By Doug Redford
Watch a mother dry the tears of a child who’s fallen while playing outside. Witness a father mending a broken toy for a son or daughter. Consider a surgeon as he or she goes about the task of repairing a broken bone. In each case gentleness is at work—quiet but effective.
The quality of gentleness found within the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:23) is one desperately needed in a world badly broken by the curse of sin. At times, however, the church has not maintained a reputation for being gentle. In an understandable effort to stand for the truth of Scripture, followers of Jesus have not always balanced grace and truth as their Master was able to do (John 1:17). Sometimes gentleness has been seen as a liability rather than an asset and perhaps does not seem fitting in the context of waging spiritual warfare (Ephesians 6:12). In certain instances, neither Jesus nor his followers appear very gentle at all. Was Jesus being gentle when he drove the money changers from the temple? How gentle was Paul when he recommended that the sinful man in Corinth be turned over to Satan or when he refused to accept John Mark’s presence on a missionary trip?
We commit a serious error when we equate gentleness with weakness. All one has to do to counter such thinking is to read Proverbs 25:15: “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.” This should not lead us to think of gentleness as a way to get what we want or get even with someone; rather, it should open our eyes to the quiet power that gentleness possesses. An overview of what the Bible has to say about gentleness and how it should be exercised can help us appreciate what an important part of the fruit of the Spirit this quality is.
Occasionally the idea of Jesus as gentle is treated with skepticism and is linked to certain pictorial depictions of Jesus that do not portray him in the more “manly” way some prefer. But physical representations aside, the gentleness of Jesus was clearly a quality that made him appealing to the masses in his day. Isaiah described the Messiah as one who “tends his flock like a shepherd” and “gathers the lambs in his arms and carries them close to his heart; he gently leads those that have young” (Isaiah 40:11).
The Scripture that perhaps best conveys the gentleness of Jesus is one that does not even use the word gentle. Instead it gives a very compelling word picture, again through the words of the prophet Isaiah. Matthew 12:17-21 includes the quotation of this passage and marks its fulfillment in Jesus: “Here is my servant whom I have chosen, . . . He will not quarrel or cry out; no one will hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out, till he has brought justice through to victory” (vv. 18-20, quoted from Isaiah 42:1-4). The terms “bruised reed” and “smoldering wick” describe people who are “damaged goods”—broken and hurting because of the effects of sin’s curse. Jesus did not come to add to their sense of guilt or brokenness but to bring healing and restoration by handling with care such people.
Numerous examples of Jesus’ gentle spirit toward such as these are found within the Gospels: the Samaritan woman at the well, the woman caught in adultery, Zacchaeus the tax collector, and the thief on the cross are just a few. Such individuals were already aware of the contempt in which they were held, particularly (and tragically) by the religious leaders of the day. This leads one to consider those times when Jesus’ gentleness was not quite so apparent. Those were the occasions when he confronted these same religious leaders with their hypocrisy. These men (the Pharisees, Sadducees, and teachers of the law) were also broken, but they had no personal recognition of that fact. In their minds they had it all together; everyone else was broken. Jesus reserved some of his harshest language for such people (read Matthew 23). But the overall tone and trademark of his ministry was someone “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29).
Gentleness in Church Leadership
Within the New Testament epistles, gentleness is set forth as a key ingredient of leadership in the Lord’s church. This is only fitting for those who would be shepherds of God’s flock; they must imitate the good shepherd himself. In describing his ministry among the Thessalonians, Paul testified as follows: “as apostles of Christ we might have asserted our authority. But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mother tenderly cares for her own children” (1 Thessalonians 2:6, 7, New American Standard Bible). The transforming power of the gospel was evident in the life of this onetime murderer of Christians, who was able to demonstrate the gentle care of a mother.
When we read Paul’s instructions to his spiritual son Timothy, the emphasis on gentleness in a leader’s character is evident. One of the qualities of an elder is gentleness, which is placed just before “not quarrelsome” in 1 Timothy 3:3. Timothy himself was later commanded as a man of God to “pursue” gentleness (6:11). It is noteworthy that this command came immediately before Paul urged Timothy to “fight the good fight of the faith” (v. 12). Fighting the fight does not imply a belligerent, combative attitude. And in Paul’s second letter to Timothy, the apostle instructed Timothy not to encourage or become involved with quarrels. Timothy was indeed the Lord’s servant (2 Timothy 2:24), but that did not give him license to run roughshod over his opponents or critics. No, he “must not be quarrelsome”; and “opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth” (v. 25).
Gentleness in Other Circumstances
Elsewhere the Scriptures link gentleness to other situations (some rather delicate) that Christians may encounter. Peter encouraged gentleness from wives whose husbands are not believers. The inner beauty of the “gentle and quiet spirit” is a part of the “purity and reverence” that demonstrates Christ’s presence in the wife’s conduct (1 Peter 3:1-4).
Peter also highlighted gentleness as an important tool in evangelism. Those who defend their faith and present a reason for the hope they possess should do so “with gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15). Evangelism is not a matter of winning arguments; evangelism is the manifestation of a winsome spirit that will hopefully keep the lines of communication open, even if an evangelistic attempt with someone is unsuccessful.
Another circumstance requiring gentleness is the restoration of a fallen brother or sister. In Galatians 6:1, Paul wrote, “Brothers and sisters, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently. But watch yourselves, or you also may be tempted.” This reference in Galatians is noteworthy, because elsewhere in this letter Paul appeared to be anything but gentle in some of his language and his actions (1:8, 9; 2:11-14; 3:1; 5:12). With each of these references, one must apply the observation made earlier concerning Jesus’ apparent lack of gentleness in some instances. When Paul was confronting the issue of false teaching and exposing those who were working to destroy the very fabric of the gospel of grace, his tone shifted dramatically from the gentleness recommended in Galatians 6:1. There was no room for compromise. But in confronting a fragile, weak brother or sister, gentleness is the only recourse.
When Jesus entered the city of Jerusalem in his “triumphal entry,” he himself appeared anything but triumphant. Matthew cites Zechariah’s prophecy that Jerusalem’s king would come “gentle and riding on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a donkey” (Matthew 21:4, 5, from Zechariah 9:9). What kind of king could enter a city gently? The answer: a king whose kingdom is “not of this world” (John 18:36). Christians belong to that same kingdom. Yet how many churches have a reputation for their gentleness? How many preachers? How many elders?
“Let your gentleness be evident to all,” said Paul (Philippians 4:5). In today’s world, heavily populated by bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, gentleness remains a source of quiet power.
Doug Redford serves as minister of Highview Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio.