“The fruit of the Spirit is… gentleness.” [Galatians 5:22-23]
Father, open our hearts now by the power of your Holy Spirit, that we would become gentle and meek like your Son Jesus. Destroy our arrogance; dissolve our pride; melt our eyes to tears and our souls to love, we ask in the blessed name of our Savior, Amen.
Do a quick search of what makes for a good leader and you’ll find a number of traits, including: determination, integrity, an individual who is decisive yet driven by a powerful sense of vision, a compelling communicator, someone who remains positive amidst difficulty, but of all the high profile leadership blogs that I searched this past week, none of them thought to include this trait: gentleness.
Even when I think about christianity and the various conversations I’ve had with others about it, how often do we highlight the quality of gentleness? That’s not typically our lead in. Not really our starting place, is it? We’ll talk about how God’s spirit makes us bold, how God takes away our guilt and shame, how there’s freedom and hope and life in the name of Jesus, but…gentleness?
I can’t think of a single conference—let alone a single conversation with anyone—where the focus of that time was on becoming a more gentle person, and yet, God’s Word has so much to say about the absolute necessity of this trait in a number of different situations.
Here are just a few:
Proverbs 15:1 says “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” And isn’t that so true? When you’re in an argument (I’m sorry, I mean, when you’re having a “mild disagreement”), the absolute worst thing you can do is raise your voice or rip someone up with your words. A harsh words stirs up anger, but responding with gentleness has a positive effect.
1 Peter 3:4 and 7 describe the need for gentleness in marriage: that wives need to nurture a gentle spirit toward their husbands and that husbands need to be mindful of how their wives are wired and be gentle toward them, handling them like fine china because they are to be treasured, it says. Then it continues that those who don’t do this will have their prayers hindered. That means a lack of gentleness not only affects your relationships with people, but it also affects your relationship with God too.
Eph 4:2 tells us that in order to maintain unity within our church family, we need to “be completely humble and gentle; patient, and bearing with one another in love.”
So be gentle toward those inside the family of God, but don’t stop there. Listen to 1 Peter 3:15…“Revere Christ as Lord in your hearts. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have, but do this with gentleness and respect.”
Isn’t it amazing that the study of apologetics is built on this verse (that is, “always be prepared to give an answer for the reason for the hope in you” but completely dismiss that last part: do this with gentleness and respect. Totally different interpretation.
And on top of this, the surrounding verses here describe suffering unjustly—being wrongly accused of things you didn’t do and suffering silently within that situation rather than retaliating—and how that provides you an opportunity to give an answer for the hope within you. We follow a Savior who suffered silently, why? Because he entrusted himself to God).
Be gentle in your responses toward those who do not believe. Don’t bash them with apologetics, but respond with truth in love. Not with truth as if it’s love.
Gentleness with our words, gentleness in our marriages, gentleness in our relationships with those who believe AND don’t believe in Jesus. But wait, there’s more! You won’t believe what’s next!
In 1 Tim 3:3, gentleness is listed as a qualification for church leadership, meaning, in the church, if a person is not characterized as gentle, they have no place being a leader, at all. 2 Tim 2:24-25 not only affirms this, but raises the bar. It says that when even a pastor is opposed by others, he must still be able to respond gently. Even opponents deserve gentleness.
Then Titus 3:2 summarizes all we’ve read so far when it says this: “…always be gentle to everyone.” In every situation, in every relationship, circumstance, authority and rule—really, in whatever context you find yourself in…always. be gentle. to everyone.
That’s the scope of gentleness. And can you imagine: what would the church look like if we desired gentleness as much as God desires it for us?
Turn with me to Galatians chapter 6. Galatians 6, and as we work through verses 1-5 a piece at a time, we’ll see what gentleness is, what it does, where it comes from and why we so desperately need it (what gentleness is, what it does, where it comes from and why we all so desperately need it). Now reading from Galatians 6:1-5, starting with v1.
