When I first became a Christian, aged 24, I tended to gravitate toward a small number of older Christians at church. To those who had walked with God for more years than I had even been alive. There were certain “saints” (as they were sometimes referred to) that I just loved to be around. Often quiet and unassuming people, they had a certain sparkle in their eyes and – no matter what circumstances they were facing – consistent contentment written across their faces. And here’s another thing they had in common: They were all, without exception, very gentle people. Gentle in speech, in attitude and in their interactions with others.
Today, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of gentleness among believers. And I include myself in that assessment. I can recall far too many times when I’ve spoken harshly to a fellow Christian and immediately wished that I could take back my words and replay them in a different tone. Or where I’ve cast a withering look only to feel instant shame at the hurt reflecting back from the other person’s eyes. Mind you, I’ve been on the receiving end of a few abrasive words and scornful looks myself, not least in my time as a church minister.
Gentleness draws unbelievers to Jesus
So where are all the gentle Christians today? And why is it that many of us don’t display much evidence of this all too scarce spiritual fruit? Important questions for those of us who claim to follow the one who extends this enticing invitation:
“Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-30)
Now some people love to mock and parody “gentle Jesus, meek and mild” and to pour scorn on the very notion of gentleness as a virtue. But being gentle and meek does not equate to being soft and weak – far from it. Just think of Jesus turning over the tables of the money changers in the temple or the strong words he often directed at the Pharisees. No, gentleness is gentle force or power under control. And as Jesus unashamedly proclaims himself to be “gentle and lowly in heart” we can assume this to be a positive, attractive attribute. One that will cause people to want to come and seek him as a resting place for their souls.
Today, of course, Jesus is back in heaven and seated at the right hand of God the Father (Colossians 3:3). This means that it’s now through us, his followers, that gentle Jesus invites people to find rest for their souls. But people need to be convinced that Jesus – the appointed judge of everyone – can also be trusted as God’s gentle, appointed Saviour. And one of the ways they’ll be convinced is as they experience the gentleness of Jesus living in and through me. However, if people regularly witness me speaking (or tweeting) harsh and condemning words or if I frequently come across as judgmental and abrasive – well sadly that’s how they’re likely to perceive Jesus too.
Likewise, if I’m a preacher and teacher of God’s word or seeking to share gospel truth with friends then I need to do so gently. Yes, of course, I should be passionate and persuasive. But remember, it’s not my role to actually convict and convince people of the truth. No that’s a work of the Holy Spirit, who knows exactly what he’s doing and is very effective at doing it.
Gentleness blesses believers
Apart from the importance of our witness to those who don’t know Christ, there’s another good reason we need to cultivate a gentle spirit. Because we have a responsibility to speak and act lovingly toward our brothers and sisters in Christ. So the Apostle Paul urges the church in Philippi (where two key women were in disagreement) to “let your gentleness be evident to all” (Philippians 4:5). And in the practical section of his letter to the Ephesians, the very first outworking of living a life worthy of the calling they’ve received is to “Be completely humble and gentle” (Ephesians 4:2).
Why is this so important in our interactions with one another? Well because when we treat each other with humility and gentleness, we mirror the way that Christ deals with us. If anyone has the right to speak and act strongly, of course, it’s our perfect Lord. And yet he doesn’t do that with us. He’s consistently gentle.
This is one of the main reasons why I was drawn to those older Christians in my early days of faith. Because they would often have a word of exhortation or warning for me before or after a Sunday service, but it would always be conveyed gently and with humility. And it was as if Christ were actually gently ministering his word to me through them, which of course he was.
Gentleness is in the mind
How, then, can we become more gentle in practice? Well surely it begins in the mind. We need an attitude that says, ‘I am absolutely nothing apart from the gentleness and grace of God shown to me.’ If I think I’m something special or that somehow I deserve or have earned my salvation – even just a little – then sooner or later my self-righteousness will likely manifest itself in rather ugly ways. Through harsh and judgmental thoughts, actions or words directed toward others. To guard against this, we should pray that we’ll be transformed by the renewing of our minds, as we meditate perhaps on the humility of Christ (Philippians 2:1-11).
Fortunately, though, it’s not all in the mind. Jesus doesn’t just ask us to try harder to be gentle, or to exert all our mental faculties in thinking humble, gentle thoughts. Not at all. If we belong to Christ, then we have the “Spirit of Christ” living in us (Romans 8:9). And the fruit of the Spirit of Christ is, unsurprisingly perhaps, the gentleness of Christ (Galatians 5:23). So each day, we can also pray and ask that the Spirit of Christ would empower us to be supernaturally humble and gentle.
As an example, before I preach or teach the Bible one of my regular prayers goes something like this: “Lord, as I speak on your behalf today, please empower me to be completely humble and gentle. And please let my gentleness be evident to everyone, so that people are drawn to you.”
Finally, though, a word of warning. If you do ask God to teach and enable you to be gentle, don’t be surprised if he starts bringing across your path people who will drive you to distraction and despair. Or those who are anything but gentle themselves (and yes, I am speaking from personal experience!) Because being gentle around other gentle people may not prove too difficult. But learning to do so in the face of pride, harshness, arrogance or critical words – well that’s where the real fruit will grow.