We hear the term gentle most often used in the word gentlemen. My father-in-law’s definition of a gentleman is “a man who knows how to play the accordion, but doesn’t.” That may not be the best definition, but it makes me smile every time I repeat it.
Few people, I’d wager, think much about being gentle until either they see a great lack of it, or they see it beautifully demonstrated by someone they encounter. Even then, it’s difficult to label that trait.
If parents were to list the character qualities they want their children to exhibit, gentleness would not likely be in the top 10. It isn’t congruous with the dog-eat-dog world we live in today. Does gentleness even have a chance to avail itself when you’ve only 144 characters in which to communicate?
What, exactly, is gentleness?
The word most often translated in the Bible as gentleness can be a challenge to accurately express in just one English word. I’ve found it translated as: meekness, humility, tolerance, temperance, flexibility, courtesy, respect, not easily provoked to anger, to be free from bitterness and contentiousness.
Some would describe gentleness as quiet strength—which, interestingly enough, is the title of a book by Tony Dungy, former NFL football coach, whom many think does a fine job of showing gentleness through his lifestyle.
“Gentleness is the ‘feather duster’ in the fine china shop, designed to clean (allow another to be seen in his best light) not to break!” wrote Ron Davis, retired author and professor.
One of the more alluring definitions of gentleness comes from, of all places, Wikipedia. It says, “Gentleness is a strong hand with a soft touch. It is a tender, compassionate approach toward others’ weaknesses and limitations. A gentle person still speaks truth, sometimes even painful truth, but in doing so guards his tone so the truth can be well received.”
This fits with what Dr. Dasen Ritchey, a surgeon (and Milligan College alum) said about his responsibility to be gentle with people as he tells them the truth about their prognosis: “When I enter into consultation with a patient who is going to die soon . . . what is it to be gentle? I believe a gentle surgeon is one who can stare the facts in the face, communicate them clearly while releasing the pain in a shared manner up to the Creator. The surgeon must admit fallibility and any insecurity while rock solid in facing the reality. This is true in interpersonal conflict, also. Without truth telling, there is no gentleness, but the truth is shared not controlled.”
This, then, is talking about your demeanor, your disposition. What is your disposition? Would people describe you as a person of gentleness? Would you want them to?
How does the Bible promote the idea of gentleness?
First of all, Paul lists gentleness as one of the descriptions of the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22, 23. Just making this Top 9 list shows its significance. Think of other significant virtues that didn’t make the cut, like hope, humility, and forgiveness.
Paul also exhorted Timothy to pursue gentleness (1 Timothy 6:11). Pursue it just as you do righteousness, godliness, faith, love, and endurance. Paul implied that gentleness is a virtue worth chasing down. This shows gentleness isn’t typically a knee-jerk reaction. Self-centeredness, arrogance, and pride are our natural course, which is why we need to have our minds transformed (Romans 12:2) and choose to actively pursue gentleness.
In our day and age when insulting those with opposing views has become the norm, the Bible tells us to “gently instruct” those who oppose us (2 Timothy 2:25), and when we give a reason for the hope we have, we need to do so with “gentleness and respect” (1 Peter 3:15).
So, how do we become gentle? How do we get that “quiet strength”?
To be truly gentle is totally unrelated to the physical strength or lack of physical strength of the person involved. It shows, instead, a strength of faith and trust in one’s position with their heavenly Father. Those who are truly gentle are so comfortable and confident with their convictions that they feel no compelling need to manipulate others and demand their way.
Where is this shown to be true in the Bible? Two examples come to mind.
Chapters 37-50 of Genesis tell the story of Joseph. After being abused by his brothers and sold into slavery, Joseph rose to power in Egypt in a way no one could have imagined. His brothers had already been humbled before Joseph when they came to him begging for food. After their father died, however, they became fearful for their lives thinking Joseph would pay them back for their evil actions toward him. Instead, Joseph responded with quiet strength as he said to them, “‘Don’t be afraid. Am I in the place of God? You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives. So then, don’t be afraid. I will provide for you and your children.’ And he reassured them and spoke kindly to them” (Genesis 50:19-21). This gentle response came from a deep faith in the sovereignty of God. Joseph could have played that all-to-common instrument of revenge, but he chose not to. Like a true gentleman.
Moses, in Numbers 12, was accused by his sister and brother of being too big for his britches. We have no recorded rebuttal by Moses (other than reminding us in verse three that he “was a very humble man, more humble than anyone on the face of the earth”). He kept silent in the wake of Miriam and Aaron’s complaints, because he knew God was in control and would take care of him. And God certainly did (Numbers 12:4-15).
A strange turn of events occurs when gentleness is on display. The one who seems to be acquiescing control is actually inviting the God of the universe to be in control. And since God has already won the victory, the gentle Christian rests secure that all will be well.
How, then, do we cultivate this virtue of gentleness in our lives? We do so by seeking to serve and love others as Jesus did and leaving the results of our labors to God.
Having a view of God that puts him on the throne and believes that he is in control and will do what is right and just frees us from having to “win.” A belief that God sees, is involved in this world, and will make things right in his timing allows us to release the need to control others.
“In our present age,” observed Dr. Ritchey, “we have lots of pleasure and feel good
communication. We have lots of argument about truth and bias. We have little gentleness because we are constantly trying to manipulate the other to improve our position/place. A gentle person is willing to ‘lose’ again and again and again because they are so confident in that they already have ‘won.’ They never need to win again.”
Are you confident that God has already “won” on your behalf? If you have that quiet strength, you can choose to spend your energy and focus on the betterment of others, rather than on yourself. That is the way of a gentle Christian.
Dan Burton is the Associate Minister at LifeSpring Christian Church in Cincinnati, Ohio, where he and his wife, Sue, have raised three gentlemen (none of whom play the accordion).