1 Brothers and sisters, if anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. Keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted. 2 Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ. 3 For if anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself. 4 But let each one test his own work, and then his reason to boast will be in himself alone and not in his neighbor. 5 For each will have to bear his own load.
Doesn’t your heart yearn to be in a place like this where we all mutually bear each other’s burdens? …where brothers and sisters sought out restoration for one another—not in a spirit of condemnation or judgment, but one of gentleness? where we stopped calling people out on their sin, but began to call people out from their sin? Rather than adding to the burden of others, what if we began to lighten the load?
As one American President put it: “In the fleeting time we have on this Earth, what matters is not wealth, or status, or power, or fame, but rather: how well we have loved, and what small part we have played in making the lives of other people better… We may not be able to stop all evil in the world, but I know that how we treat one another is entirely up to us.” [Barack Obama]
And in the words of Jesus, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” [Matthew 22:39]
What might the world say about the church if we became known for gentleness?
So what is gentleness and how do we grow in it?
The word Paul uses for gentleness in our passage is a very particular greek word that Aristotle himself describes as “the ability to bear reproaches and slights with moderation, not to embark on revenge quickly and not to be easily provoked to anger, but to be free from bitterness and contentiousness, having tranquility and stability in spirit.”
It’s power under control, only displaying strength “on the right grounds, toward the right people, in the right manner, at the right moment, and for the right length of time.”
A Brahmin—which is a member of the highest class in India—had taken time to observe a Christian missionary over a number of years. One day as they sat down over a cup of tea, he compared the missionary to a mango tree. All of its branches hang with fruit, but it’s assailed with stones and clubs by those who pass by.
How does the tree respond? By dropping its fruit with every blow at the feet of those who beat it. And at the close of the season, it stands scarred and battered, its leaves torn off, its branches broken. But the next year, it bears more fruit than the previous one.
That is what our gentleness should do in the world—like trees planted by rivers of water—Psalm 1 says—bearing fruit in their season because we’re rooted and grounded in God, not trying to conserve ourselves but willingly dropping the fruit we produce for the good of others, despite whatever attack of cruel words and actions.
Gentleness is about how we relate to others. According to Galatians, Paul describes Gentleness as powerful. It’s life-changing: it has the teeth to transform situations, the love to lift burdens, the rigor to right wrongs and destroy strongholds that are destroying the lives of those around you. Gentleness is serious business and it’s time we finally saw it as such.
Since gentleness is a “fruit of the Spirit,” and the Spirit of God has been placed inside all who believe in Jesus, then it’s possible to grow in gentleness. But how?
Gentleness grows from
a realistic view of our own condition
and an empathetic view of another’s situation.
A little bit of context: the apostle Paul is writing to the christians in Galatia. It’s just 15 years out from when Jesus was on the scene, and already, things have begun to go terribly wrong.
There was a group of people—the Judaizers—who were saying to the other christians, “Hey, unless you do these things like us, you’re not really followers of Jesus. Just believing in Jesus isn’t enough, you also have to keep these parts of the law too,” and it was causing not only division, but leading many people to stumble.
There were feelings of superiority and inferiority building up too. “Oh, you haven’t done these other things like circumcision and keeping the ceremonial laws? Well then, I guess you don’t really love God as much as we do.”
Have you ever compared yourself with someone else, whether it was arrogance because you were further along in an area, or envy because they were further along than you? Did you know that both stem from the same underlying thing?
Gal. 5:26, the verse right before our passage, says this: 26 Let us not become conceited: provoking one another, envying one another.
Whether provoking others from a place of superiority, or envying others from a place of inferiority, both oppose gentleness because both stem from conceit.
This word for conceited, in the greek, is a compound word made up of two words—kenos and dosa (which mean “empty” and “glory,” respectively). This compound word then means “emptiness of worth” or glory. The crazy thing is: when you feel like you aren’t valuable, it’ll drive you to do two things: either try to cover up that emptiness (with all sorts of success and accolades and fame), OR play the victim (write a bunch of angsty teen poetry, and throw a pity party wishing you had this or that). Paul says don’t provoke from superiority, and don’t envy from inferiority.
