Whatever happened to gentleness? Who knows?
I was preparing my sermon for this week. I am preaching through Philippians this summer (great book, highly recommend). Anyway, I was studying Philippians 4 when I came across a verse that stood out to me in a way it never had before. Philippians 4:5:
Let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people. The Lord is near.
These are Paul’s final thoughts and instructions for the church in Philippi. You can tell he feels a sense of urgency as he writes; “the Lord is near” is about as urgent as one can get. But why the urgency to tell people to be gentle? What’s so important about gentleness? Is it even useful?
As I worked on my sermon, I had trouble even defining gentleness. The commentaries I was working with dispatched with gentleness as quickly as possible to move on to more interesting topics. I know what gentleness looks like; I was just having trouble putting it into words. As I thought about it, I realized that “gentleness” is just not in vogue. Gentleness is out like acid-washed jeans (those are still out, right? I don’t pay attention to such things).
If you don’t believe me, just look at “Christian Twitter.” Or the comments section on blogs brave enough to have them. It’s all attack, attack, attack. Pile on those with whom we disagree. Look for any speck of vulnerability and release the hounds. It’s not just Christians, it is very much a societal problem: we just are not very gentle people. And unfortunately, Christians look far too much like the world in this regard.
Note what Paul says: “let your gentleness show in your treatment of all people.” Of all the Christian virtues, of all the Fruits of the Spirit, Paul chose gentleness to be the one thing the church in Philippi was to demonstrate to the outside world. Not love, not truth, not hope. Gentleness.
So, What Even is Gentleness?
Michael Jensen, in an article called “Recovering the art of gentleness,” defined gentleness like this:
…gentleness is a form of love that recognises (sic) the vulnerability in others and allows for it rather than exploits it.
Gentleness provides space to other people to be vulnerable without fear that their vulnerability will be used against them. It allows people to be people, flaws, faults, and all.
Gentleness forgives when it could seek revenge. Even if it has the right to vengeance, gentleness let’s it go and forgives. It accepts that people are flawed, that people are in process, that people aren’t so much human beings as they are human becomings. It considers where the other person is and meets them there.
Gentleness is closely related to meekness, another concept that nobody ever really talks about and is hard to find in our world. Jesus said in his Sermon on the Mount, “blessed are the meek.” Meekness is often confused for a word that rhymes with it: weakness. But that’s not what it is. Meekness is having power over someone but choosing not to use it. Meekness is about choosing to love and forgive rather than grasping for power. “Blessed are the meek” because they emulate Christ, who did not consider being God something to use to his own advantage but instead chose to serve humanity by dying on the cross (See Philippians 2). Meekness sets aside more brutal measures in order to pursue a more peaceable approach.
Do We Even Need Gentleness?
If the world is obsessed with power and fearful of vulnerablity, why would we need gentleness? We all need gentleness. But why?
We are all vulnerable people and we all have hurts, fears, worries, doubts, flaws and shame. We are all broken, at least a little. Too often we try to hide the broken pieces of our lives, but in doing so make matters even worse. Healing does not come from hiding. It comes from revealing. And in order to safely reveal our vulnerabilities, we need people to be gentle with us.
When my family moves (and we have moved a lot), we typically pack up most everything for the movers to take in their truck in a separate pile, but those things that are especially fragile or high in sentimental value we keep in a different pile and move them ourselves. Why? Because we don’t trust the movers to be gentle with them. We don’t know them so we don’t feel safe leaving our precious possessions vulnerable to them.
Likewise, we need people in our lives with whom we can trust our fragility, our vulnerability. People who can see our shame and love us anyway. People who can see our brokenness and give us a shoulder to cry on. We need a friend to be careful with the fragile pieces in our lives.
So, If We Need Gentleness, Where Did it Go?
