The Surprising Call to Gentleness
There are many motifs and illustrations utilized to unpack who Jesus is and what Jesus did, but perhaps one of the most important characteristics of the life of Jesus Christ was a quiet one – gentleness. References abound to Jesus as prophet, priest, king. The Christus Victor portrait has remained strong over centuries, for good reason. Angles that peek toward Christ as suffering servant continue to comfort the weary, ill, or dying.
For centuries, theologians have written engrossing works on the nature of Christ and on a mosaic of approaches to the atonement. But the Holy Spirit won’t quite let us escape the surprising call to gentleness. To encounter Jesus is to encounter holy, powerful love. But how odd would it sound to hear someone say, “I became a Christian because I was fascinated by how gentle they are”?
In a way, that was John Wesley’s experience; he was transfixed by the gentleness of the Moravians traveling on the same ship. He knew the letter of his faith but not the love of it. His life was unraveling, his goals unmet, his relationships a mess. Terrified in a hurricane, he listening to the simplicity of hymns sung during a storm. There’s plenty of emphasis on his observation that the Moravians didn’t fear dying; but it’s worth noticing that he didn’t comment on that alone. He’d watched them on the days without hurricanes. He watched them take on unpleasant jobs without complaining; he saw them insulted or bullied by other passengers, cheerfully refusing to rise to the bait. What he knew by rote, they knew by heart. Wesley wanted the peace and assurance they exhibited.
It is one thing to sing calmly in a hurricane; it’s another to live with gentleness in the middle of disgusting, unwanted tasks or in the face of belligerent arrogance and anger.
Consider words floating in our atmosphere, like soot and ash rising from the destruction of wildfire. Rage. Cancel. Fury. Hoax. Death toll. Damage. Catastrophic. Unprecedented. Anger is everywhere; and some of it is righteous anger. But how do we keep our righteous anger righteous?
When we look at Jesus, we see tremendous power restrained through the beauty of gentleness. It is tempting to find vicarious satisfaction in the flipping of the tables when he cleansed the table: but Jesus could do that with holy love and pure motive, willing also to be crucified for those same people. If I want to overturn tables and scatter people who profit off of vulnerable people, but I’m not willing to die for the people whose tables I just knocked over, I don’t have love. I may have anger or even righteous anger. But I don’t have love. I’m a reverberating gong, a clanging cymbal.
What may be more telling is the quiet presence of gentleness in countless scenarios in the Gospels.
“Let the toddlers come to me.”
“Would you give me a drink of water?”
“I’m coming to your house for supper.”
“Can you see yet?”
“Daughter, your faith has made you whole.”
“Where are your accusers? Then neither do I condemn you. Go, and don’t do this anymore.”
“Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s.”
“Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. Don’t let your hearts be troubled.”
“Forgive them, they don’t know what they’re doing.”
“Peter, do you love me? Feed my sheep.”
Of all the unglamorous fruits of the Spirit, gentleness is perhaps the most forgettable. Until it isn’t. Until it’s such an uncommon trait that it becomes powerfully noticeable.
Methodism exists in large part because of the gentleness of a bunch of John Wesley’s fellow passengers on a ship. Not their cleverness; not, like good Gryffindors, their bravery. Their gentleness.
We do not need to be loud to be powerful, as therapist James Perkins recently explored with leadership strategist Tristian Williams. In the middle of deafening noise, what is one more loud voice? But there is surprising power in quiet, strong gentleness.
Christians are called to gentleness. Gentleness is not lack of clarity, lack of courage, or lack of conviction. It is strength that is under control, that serves others, that bypasses the satisfaction of putting someone in their places. It is illustrated in Proverbs 15 – “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Many children have a keen sense of danger from an unstable power larger than themselves. But children were drawn to Jesus; this was a being who, like Lewis’ Aslan, was powerful but good. The fullness of God dwelled in Jesus Christ, but children wanted to play, tease, sit on his lap. To enter the Kingdom of God, Jesus said, adults must become childlike in our trust.
And one way we can build trust with others in a bitterly cynical age taut with suspicion, anger, and self-preservation, is to practice the rhythms of gentleness. There is no substitute for the clear, calm witness of Christ followers like the Moravians. No one wants to empty the buckets of the sea-sick. No one wants to let the opportunity pass by, to one-up a caustic bully. No one wants to hold their loved ones on a wooden ship without GPS in the middle of a hurricane wondering if they’ll die.
But by the power of the Holy Spirit, God cups our jagged, slicing slivers and, ever so gently, softens our razor-edges into serving trays. There is simplicity in following Jesus, but sometimes, like Simon Peter, we try to bring our weapons with us. As the Spirit of God gradually pries our fingers from our sword hilts, we are set free to live cheerfully, to serve cheerfully, to ignore cheerfully. The only weapon in the classic “armor of God” set is – the sword of the Spirit. The Word of God will shape us and arm us to love well; to love powerfully; to love gently.
It is not only in our current time or place that gentleness is surprisingly counter-cultural; plenty of civilizations have not valued gentleness. But our world starves for it now, too. Consider the impact of Mother Teresa, or Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., or Mr. Fred Rogers. Notice the resurgence in popularity of quiet-toned public television artist Bob Ross or the popular craving for mindfulness techniques, meditation, or hygge. When people decry polarization, part of the unspoken weariness is weariness of roughness, meanness, meltdowns, altercations, and rejection.
We can’t be like Jesus if we ignore gentleness. To become like Christ is to soften – not into non-entity or non-being; but into a strong, Spirit-empowered, gentle version of ourselves. We hand over our weapons and let Christ fashion them into serving tools. Gentleness isn’t weakness; it’s strength with a sense of humor.
Are you bruised right now? Could you use some gentleness? The Holy Spirit is waving you over to the side of the race track to mend your injuries.
Have you lost some of your gentleness? Are you noticing brittle places emerging in your spirit? The Holy Spirit is waving you over to the sidelines, to take your hardened blades and refashion them into farming equipment.
This is the way of Jesus; there is no shortcut.