Conceit—pride—is an inflated sense of worth that stems from deflation—from a void of glory—within. It’s this vacuum deep inside our souls that tries to suck up all the glory in the room to cover up the “nothing.” But gentleness grows from a realistic view of ourselves, not an inflated or deflated one. So, enter Paul in Gal 6:3 when he says…If anyone thinks he is something when he is nothing, he deceives himself.
Paul is reminding them of who they all are in and of themselves. “Stop trying to be something, when you are really nothing.” The Judaizers felt they were something because of what they’d done, but other christians felt they were second-class because of what they hadn’t done, but Paul says, “Stop thinking you’re something—you’re deceived. Reall, you’re nothing.”
Now wait. We’re nothing? That doesn’t seem very nice, but you’ve got to know the guy writing this. In three places, Paul says something progressively more and more remarkable. In 1 Corinthians 15, Paul refers to himself as “the least of all the apostles.” There were 12 other apostles, but Paul says, “of all of them, I’m the least something.”
A few years later, Paul writes in Ephesians 3 that he’s “the least of all the saints.” It’s like he realizes, “Wait a second. I thought I was nothing before, but I still thought I was something. Here we go. Now, I realize I’m the lowest christian there ever was.”
But then, in his letter to Timothy, toward the end of his years of ministry, Paul says this about himself in I Tim 1:15, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.” He’s saying, “I’m not just a nothing apostle, I’m not even a nothing christian. No more posturing, no more pretense or pretending I’m something on my own at all. I am nothing.”
Paul’s not a guy who walked around depressed or with a death wish, but he had a boldness that I doubt you could find in more than a handful of people in any century since. Even that’s generous. Paul’s understanding that he was nothing in and of himself, led to a freedom from that internal empty-glory-vacuum that influences so many of us.
You get laid off, or can’t find a job, or are forced into retirement… how difficult it is to respond gently toward others? We often wrap our worth up within our jobs, our families, our kids, our status, our wealth, etc. Strip any of those away… if you feel that inner stability disappear, it’s likely you’ve been covering up the feeling of nothingness by thinking you’re something because of this or that thing.
But until we have a realistic perspective of our own condition, we will never really grow in gentleness… it’ll be a counterfeit growing in the soil of our souls. When difficulty comes, it strips away what’s on the outside to reveal if it’s real or just veneer.
Gal. 5:26, don’t provoke or envy. Why? Because it reveals if conceit is consuming you. Comparison stems from conceit, but Gentleness grows from a proper perspective that isn’t built on what others look like.
Gal. 6:4 says: “test your own work so the only reason you boast is in yourself and not in your neighbor.” Let me briefly explain this one. The Judaizers and other christians were comparing. You had the Judaizers saying, “Look at us. We don’t just believe in Jesus, but we also do x,y,z, therefore, we’re better than Lucy, better than James, better than John, and Phillis, and Troy.”
Do you ever compare with others? “I may be bad, but look at them. I know I cheated, but so did he.” Who’s your standard? If your standard is other people, sure, maybe you’re better than him or her, but is that really the standard we’re called to?
Paul says, “Stop comparing. You will one day answer for yourselves—v5—so instead of saying “I’m something because she’s nothing, learn to gain a proper perspective of who you are that isn’t built on the backs of other people.”
Because, how can we possibly bear one another’s burdens (like v2 tells us to), if we’re constantly trying to prove how tall we are by standing on top of other people?
Gentleness grows from a realistic view of our own condition,
but also from an empathetic view of another’s situation.
I remember being over a friend’s house once. We wanted some candy, but his mom said we had to wait till after dinner. But there was just one problem: we wanted candy now. And she knew it, so she set us up. I’m not even kidding.
