When I was growing up, we had two Labradors. Exuberant and bouncy, they were always eager to play (and eat). Often when offered a treat or a toy they would lurch forward to grab it. ‘No,’ they were told firmly. Obediently they drew back. ‘Gently,’ I instructed. Then they would bring their heads forward slowly, quivering with self control, to take the proffered item between their jaws with utmost care.
Gentleness. Something that Paul put on Timothy’s to-do list, telling him to ‘…pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness’ (1 Timothy 6:11).
We don’t tend to put gentleness on our to-do lists, seeing it as something passive, not active. We don’t think of it as something that needs chasing, pursuing and taking hold of. We often assume that gentleness, sometimes translated as meekness or mildness, is something to do with being weak and flimsy. ‘Gentle Jesus, meek and mild,’ is not seen as a very helpful image these days. As with many concepts, our cultural understanding tends to heap words with associations – and these aren’t always useful.
What we often forget is that gentleness needs self control. And yet isn’t it obvious? Choosing not to lash out, to be careful instead of reckless, to act graciously and gently when we really don’t feel like it – all these require self control. Our family dogs needed training in order to be gentle, to go against their instincts. It required a visible effort. In a much more profound way, we too need to train ourselves to be gentle.
This can be hard work. Some of us will struggle more than others. We all come with our own individual personalities, born from a tangled mixture of our genetic code, our environment, our unique ways of thinking and learning. Some people have a kind of natural, inbuilt gentleness. Others struggle to master things like a fiery temper, defensiveness, tendencies towards fear or feelings of inadequacy.
These can all act as enemies of gentleness, provoking impatience, unkindness and anxiety. We will each struggle with our own particular enemies, but our calling is bigger than any of them – ‘as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience’ (Colossians 3:12). It’s clear that gentleness is not merely a personality trait, but one of the marks of being the people of God.
It’s also part of the fruit of the Spirit, which Paul talks about in Galatians – a fruit composed of ‘love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control’. Moreover, this fruit is in opposition to the things Pauls lists previously in this passage – things like idolatry, discord and hatred (Galatians 5:19-21). These are the things that leave a bad taste, things that damage us and our relationships with others.
Gentleness does not mean being wishy-washy. Jesus describes himself as ‘gentle and humble in heart’ (Matt 11:28) and yet when we read the gospels we find a Jesus who is strong, unafraid to oppose what is wrong, someone who teaches truth with firmness and conviction. There is nothing wishy-washy about the gentleness that Jesus demonstrates, and this is the gentleness we are called to imitate. When he is insulted, beaten and led out to die, he chooses not to react in violence or anger. In spite of all his power and authority, he refuses to use them in this way. But this is not weakness; rather he demonstrates a far greater strength, rooted in love and purpose.
It doesn’t happen overnight. As each day begins and ends we need to re-commit ourselves to this journey, this friendship, this faith we have found. Metamorphosis takes time, changing our ugly little habits into healthier, more God-focused new ones. We need to ask for help, to look towards the one who transforms us, knowing that one day perfection will come and that transformation will be complete. In the meantime, we pursue those qualities that reflect this greater reality – understanding that in gentleness lies an incredible strength.
To be gentle is to be strong.
Lord, sometimes I break.
Trying to be tough, but
becoming brittle instead.
I become someone I do not want to be.
Worse, I become someone
you don’t want me to be.
Help me understand the importance
and strength of gentleness.
Help me to desire it,
chase after it, practise it.
Help me see through the clutter
of the world I live in, and recognise
the expectations I have accidentally
programmed into my heart.
Help me learn from you,
longing to be more like you
in all I do, say and think.