The power of gentleness
Like kindness, gentleness is one of those qualities we admire but don’t really want. As Coco Chanel once said: “Gentleness doesn’t get work done unless you happen to be a hen laying eggs.”
It may be good to be gentle if you are going to be a nurse or a counsellor, but what about as a barrister or a business owner? It’s toughness that gets things done. It’s aggression that triumphs.
God is utterly powerful, and yet treats us gently.
We think that to be gentle is nice, but to be nice is insipid, and to be insipid is to be weak. It’s forgettable, and maybe even a bit dull – at least the way we think of it. And this picture of gentleness is unappealing. Weakness is not virtuous. A person may be nice, but that niceness may come from fear. And that fear may mean that they do not possess the fortitude to stand up for what’s right.
Neither does this picture of gentleness have any passion in it. Does the person who is gentle, we worry, care about anything important? Where is their zeal for justice or for the truth? We prize righteous anger above all. What’s gentleness got to do with that?
But gentleness is not the opposite of strength or passion. The truly gentle person is the person who is strong, but who treats the weak and vulnerable with care and protection. The gentle person does not break the fragile.
Which is exactly what God is like. He is utterly powerful, and yet treats us gently.
This is the God who lit the fires that burn the stars. This is the God from whom come the great forces of gravity and nuclear fission. The forces of nature, which we cannot control – tsunami, cyclone, earthquake, fire – are only glimpses of his sheer power.
In Job 26, Job says:
He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.
He wraps up the waters in his clouds, yet the clouds do not burst under their weight.
He covers the face of the full moon, spreading his clouds over it.
He marks out the horizon on the face of the waters for a boundary between light and darkness.
The pillars of the heavens quake, aghast at his rebuke.
By his power he churned up the sea; by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces.
By his breath the skies became fair; his hand pierced the gliding serpent.
And these are but the outer fringe of his works; how faint the whisper we hear of him!
Who then can understand the thunder of his power?
But … it’s precisely because of this power that God shows us what gentleness is. When he deals with his creatures, he restrains his power. He does not crush us. Rather, he stoops tenderly to help us.
In Psalm 18 we hear: You make your saving help my shield, and your right hand sustains me; your help has made me great.
In Isaiah 40:11 we hear: He tends his flock like a shepherd: he gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young.
The shepherd is a great biblical image for God’s gentleness – it combines tenderness and toughness at once.
From the Bible we learn that God is gentle with us as his creatures in providing the resources of the earth for our needs.
He is also gentle with us when we stray from him, seeking to woo us back to him.
Though our brains are too daft to understand him, he speaks to us in words that we can understand – as John Calvin once put it, he’s like a nanny speaking baby-talk to us.
God is very much like Maggie, my Cocker Spaniel. Maggie once brought us a bird, a rainbow lorikeet, alive. Now, Maggie has dog jaws and an appetite to match. But it’s a feature of her breed that she can pick up a bird and carry it to you without crushing a single tiny bone. So, this terrified bird was carried to safety in a mouth full of teeth that could have killed it in a second.
That’s a great image of God’s gentleness. As Isaiah says: A bruised reed he will not break, and a smouldering wick he will not snuff out.
And in Jesus we see this gentleness in human form. More than any other character in history, Jesus was a picture of gentle strength, of humble power.
These are his words in Matthew 11: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.
Gentleness is when the stronger restrain their strength for the sake of the weaker.
To follow Jesus is not to be enslaved to an abusive tyrant but to find rest for your soul. This is the Lord who carries our burdens on his back – who bears our sins in his body on the tree. He does not treat us as we deserve, but as we need, when we come to him.
But notice that this mild Jesus is not weak, and he is not without passion. He cares for his Father’s holiness so much that he overturns the tables in the temple. His inner resolve is to do God’s will, resisting temptation and overcoming the trials put before him. Toughness and controlled anger in a just cause are not the opposite of gentleness.
We see in Jesus a deeper definition of gentleness. Gentleness is when the stronger restrain their strength for the sake of the weaker.
The Holy Spirit wants us to cultivate this fruit of gentleness in our lives. Not only does Paul list it as a fruit of the Spirit, but Jesus says pretty much the same thing when he says “Blessed are the meek.” And Paul tells us in Philippians: “Let your gentleness be known to all.”
So: are you a truly gentle person? Where you have power, do you exercise it with gentleness?
Now remember, gentleness is not weakness. We can be fooled into thinking that because we are conflict-avoidant or passive that we are gentle. And I guess that is my own personal temptation – to sanctify my weakness as gentleness, when it is really just cowardice. No: I have to tell myself that true gentleness comes from finding our source of strength and confidence in the gentle Christ. If I’m to grow in gentleness, then it will take me to grow in the realisation of how tenderly and humbly I’ve been treated by God himself. That always has to be the starting place.
In particular, Christ-like gentleness is a great challenge to men and what we feel a true man should be like. Of course, gentleness is for both sexes. But we tend to expect men to display toughness and strength, and to think of gentleness as unmanly. We celebrate the strength of men, but then we are appalled by the unrestrained abuse of that strength, especially but not only against women.
To be gentle is not to hold off on the truth.
The manners of a past generation, which we now see as quaint, taught men to step back and make space for others. They taught us not to abuse our natural physical advantage or our social privilege. They taught us to control ourselves. They were a habit that taught us an attitude. For whatever reason, we’ve lost that habit, and we’ve lost that attitude. Men, rightly or wrongly people are afraid of us – of our power, our anger and of our violence.
But Christian men – men who know the gentleness of Christ – ought to be at the forefront of a new kind of masculinity. We ought to be marked by a courageous humility, grounded in the knowledge that we are deeply loved by our heavenly Father.
The Bible also advises us to use gentleness when we deal with complex human relationships. Proverbs tells us that “a gentle answer turns away anger.” The response of escalation when someone else is angry almost never works. The anger of another person can be very frightening, but the safety of standing in Christ gives us the space for gentleness. The Bible also helps us when we need to offer someone correction. When someone has erred, we are to correct them not with cruelty or by shaming them, but with gentleness, so that they will be restored.
Gentleness is also our communications strategy for sharing Christ. “Let your gentleness be known to all,” says Paul. Peter tells us to answer questions with “gentleness and reverence.” We are often worried that sharing Christ will look arrogant and judgmental. But that is nothing like the missionary strategy of the Bible. How could we present Jesus with haughtiness and cruelty?
To be gentle is not to hold off on the truth. We can’t conceal from people the devastating reality of sin and the coming judgment of God. But we can’t do so from a position of superiority. We share Christ, after all, because we want people to know his peace and his love as we do. The gospel is the good news of God’s gentle mercy.
Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Darling Point, Sydney, and the author of several books.