We were downstairs playing, when out of the corner of my eye, I noticed something… an MandM bounced down the stairs to the shag carpet floor. Curious. So my friend and I went over and noticed a trail of candy had formed which led from the basement to the kitchen, so we followed it. And when we got there, we couldn’t believe our eyes.
Just sitting there, on the kitchen counter, was a King Size snickers bar.
His mom said we had to wait till after dinner, but we wanted candy right now. So we went to grab it. And at that moment, His mom jumped out from the other room and said, “CAUGHT YOU! I KNEW YOU TWO WOULDN’T LISTEN.”
Now, I’ve made some parenting mistakes in my time—such as using my poor kids as sermon illustrations on a fairly regular basis, but my goodness, that moment scarred me. “CAUGHT YOU.”
I’m an adult now and still to this day, I feel the shame of those words when I eat a candy bar. Look at v1…1 If anyone is caught in any transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness.
If anyone is caught in any transgression (a word that simply means trespass. If someone does or goes or is somewhere or is some way that is contrary to what’s permitted, and they are caught), what’s the proper response? restore—not call out—restore them in a spirit of gentleness.
Then it continues: “And keep watch on yourself, lest you too be tempted.”
Gentleness grows from an empathetic view of another’s situation,
through a realistic view of our own condition.
They were caught. Caught doing something they shouldn’t. But what’s our model of gently restoring them? Is it to jump out from the other room saying, “Aha! I CAUGHT you!” or is it to recognize, “Hm, I remember what it was like to be caught in the trap of my own sin. I remember what that felt like. I remember the pain and embarrassment and shame that already consumed me in that moment. I wish someone was gentle toward me…”
Approach someone caught in sin with that view, and it’ll transform how you respond. Because Gentleness grows a realistic view of our own condition, which leads to an empathetic view of another’s situation.
How do you restore someone gently? By doing what v2 says…Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.
You know what it’s like to carry a heavy burden, don’t you? You know what it’s like to carry the guilt and shame of having done something you shouldn’t, or just wanting the relief of being caught because at least then you wouldn’t have to bear that weight any more! You know what that’s like… from that place of empathy and understanding, bear the burdens of others as a means of gently restoring them to fullness.
The Christian walk isn’t stagnant; it’s a journey. And there are burdens that we each must bear, but at times, we can offer to carry the burdens of another till they are strengthened and able to bear it themselves. One way that we bear those burdens, Paul says, is by restoring someone caught in sin through gentleness.
And you know it’s gentleness if you are aware not only of their situation, but mindful of your own condition, “keeping watch on yourself lest you too be tempted,” he says, as you “bear the burdens of others.”
Now, pause. V2 says bear burdens, but then v5 jumps in and tells us that: “each will bear their own load.” That seems a bit contradictory, don’t you think? But watch how Paul links these two seemingly paradoxical ideas in a very powerful way.
He starts by saying “in a spirit of gentleness, bear the burdens of others.” Then v3-4 are like Paul writing out his thought process of, “Hm…what keeps us from being gentle and bearing the burdens of others? Oh, it’s because we’re not gentle, we’re prideful…
We’re arrogant because we think we’re something more than we are (v3). We’re like the Pharisee in Luke 18:9-14 who prays “Thank God I’m not this other man.” What cures this? v4—Looking at our own sin. No more comparing. We need to realize the weight of our own sin, that one day when we stand before God, we’re going to have to answer for that load ourselves…that’ll help us learn to be gentle and bear the burdens of others.”
That’s how Paul connects the two. The fruit of Gentleness is produced in the life of a person—who recognizes their own propensity to sin, and has seen and realized that burden has been borne by Someone else too. Look how Paul says it in v2 “Bear one another’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.”
It says bearing burdens is fulfilling “the law of Christ” because Jesus is the Chief burden bearer, and all who follow him become burden bearers as well. You know why he could bear the burdens of others in gentleness? Hebrews 4:15-16 tells us that Jesus is able to empathize with our weaknesses, because he “has been tempted in every way just as we are, yet he did not sin.
