Jumping Over Gentleness
Gentleness is one of the highest and most persuasive attributes, closely associated with reasonableness. The Greek word for gentle in the New Testament is often translated “reasonable.” Jesus was gentle. He was reasonable. So it’s irrevocably true that his Church should be gentle — even in a harsh, late-modern culture where conflict has more to do with shaming opponents than finding resolution.
It wasn’t that Jesus was soft on people’s sins, as though they didn’t really matter. He was direct and often told people to “go and sin no more.” But he could see beyond their sins to their dignity. That’s what made him want to be connected to them and them to him. He could be gentle with people because he was not threatened by them, even though their sins (and mine) contributed to his brutal shaming and execution.
As a kid, I pulled out every last one of my own baby teeth. When one got slightly wiggly, I worked it until I could wrench it out. (I once discovered a slightly loose tooth at the beginning of a Dukes of Hazzard episode and had it pulled out by the time the General Lee was hanging airborne at the segue to the second commercial break.) It’s not because I was an especially tough kid. It’s because I needed closure. A loose tooth had no business remaining in my head. On principle (or something), I couldn’t leave it in limbo when it was within my power to extract. I lacked the gentleness to let it linger there until it was “ready” to come out. This seemed reasonable to me. It’s a metaphor for how I often go about life and relationships. And I hate it. I work hard at being other than what comes naturally to me.
Gentle Spirit, Unquiet Body
Obviously, I was not a tender kid. My son, however, is. He’s generally sensitive. He’s a rough and tumble boy, but when he tumbles too hard, it’s as if his whole body has combusted and he must alert everyone within 3 blocks of his flaming agony until someone hoses him down with care. He feels pain deeply. He hates having a loose tooth. He also becomes a berserk hyena when he has moderate amounts of sugar. His eyes dilate like those of a timber wolf at dusk when he has artificial colors. His body is just sensitive.
He also has a very sensitive spirit. Though his impulsiveness may have had us frequently dodging errant stones when he was 5-ish, he never wanted to hurt anyone. And if he did fill the eyes of a hapless child with a handful of sand, he felt terrible to the point of sobbing. He has a disquieted body, but a very gentle spirit.
I didn’t really grow up around gentleness. Maybe that’s part of my deal. I did live with a quiet and doting grandmother early in my childhood, but she wasn’t what you’d call gentle. She was matter of fact and surprisingly punitive. My mom is overtly loving and affectionate, but pretty fiery otherwise. My father had a forceful, proud personality. My stepfather is a fast-walking, fast-talking fireplug. For the most part, my family has always launched headlong into conflict with the unspoken expectation that, after some mild bruising and moderate lacerations to the ego, we will emerge as we’d been before the breach. Generally speaking, my family has an edge. (Ask my wife. Or don’t.)
Gentleness is Hard
The complication is that I’m a follower of Jesus. I so like the “be wise as serpents” part of Jesus’ strategy in Matthew 10. It’s the addendum of “and gentle as doves” that’s difficult for me. I have the tendency to believe that the right thing, in conflict or otherwise, flowing out of wisdom that transcends both parties, precludes the necessity for gentleness — that its verity makes soft-pedaling basically unnecessary.
(I have always L-O-A-T-H-E-D when someone employs that “affirm before you critique” strategy with me that is rooted in, well, gentleness. Just tell me. Rip off the band-aid. It’s either true or it isn’t. I might have some objections and you’re not going to avoid them by making an emotional deposit before your withdrawal. And you’re not going to make me feel better. So it’s hard for me to consider that others want and need the affirmation before reckoning with their shortcomings or failures.)
All this to say, there is something about us as Christians in the face of a culture with which we disagree that tends to be like me in my lack of gentleness, I think, and I’m not sure why. We have Jesus, right? Not only his words, but the very life he gave in gentleness — that we could have life to the full. And so we are supposed to be pretty secure in him, in the assurances of who we are and in our ancient knowledge of where the world is headed under his patient Lordship. But we are so often lacking in gentleness.
It’s always a good time to ask ourselves “Why?” I do not default to gentleness, but I want to. And I think I don’t because it is a bit diminished in my history, a quirk of my personality to be managed and, when it all shakes out, a deficiency in my theology. But it’s a high value to Christ. It’s fundamental to Christian theology — one of the highest and most persuasive bits of evidence that his Spirit is alive in me and me in him.
“Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” — Philippians 4:5