Live By: Gentleness

My wife can get practically anyone to talk to her. Give her five minutes with the most tightlipped person and she will have them telling their life story. I’ve watched do this over and over as a dietitian, as worship leader, in her family, wherever. Sometimes it almost seems like magic the way she does it but it’s really quite simple. First, she makes room for them to talk by asking leading questions. These are questions like, “Tell me about your favorite worship moment” or “What was it like growing up where you did?” Second, she listens, really listens. She is not looking to answer the other person, not waiting to talk, but honestly focused on the words the other person is saying. And the most important thing she does is practice this with a gentle spirit. Her attitude and spirit speak to the moment and let the other person know they are in a safe place, safe enough to let down their guard and share the things they need to share. I would call Heather’s posture and presence that of gentleness, or an open, safe spirit.

Often, we hear the word gentleness (or its common biblical synonym meekness) and associate it with a sense of weakness, of someone who is not strong enough or brave enough to protect themselves and those around them. This of course is nonsense. Gentleness, especially in the chaos we are often called to exhibit it in, requires us to still the complex and turbulent emotions we feel and take an attitude of peaceful coexistence with the moment and those we share it with. One writer said, “Those of us who find ourselves in positions of influence and privilege face a pressing calling: to be humble and gentle toward others.”[1] Gentleness then, requires greater strength of character than letting your emotions rule you. 

We tend to think of gentleness as a weak or fragile thing. But as a virtue it arises from strength, from strong people who choose to honor the sacredness of their relationships. The gentle don’t find their strength in the ways society has privileged them, nor in the success of their pursuits on the many fields of competition. Among Christians the gentle find their strength in their identity as people created in the image of God, people whom Jesus Christ was dying to love.[2]

Gentleness in the Christian understanding is a fruit of the Spirit as Paul points out in Galatians 5 and other places. Paul encourages the Philippians to, “Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near.”[3] Jesus names it among the Beatitudes in Matthew 5 as the attitude that leads to “being content with just who you are—no more, no less. That’s the moment you find yourselves proud owners of everything that can’t be bought,”[4] a definition of meekness/gentleness. One writer expressed it this way, defining three steps leading toward gentleness,

One, he suggests that we alter our posture through prayer, which is “the seed of gentleness and the absence of anger.” Kenneson suggests that we kneel, as those aware we’re in God’s presence…Secondly, we should learn to yield. Paul appeals to his readers in Corinth “by the gentleness and meekness of Christ” (2 Corinthians 10:1)…Three…spend time intentionally with those whom the world considers of no account. Like Jesus’ dinner party in Luke 14: 12-14, we too should invite into our lives those who cannot reciprocate. The church not only teaches these practices. She gives us abundant opportunity to learn them by the simple practice of regularly gathering us with sinners like us. Gentleness, like the other virtues, is a communal practice on the way to becoming a sort of second nature.[5]

I think we often think of gentleness as weak because pf the world we live in. Intense factionalism and demonizing partisanship don’t demonstrate an aspiration to gentleness. It strikes me that we act this way out of fear. We’re afraid we think about the “them” who are to blame for our problems and there is no gentleness to be offered to the enemy. In fact, the last thing the world system expects us to show is gentleness in dealing with an enemy.[6]

But this is the opposite of how we are called to treat our enemy and everyone else for that matter. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus says, 

“You have heard that it was said, you must love your neighbor and hate your enemy. But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who harass you so that you will be acting as children of your Father who is in heaven. He makes the sun rise on both the evil and the good and sends rain on both the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love only those who love you, what reward do you have? Don’t even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing? Don’t even the Gentiles do the same? Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete.[7]

Jesus teaching here is clear. Love, the culmination of a gentle spirit, must be offered to all. Under no circumstance is someone, enemy or not, to be treated with anything less than the explicit invitation to be a part of the Jesus Way and given the support and encouragement to learn to live into it. 

While all of these are wonderful ways and means of expressing the idea, gentleness, I believe is something felt and experienced as we engage with and are changed by the Holy Spirit. It requires a change of heart and mind to come to a place of being gentle in Spirit. That change is not something we do alone, but something we are led to do by our engagement with the Holy Spirit. As we open ourselves to the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, we open ourselves to becoming people who bear the mark of the Spirit’s gentleness and can express the gentleness we have experienced to those around us. 

This, like most everything else in the Christian life, requires a choice on our part. We have to choose to be open to the Spirit. We have to choose to respond to the leading and teaching of gentleness. We have to choose to live into what we learn from the Spirit teaching us the Way of Jesus, through the experiences of faith passed down to us (scripture, reason, tradition, and personal experience). The question is not can we or are we able but will we. Will we choose to be people of gentleness, of meekness, of “being content with just who you are” as a disciple of Jesus?

[1] Barnes, M Craig. “Choosing Gentleness.” The Christian Century 134, no. 25 (December 6, 2017): 35.

[2] ibid

[3] Philippians 4:5

[4] Matthew 5:5 MSB

[5] Byassee, Jason. “Gentleness Rules.” Journal for Preachers 39, no. 4 (Pentecost 2016): 49–54.

[6] Barnes, M Craig. “Choosing Gentleness.” The Christian Century 134, no. 25 (December 6, 2017): 35.

[7] Matthew 5:43-48