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The Overlooked Virtue of Gentleness

Category Articles
Date February 25, 2022

Gentleness is tender strength. Without the tender heart, strength could do damage. Without the strong hand, tenderness could prove ineffectual.

Gentleness, then, is a function of strength. There is nothing either harsh or weak about gentleness, but rather pity of heart and power of hand combined attractively and effectively. While it knows nothing of heartless severity, neither is it a mere sentimental indulgence.

When Christ wanted to draw men to himself, he described himself as ‘gentle and lowly in heart’ (Mt. 11:29–30).

This is a virtue which combines humility and approachability, mildness and kindness in their proper sphere and expression. It is not quick to damn or to strike, not unrighteously forbidding or foreboding, but attractive and welcoming. Similar notions include the ideas of patience and mercy.

Gentleness is seen, for example, in the sacrificial care of a nursing mother (1 Thess. 2:7) or the incorruptible beauty of a truly feminine spirit (1 Pet. 3:4). However, it is as much a masculine as a feminine virtue. In that first reference, Paul uses it to describe in part his pastoral disposition and labour toward the Thessalonians. He is as utterly unembarrassed to use the feminine parallel as Christ is to use the notion in itself.

However, as so often, when it comes to biblical virtues, we must not create false dichotomies or establish empty oppositions. God’s love does not mean he cannot hate; it means he must hate! If he loves what is truly good, he must hate what is properly evil and so opposed to the good he loves. In the same way, gentleness may be properly opposed to brutality more generally, but not to holy aggression. The shepherd who catches up the lamb threatened by wolves into his gentle arms uses those same arms to do some serious damages to the wolves who threaten his beloved lamb. The same Jesus who could sweep up a child in a crowd to make an illustration without the boy or girl feeling threatened could cleanse a temple of hypocrites and thugs so effectively as to keep them at a safe distance from him. Gentleness directs strength toward beloved objects. Again, the strength that is truly tender toward one may be righteously terrifying to another. Our gentle Jesus will come to judge the world at the last day; some run toward him in delight while others flee for refuge to the rocks and hills. The same Paul who was as sacrificially gentle as a mother was as gently forthright as a father. There is no tension, no opposition, here.

This Christlike disposition ought to characterise all the saints. It is among the cluster of the fruits of the Spirit: ‘love, joy, peace, longsuffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control’ (Gal. 5:22–23). It is an outworking of heavenly wisdom in the way in which we use our words—wisdom which is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without partiality and without hypocrisy (Jas. 3:17). It is something which Paul beseeches the Ephesians to manifest as they ‘walk worthy of the calling with which you were called, with all lowliness and gentleness, with longsuffering, bearing with one another in love’ (Eph. 4:1–2). Among the exhortations which he issues to the Philippians is this: ‘Let your gentleness be known to all men.’ Perhaps we should also take note that Paul makes an immediate connection with the fact that they are living in the light of Christ’s return: ‘The Lord is at hand’ (Php. 4:5).

Unsurprisingly, it is distinctly a pastoral virtue. Christ takes it gladly to himself. Paul describes his labour with this language. It crops up repeatedly in the pastoral epistles. Elders are to be gentle (2 Tim. 3:3). Timothy as a man of God is to avoid pride and greed, to flee from ‘envy, strife, reviling, evil suspicions’ (1 Tim. 6:4). Instead, he is to ‘pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, patience, gentleness’ (1 Tim. 6:11). Indeed, a servant of the Lord must ‘not quarrel but be gentle to all, able to teach, patient, in humility correcting those who are in opposition’ (2 Tim. 2:24–25), so that even those against whom he stands for the sake of Christ do not instinctively feel as if they have been vindictively assaulted and cruelly brutalised, but might rather come to their senses and escape the devil’s snares. This spirit of gentleness characterises the Great Shepherd of the sheep and ought to colour the attitudes and actions of his under-shepherds.

Do we ourselves take refuge in Christ’s gentleness? Do we feel secure in his mighty arms, protected by his strong hands? We learn gentleness from enjoying it, we learn both its tenderness and its strength in our experience of salvation.

Do we then reflect the gentleness of Christ? Do our spouses and children, our fellow church members, young and old, our friends and neighbours, know our hearts and hands toward them, confident that they will find whatever strength we have exercised against all that might harm them, and positively embracing, comforting, and ministering to them?

Do those of us who are or would be true pastors show such a spirit? Do the troubled find us approachable? Do the broken in spirit come to us readily? Do those who have been battered by others find us trustworthy and kind? Do the children of the congregation run from us or to us? Do the timid find us tender and the concerned find us kind? Do our people know that we would fight for them against all who unrighteously afflict them, that we will put our bodies and souls between them and those who would do them harm? Are they confident that we will fight tooth and nail not against them but for them, and that in a way which compels those who come against them to feel the holy love we bear for all who are under Satan’s sway? Do the needy know that—when in trouble and distress—our hearts and our homes are open to them? If so, then we are truly learning of him who is gentle and lowly in heart.

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    Gentleness is tender strength. Without the tender heart, strength could do damage. Without the strong hand, tenderness could prove ineffectual. Gentleness, then, is a function of strength. There is nothing either harsh or weak about gentleness, but rather pity of heart and power of hand combined attractively and effectively. While it knows nothing of heartless […]

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    Gentleness is tender strength. Without the tender heart, strength could do damage. Without the strong hand, tenderness could prove ineffectual. Gentleness, then, is a function of strength. There is nothing either harsh or weak about gentleness, but rather pity of heart and power of hand combined attractively and effectively. While it knows nothing of heartless […]

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