Galatians 5:22-23; Matthew 5:5; 11:28-30
As we have studied the Fruits of the Spirit I’ve noticed an interesting dynamic that takes place. Each one of these – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control – is a quality that we would like to have in our lives, certainly. As I have worked on each one individually I noticed that certain people come to mind. Thinking of love, certain people came to my mind as I worked. Working on joy, certain people immediately came to mind as great representatives of joy, and so on.
This morning we come to gentleness. I would like for you to take note of who comes to mind when you think of gentleness. Just let the person or person pop into your mind.
People come in all varieties. There are those who are possessed of very strong personalities, who dominate their surroundings and conversations. Then there are those who are gentle – not weak – but gentle. They exude such a sense of gentleness that after a few moments in their presence you notice that you feel more relaxed and at ease.
Gentleness may be one of the most misunderstood of words. Many people think of gentleness as being weak, timid, or passive. This is not the biblical understanding of gentleness.
In fact, the Bible tells us in Numbers 12:3 Moses was a very gentle man, more gentle than anyone else on the face of the earth). I don’t know about you, but I have never thought of Moses as being gentle. My image of Moses has always been of a very strong, no-nonsense, type of leader. After all, it does take a great deal of boldness to confront the Pharaoh of Egypt and demand, let my people go. Moses did not lead his people to freedom by using gentleness. When Moses came down from Mt. Sinai and found the people had fashioned a golden calf to worship, he did not react in a spirit of gentleness. His anger flared when he saw what was taking place.
In Matthew 11:29 Jesus refers to himself as being gentle – Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart. I imagine that Jesus was, very often, a gentle type of person. But he wasn’t all the time, was he? When he cleansed the Temple that wasn’t gentle. In John’s gospel, in fact, we read that Jesus made a whip out of cords, and drove all from the temple area (John 2:15). That image of Jesus fashioning a whip is a very deliberate kind of image. It wasn’t a spur of the moment decision, but one Jesus makes after witnessing all that was taking place, and he has to go and gather the materials needed to make a whip, and all the time you can imagine the indignation arising within him. Does that give an image of gentleness? Not to me.
The great philosopher Aristotle defined gentleness as the person who is angry at the right time and never at the wrong time. I like that description. It certainly is descriptive of Jesus.
I want to provide three definitions of gentleness this morning. Gentleness actually comes from one of the most difficult words in the Bible to translate, because it carries a broad scope of meanings. I want to use three of those meanings to give us the core descriptions of gentleness.*
1. The first meaning is being submissive to the will of God.
This is the idea of gentleness – or meekness – that we find in the Beatitudes – blessed are the gentle, for they will inherit the earth.
It’s not the Donald Trumps of the world who are ultimately the ones who are in control of the world. What the Scriptures often teach is a reversal of what we see in the world around us – the last shall be first, and the first will be last (Matthew 20:16) and whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant (Matthew 20:26). This reversal of the norm is a reminder that while the world is operating in a particular way, it’s not the way it was meant to operate. The kingdom of God operates very differently, and the kingdom of God will eventually be established, and those who are submissive to the will of God are the ones who will help bring about the kingdom, because it doesn’t come about by force, but by gentleness, the living example of how we are meant to live.
One of the most common fears I hear people express is their anxiety about the condition of the world, and their perception that things are getting consistently worse, that we are moving away from God, and that we are heading down a road toward destruction. We are, in the opinion of many, headed southerly, in a handbasket, and very quickly.
I don’t believe that to be true.
For one, the world has always been a mess, and it has been a bigger mess that the one that we currently see. But faith tells me that God’s kingdom will eventually be established, and I believe we are moving that direction, even if it doesn’t appear to be so. I think the connectivity of our world magnifies the perception of how bad our world is, but God is doing a lot of work in the world, and I believe he is moving it in the direction he desires it to move. It may not always appear to be so, but I believe that is true.
This is where the idea of gentleness seems a bit contradictory in Moses and Jesus. There are people placed in history by God, I believe, who really push his cause forward in a major way. Moses was certainly one. As was Abraham, David, and Paul. Jesus was the pinnacle, certainly. In our own age we continue to see those who operate in such a prophetic way to demonstrate the justice and healing God desires to bring to the world. I would place C. S. Lewis, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mother Teresa in the category of those who have moved us forward in our day as people who sought the justice of God, such as Martin Luther King; C. S. Lewis brought the truth of God to so many people by his great gift for writing; and Mother Teresa embodied the call to service.
It’s not easy to be submissive to the will of God, but it is part of the call to being gentle.
2. The second meaning is being teachable.
James 1:21 says that we ought to accept the word that is planted in you. I believe that is speaking about an investment of teaching in our lives.
If you think about the ministry of Jesus, what did he spend most of his time doing? Teaching his followers. It’s not just our age that recognizes the value of learning; Jesus was a supreme model of the importance of teaching and learning.
As you read through the gospels you can find examples of Jesus taking advantage of opportunities to teach his disciples.
Wherever Jesus traveled he would teach his disciples. Everything became a learning opportunity. When he was seated by a well and spoke with a Samaritan woman; when people brought their children to Jesus and the disciples complained, that became a teaching opportunity; when the storm came upon the sea; over and over we find examples of the way in which Jesus was constantly teaching his disciples.
It’s hard to make it in today’s world if you don’t seek out an education. And it doesn’t end when you are done with school; the need for continuing education is imperative. Faith is no different, but we can become lax in our learning; we can become lax in our seeking opportunities to learn more about the Scriptures and theology.
3. The third meaning is being considerate.
I am not very in touch with popular culture these days. I watched about two minutes of the VMA awards last week, and part of those two minutes happened to be Miley Cyrus. Can I just skip the obvious commentary about that moment? I am out of touch with popular culture because so much of it is coarse, crass, and rude, and it seems that the culture-shapers – those who create reality television, etc. – want to lift up that kind of behavior, but I don’t believe that is most people. Putting something on TV and in other forms of communication falsely magnifies the importance and significance of certain behaviors. It is not the norm, I don’t think, and it is not the way most people live and behave.
Gentleness is a way of life that treats other people with kindness, consideration, decency, and respect.
Proverbs 15:1 tells us that a gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Just because someone else is harsh and abrasive, doesn’t mean it’s required for me to be harsh and abrasive. Ephesians 4:2 says that we should be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love. Just because someone else is not gentle or patient with others, doesn’t mean I should forsake those important qualities.
One of the interesting stories from history has to do with Attila the Hun. In the 5th century he was storming through toward Rome. Nothing and no one had succeeded in stopping him. If Rome fell, all of Western society would fall. As he prepared to march on Rome, Pope Leo the Great ventured out to meet him. There was one man, in front of the army that conquered all resistance as it marched across the world. One man who came to stand in front of this great army, and the army turned back.
(A Short History of Byzantium, John Julius Norwich, page 49).
History does not give us all the details of that encounter, but one person comes out to this mighty army and they turn away. It couldn’t have been might that convinced Attila to turn away. I believe it is the power of gentleness, of a person who is willing to confront the great might of the world with a far greater power.
*William Barclay, editor of the Daily Study Bible Series was helpful in providing insight into the various ways of translating the word for gentleness.