Has your house gotten smaller in the past several weeks? Have you found yourself excited just to go to the grocery store or to run some other “essential” errand that a few months ago you would have put off as long as possible? Do you find yourself thinking longingly about your hair stylist, fantasizing about the day when you can reunite with him or her again? We’re all beginning to feel the pressure of social distance. What began as a nice, extended stay-cation has evolved into what feels like an endless battle for joy. In this spring of our discontent, like me, you’ve probably seen things come out of your heart that you wish had stayed hidden. That stupid argument with your spouse. That sharp retort to your child. The tears that came out of nowhere. The anxiety that wells up inside you whenever you think about the economy. It’s undeniable. The heat is on right now, and the fruit of our hearts is on full display.
One of the fruits that God is trying to develop in each of us is gentleness. Maybe you think of gentleness in terms of softness of touch or speech. You tell a toddler to “be gentle” with the kitten. A mother’s touch of her children is “gentle.” The soft-spoken man at church is just so “gentle.” While these are good expressions of gentleness, I don’t think they give us a complete picture of the concept this word wants to convey. Gentleness has everything to do with our responses to pressure. When a gentle person is squeezed by his circumstances, what comes out of his heart is trust in God and submission to His sovereignty. A gentle person can return good for evil and pray for her enemies. When a person’s heart lacks gentleness, what comes out under pressure is jealousy, anxiety, and anger.
Gentleness is first of all an attribute of God, communicated to us primarily through example. We could choose from many illustrations throughout Scripture, but consider God’s treatment of the grumbling Israelites. In Exodus 14, God brings the nation of Israel safely through the Red Sea, then uses its waters to destroy their enemies. Exodus 15 gives us the Song of Moses—well, most of it does. The song comes to a close before the chapter does, and in the final few verses we’re told that three days into their journey, the children of Israel are grumbling to Moses about the bitter water. God leads them through Marah to Elim, “where there were twelve springs of water and seventy date palms” (15:27). The next chapter continues this pattern of God’s gentleness in the face of complaints. This time the subject of the bellyaching is, well, aching bellies. The people need food, and they are hangry. They fondly remember Egypt and the bounty they enjoyed there during their enslavement to Pharaoh (16:3). Our gentle Father doesn’t get exasperated with His people’s lack of faith (though they certainly lack it) or chide them for their ingratitude (though they certainly are ungrateful). He responds in gentleness, providing manna for them every day for the next forty years.
Or consider the story of Naomi. While sojourning in Moab during a famine, she buries not only her husband but also her two sons. She returns to Bethlehem with another mouth to feed, her daughter-in-law Ruth, who wouldn’t look for another husband in Moab. As Naomi reenters her hometown, she tells her old friends to call her “Marah,” (Bitter) because, she says, God has dealt bitterly with her. Truly, what she has gone through would push any of us to the breaking point. No mother wants to think about burying one of their children, let alone both of them. And to face losing your husband on top of it all is more than most of us could handle. And don’t forget that in that economy, widows weren’t able to earn much money. Indeed, from all human accounts God had been anything but gentle with Naomi. But you know the rest of the story. God gave her Ruth, an ambitious woman with a mind to work. And God put Ruth in the fields of Boaz who made sure that both widows had plenty to eat. Finally, God would allow Boaz to redeem Ruth and provide for her and Naomi in the most generous of ways. What looked harsh and unfair was still met with gentleness.
Of course, God is the perfect Father. Sometimes it’s right and good for Him to respond with chastisement or to rebuke His children. But because He’s God, even in those times, He’s never separated from His gentleness. For Him to leave one attribute to pick up another is for Him to be God one second and not the next. But God is always all of His attributes. He’s always just, even in His mercy. He’s always gentle, even in His wrath.
Let’s skip ahead to the New Testament where God puts on skin, and we see what these attributes look like in the second Person of the Trinity. Matthew 11:28-30 give us a beloved picture of our Savior:
“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest. Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For My yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”
Jesus is a gentle Master. You have stories of this from your life, don’t you? We can each reach for moments when we have seen God’s gentle touch in our lives when He could have responded with harshness, but gave us mercy instead. Nowhere is this seen more clearly than the cross, but our lives have been generously sprinkled with this Gospel gentleness. That time when you doubted God’s provision only for Him to graciously provide anyway. Or the instance when you neglected prayer and tried to take matters into your own hands, and your gentle Father decided to bless your efforts anyway.
Maybe right now the yoke feels heavy and the burden of quarantine is weighing you down. You feel like you’ll be stuck at home forever, and that you may never get to attend another church service or see anyone but your immediate family face to face (or maybe that’s just me…). Though these are stretching circumstances, we must continue to trust that God is gentle. His yoke is light. If you are heavy-laden, perhaps it’s because you’re not resting in Him.
Among the first words Jesus spoke in public ministry were these: “Blessed are the gentle, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matt. 5:5). We also find gentleness among the fruit of the Spirit listed in Galatians 5:22-23. Finally, James lists it as an attribute of heavenly wisdom (3:17). In short, gentleness isn’t optional. Even when you’ve got cabin fever, and it’s snowing…again…in April. Even when the stay-at-home order gets extended. Even when you have to wait in line to get into Wal-Mart. And when you do finally get in they still don’t have any toilet paper. But you know as well as I do that you can’t conjure a faith-filled response from your own willpower. Gentleness is, after all, a fruit of the Spirit. It’s not something we do in ourselves. So how can we grow in this area?
- Ask for it. If gentleness is an attribute of heavenly wisdom (it is), and if God has promised to give wisdom generously to those who ask (He has—James 1:5), then it follows that God will generously give us gentleness if we ask Him for it.
- Seek Christ. In Christ are hidden all the treasures of wisdom (Col. 2:3). Therefore, if we want the gentleness of wisdom, we must seek Christ. Look at His gentle responses to His disciples, the Pharisees trying to entrap Him with trick questions, even to the cynical crowds mocking Him as He hung on the cross. Hebrews implores us to “fix our eyes on Jesus” (12:2). We become like what we behold, so if we behold Christ, we will grow in gentleness.
- Take action steps. Consider the last time you responded in a less-than-gentle manner. What happened? What were the circumstances leading up to the scuffle? What did you want at that moment that you weren’t getting? Now rework the situation with a gentle response. How could you have responded differently? Also, consider circumstances in which you find yourself failing to respond in gentleness. What can you do to turn to Christ in those moments rather than your go-to sinful response? Planning ahead for how you will battle temptation is an important step in finding the way of escape.
I wrote this post not because I see so many other people who need gentleness but because I need it so desperately. I need to hit my knees and beseech the Father for gentleness in my life. I need to seek gentleness in the Scriptures and pursue Christ. I need to consider how to practically put on gentleness in my own circumstances. Will you join me?