This is not something we see a whole lot of in our world. This is because our world is obsessed with power. It does a politician no good to allow his opponents to be vulnerable without exploiting it for his own ends. It does a co-worker no good to allow for a mistake by her co-worker to go unnoticed by their boss. When we seek after power, authority, and advancement, gentleness just gets in the way. The broken pieces of other people’s lives just become stepping stones for us.
Perry Glanzer, in an article entitled “The Demise of Gentleness” notes that even though virtue ethics and character education have undergone a major revival in the last 50 years or so, a review of all the literature finds no mention of gentleness. It would seem that in our caustic society of tribalistic warfare between people on different sides of the political, religious or cultural spectrum, that gentleness would be a healing balm. Yet, we find less of it than ever. Glanzer writes,
Gentleness is absent from our societal imagination because we have neglected our identity as image bearers created by God. Rather than acknowledging the reality of the God whose image we bear, we attempt, instead, to cultivate virtues in our own image, placing ourselves as gods. Like the kings of old, fearful of being supplanted, we reason away any need for gentleness. Showing gentleness to another would reveal weakness and the tenuous nature of our supposed reign. No, there is no room for gentleness in our imagined would-be kingdoms. The world today, as in the time of Jesus has no space for gentlness (sic). Gentleness makes no sense to a world vying for power.
Power, perceived or actual, does not create a context in which gentleness may thrive. In fact, power turns gentleness from virtue to vice. It perceives gentleness as weakness, and weak people do not gain or maintain power. In a kill or be killed world, gentleness is a liability.
The Church’s Problem, Too
This has been true even in the church. The last several decades have seen the rise (and fall) of ambitious, authoritarian pastors more devoted to their brand than their Lord. If they grow their church, they get a book deal. When they get a book deal, they get to go on the lucrative speaking circuit. As they continue to advance upwards, they get fame and fortune while being lauded as a great servant in God’s kingdom. Gentleness has no place in that. This sort of “ministry” does not value the weak or the small and views people as means to an end.
Gentleness is gone because it has lost its usefulness. Americans, Christians included, are a pragmatic people. Gentleness just doesn’t have much use in a world that is obsessed with power and position and of immediate vindication. In a culture constantly racing to cancel people who don’t agree with us and threaten our power, gentleness is about as effective as a 2009 Toyota Yaris in the Indy 500.
How Do We Get it Back?
Reviving gentleness as a virtue is a risky proposition. Being gentle in our contemporary culture is like being a minnow among the sharks; no matter what, that’s not going to go well for the minnows. We need brave men and women to risk their security and their position to allow others to be vulnerable. Allowing others to be vulnerable is a risk; they may not reciprocate and may use your kindness against you. That’s scary.
If we are to revive it, though, we need to take that risk. If we do it together, we will know we have the security of like-minded people to come back to should things go horribly wrong. Paul knows that the Philippians can be gentle because “the Lord is near.” Security and safety are found in Jesus, and this allows us to take risks for the sake of the Kingdom and the sake of being virtuous.
There are some ways we can cultivate gentleness in our own lives:
- Remember that people are people and all people are broken people. Allow space for people to make mistakes and have human flaws.
- Remember that people are in process. We are human becomings, not human beings. Allow for people to learn from mistakes and grow.
- Center the other person’s needs. Instead of asking what we can get out of the other person for our own needs, we must instead ask how we can be present and be helpful for the other person and their needs.
- Forgive. Forgiveness is hard. It’s letting go your rights to compensation or vindication. But it is the way of Jesus, and forgiveness tends to end the cycle of vengeance that tears apart so many people and relationships.
- Work on your anger. It is very difficult to be gentle when one is angry. Believe me, I’ve tried. Do whatever it takes to calm your brain down before you respond to people, so that you might do so from a place of care rather than a place of anger.
- Remember that Jesus is near. We can be gentle because we know that earthly power is ultimately of no use. We can also be gentle because Jesus is Lord, not just of us, but of everything.
Thanks for reading. You can join me on Instagram, Twitter (or whatever Elon is calling it these days), and Threads @revsteve83