Gentleness is not much of a cultural value. Our world, much like the culture of Greece and Rome during the time of Paul, believes in power and authority. Machismo culture defines masculinity, in particular, as the right and power to take what you want, dominance and strength are the governing principles. This, sadly, has come to color even leadership in the Christian community. Many pastors are regularly called out for their autocratic style of leadership and their controlling tendencies (see examples here and here). Often our struggle with this value is due to misunderstanding of it. When we consider carefully the gentility of Jesus we can better appreciate this fruit of the Spirit.
Gentleness is a “sensitivity in disposition and kindness in behavior” (Baker Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology). It means to approach others with sensitivity and compassion. It means, as Christopher Wright says, “being very aware that the other person is a human being with feelings too” (Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, 127). It is to speak and act in ways that honor the humanity, worth, and emotions of others. Jesus models this for us, even when He speaks the truth firmly.
Jesus was gentle. If the language of “meek and mild” has bothered some it is largely because we believed such words reflect pusillanimity. Jesus, however, was not a wimp, nor a coward. He could speak with boldness and firmness. He could drive out the money changers with a whip. Yet, he is not most known for such acts. One of the defining attributes of Jesus in the gospels is His gentleness. He even describes Himself this way:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. (Matt. 11:28-29)
Jesus says He is “gentle,” and such a description becomes an invitation to come to Him. Within this context Jesus contrasts His discipleship with that of the Israelite religious leaders. The Pharisees and scribes had made the law of God a heavy weight that drug people down (Matt. 23:4), but Jesus doesn’t do that. His “yoke is easy” and his “burden is light” (11:30). In following Jesus, the means to a right fellowship with God was not some cumbersome and oppressive list of rules. Jesus’ gentleness introduced a way to God that was free from that Old Covenant yoke: namely His own death and resurrection.
Christopher Wright walks through several other examples of the gentleness of Jesus which highlight this fruit for us. Jesus, for example, displays His gentleness in interacting with the Samaritan woman. Within the account of this interaction in John 4 we read of Jesus strong confrontation of the woman. He is direct in critiquing her infidelity (v. 16-18), and her theology (v. 22). Yet, for all of this his gentleness is evident in the very fact that this conversation takes place at all. For Jesus to speak to a woman, alone, in Samaria was shocking (v. 27). Respectable men, especially religious teachers, did not do such things. The woman even expressly states that Jesus shouldn’t be talking to her (v. 9). Add to that the conclusion that this woman is most likely of ill-repute. She has had multiple husbands, and the man she is now with is not her husband, and she has come to the well in the middle of the day because she is likely not permitted to socialize with the other women who go first thing in the morning. Jesus, however, comes to her in love and kindness. He offers her hope and salvation. In fact, He is so gentle with her that in this instance He reveals Himself clearly to her as the Messiah (v. 25-26). It is one of the most rare self-disclosures in all of Scripture. When we consider the nature of this woman, her social status, her immorality we ought to marvel that Jesus chose to reveal Himself most fully to her. Gentleness abounded in this interaction. It was a heart of kindness displayed towards her.
In another example Wright explores the restoration of Peter. Peter’s own denial of Christ was dramatic and damning. He denied Christ not once, but three times. So, it is with amazing sensitivity and intentionality that Jesus, after His resurrection, asks Peter three times “Do you love me” (John 21:15-17). Jesus is giving Peter the chance to make it right; one question for each denial. What gentleness is displayed in this restoration. Wright comments:
Jesus did not rebuke Peter, or shame him in the presence of the other disciples…So Peter the failure became Peter the forgiven – through the gentleness of Jesus. And judging from the Peter we next meet in the book of Acts on the day of Pentecost and beyond, that gentle restoration by Jesus was effective. Peter himself would have been a man of gentleness and humility after that, for sure. (138)
How often Jesus could have been more harsh in His rebuke and confrontation, yet more frequently He is gentle and patient. In fact His general demeanor was so inviting to sinners that they flocked to Him. It was His invitation to “come” and find rest for your souls.
This is our model. Jesus is God and yet He displays such gentleness in His interactions with sinners. He could have called “down legions of angels” when He was arrested (Matt. 26:53), but He didn’t. He could have rebuked those falsely accusing Him in the mock trial, but He remained silent (Matt. 26:63). And when He was being crucified He prayed, “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:34). His gentleness becomes the model for us (1 Pet. 2:20-23).
Jesus is both tough and gentle. He is loving and firm. We see that in myriads of interactions and across the whole of Christ’s life. We see it modeled in His followers. So, Paul has firm words to share with the Corinthians, but he appeals to them, he says, ” by the meekness and gentleness of Christ” (2 Cor. 10:1). As we interact with fellow sinners, we too are told to do so with gentleness. We are to restore them in a spirit of gentleness (Gal. 6:1), and instruct opponents with gentleness (2 Tim. 2:24-25). We are to defend our faith with gentleness (1 Pet. 3:15). Gentleness ought to mark the life of the follower of Christ because it marked the life of Christ himself.
Such an expectation of the fruit of gentleness in the life of the believer ought to give us some pause. Does this mark us generally? Wright asks:
Is this characteristic of the way Christians engage in evangelistic encounters? And when you think of the way Christians in your culture respond to criticism or challenge or persecution or mockery, would you put gentleness and respect high up on the list of the ways they speak and behave? (140)
There are plenty of times where I think the answer is an obvious “No”. What can we do, then, to cultivate this fruit in our own lives? I think we ought to start, as we have here, with meditating on the character of our Lord Jesus, who identifies Himself as “gentle and lowly in heart.” The God of the universe displays gentleness towards us. The One who has infinite power, right, and authority is patient, kind, and compassionate towards sinners. How dare we think we deserve to respond differently? We who are sinful, weak, pathetic, and imperfect have no right to be anything less than gentle with fellow sinners. In conjunction with this line of thinking, we ought to strive towards humility. As we understand ourselves rightly we can live rightly. “Out of that deep well of self-knowledge,” says Wright, “and gratitude for the grace of God that has rescued you from your own sin and failure, comes humility before God and gentleness towards others” (141). As Christ has been gentle with me, so I can and should be gentle with others. This fruit of the Spirit deserves far more praise than it often receives. It deserves more emulation too.