By Natalie Seale
It’s almost Christmas, and there isn’t a better time of year to talk about one of the last of our sweet fruits of the Spirit. We’ve explored love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness and faithfulness, and now is the turn of gentleness. It may be one of the final items on the list, but gentleness isn’t an afterthought. In fact, it’s probably the most important of the spiritual gifts laid out in Galatians 5:22-23.
Gentleness is defined in the dictionary as “the quality of being kind, tender, or mild-mannered.” In terms of the fruit of the Spirit, the kind of gentleness we’re interested in involves showing humility and thankfulness towards God, as well as polite, restrained and compassionate behaviour towards everyone else. If we think about gentleness is in terms of its opposites, we find that it is countered by a desire for revenge, a sense of self-importance, or the expression of anger.
Gentleness is a gift of the Spirit, but as a trait it is produced when a softened heart abides in Jesus. It may be a gift, but true gentleness also demands something on our parts: intention. By this, I mean being intentionally kind, compassionate, and humble towards others, especially when they are facing struggle or difficulty.
Like many of the spiritual gifts we’ve discovered in this passage from Galatians, gentleness is inseparable from other traits. Jesus himself connects gentleness to humility in Matthew 11:29, when He says: “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.” Gentleness can also be translated as meekness, which should definitely not be confused for weakness. Instead, meekness is the quality of having controlled strength. As Paul tells the Corinthians: “I myself urge you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ – I who am meek when face to face with you, but bold toward you when absent.” (2 Corinthians 10:1) He instructs us in the kind of attitude we must adopt when we interact with others – an attitude that is in tune with the Spirit and informed by the teachings of Jesus and His disciples.
It’s easy to be gentle when we are around those who were care for, and who care about us in return. But to do the same for strangers, or people who hurt us? This is where gentleness is often confused with weakness. We fear appearing weak, fragile, or uncertain to others, and in so doing forget that maintaining a gentle attitude is a surer sign of strength. We fear their judgment if we become overcome with emotion, when we should recognise that our ability to be moved, to identify with the suffering of others, and to want to help them, make us better.
A great illustration of this comes from one of the great poets of the 17th-century, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, called The Village Blacksmith. The blacksmith is described as “a mighty man, with large and sinewy hands; and the muscles of his brawny arms are strong as iron bands.” And yet, in church, he hears his young daughter singing a hymn and is overcome with emotion: “and with his hard, rough hand, he wipes a tear out of his eyes.” This is an excellent representation of the kind of gentleness God calls us to: the capacity to go beyond what we are, to be moved, and to be ready and willing to accept the Spirit into our lives. True gentleness comes from this, and it does make us better – better parents, siblings, friends, Christians, people.
How can we be gentler? Well, we have to start by thinking about others. By living with less judgment and more compassion, and by following Jesus’ wish for us to learn from Him in the Gospel of Matthew. He isn’t asking for us to make hard decisions in our treatment of other people, He is asking for us to follow Him. If we think about the encounter with a woman caught in adultery in John 8:1-11, this motivation is underlined even further. The Pharisees were begging Jesus to lose His temper with her, and took their chance to remind Him (as if it was necessary) that Mosaic Law said that this woman should be stoned. When asked what He himself would say, He simply turned to the woman and spoke gently to her – telling her to “sin no more.”
Although this describes an encounter between the Son of God and His people, it is also a parable of gentleness. Jesus’ words to the woman and His avoidance of violence and self-righteousness is, in effect, how God wants us to be with others. Rather than condemning them and bolstering our own sense of pride, He wants us to demonstrate the power of His love with a gentle word of truth. Our world may be a harsh place, but we soften it when we follow His teachings and work for His kingdom.
Gentleness is the fruit of the Spirit that demands most from us. It means adopting a position where we effectively place ourselves third on the list – putting God and other people before ourselves. I’ll be open and honest and say that this isn’t something that makes me feel that comfortable – and maybe it doesn’t for you either. It requires humility and sacrifice, patience and compassion – qualities that we might feel that we lack (even on our best days). But the good news? God shows us the way. His Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, and He never gives us gifts that we can’t use.
This Christmas, let us serve His kingdom with intention, opening ourselves up to the Spirit and all of its gifts – but especially to gentleness. For after all, our Heavenly Father knows that the greatest and most important plans can come to fruition when they are carried out with gentleness.
“Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.”
- Philippians 4: 5-7
Natalie is a Yorkshire lass who recently moved all the way to San Antonio, Texas, to live with her husband Quincy. She has a PhD in Renaissance history and until recently taught undergrads and post-grads at the University of Edinburgh. Her passion is for teaching, but in the process of applying for a visa she discovered a new love for writing devotionals and lettering by hand. Good coffee, old books, family time, warm jumpers and Texas sunsets are some of her favourite things. Her heart is to live a life full of the love and joy of God, and in doing so help others to achieve their potential.