Jesus can bear your burdens because he knows what it’s like to be in your shoes. This is a huge statement. Though Jesus never gave into sin, he was still tempted in every way possible, just like us. Now don’t just rush past this incredible statement—we really need to think through the implications of such a declaration.
It says Jesus was tempted in every way possible. He experienced firsthand what it was like to want to do something that God the Father said NO to. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say Jesus was tempted to cut corners—to bypass the pain of the cross for the glory of the resurrection. Jesus was tempted to take matters into his own hands.
If he was tempted in every way that we are, I imagine he was tempted hold a grudge. I mean, would you blame him? He walked 3 and a half years with 12 friends that he hand-picked, but one sold him, another denied they even knew each other, another doubted him, and all except one completely bailed on him in his darkest hour. I know he didn’t hold a grudge but if Jesus was tempted in every way possible then he certainly must’ve experienced the torn-ness that we all feel at times when we want to do the right thing but the wrong thing looks far more appetizing.
If Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, isn’t it possible he experienced feelings of same-sex attraction? Or perhaps there were times where Jesus felt as though he was a woman trapped in a man’s body. This may seem like conjecture, but I believe I’m being faithful to the meaning of the text here: if Jesus was tempted in every way that we are, and Jesus created not just the sun and the moon but also mankind, maybe he was tempted to, you know, do a little reconstructive surgery.
I mean, if Jesus spit on the ground so he could put mud on the eyes of a blind man and give him sight, then isn’t this at least possible?
Hebrews 4:14-15 seems to indicate Jesus experienced every temptation that humanity does, yet he remained without sin. And it was his awareness of experiencing temptation just like that which allows Hebrews 4:16 to close with this: “Therefore, let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.”
Jesus is the ultimate burden bearer…because he knows what it’s like to feel the weight of whatever it is you’re feeling. He put on skin and bone to get close enough to see you through the eyes of empathy, to become familiar with our condition, so he could truly restore us in the spirit of gentleness. Jesus is the ultimate burden bearer.
I had my first teaching job about 10 years ago where I taught elementary and middle school music. One day while I was on my way to work, I noticed someone out of the corner of my eye. It was a homeless man, holding up a sign that said, “Help.”
But unlike the good samaritan, I didn’t stop… I was running late, I had things to do, I was too busy. But later, his eyes… they were seared in my mind and finally my heart broke for him. My heart broke over my own unwillingness to realize that I too was once standing on the corner, if you will, looking for help, and Jesus came for me.
I’d like to read you a poem written as a result of this encounter.
A lonely vagabond of low estate,
This wretched outcast of society—
In righteous rags he veils his wilting frame,
Yet fails to hide his grief and misery.
His salt-worn eyes cascade their ’customed stain;
His body yearns the gentle touch of grace,
But in my self-righteous holiness, I
Condemned his soul to terror in that place.
Then, with his face burned deeply in my mind,
My hardened heart, at last, begins to break,
For I was once this lonely vagabond
So lost within life’s carnal masquerade.
When in my need, a loving Stranger came,
And still I fail to ever love the same.
Jesus came for us. Jesus comes for us all, even now. He knows what you’re going through. He knows firsthand what’s been weighing you down. Listen to his words from Matt 11:28-29…28 “Come to me,” Jesus says, “all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 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.”
Come to me, he says. Jesus is gentle. He is the ultimate burden bearer and He’s come to bear your burdens, that gentleness might grow in you through a realistic view of your own condition and an empathetic view of another’s situation, that we might become a community of burden bearers, as well.
Now as we approach the table, we hear the voice of Jesus saying, “Come to me and rest.”
You no longer need to justify yourself
for in Christ you have been justified.
You no longer need to strive toward status
for in Christ you have been raised to heavenly places.
You no longer need to work to gain the approval of others
for in Christ you have the smiles of the Father,
the love of the Son, and the seal of the Spirit.
As we take the bread and dip it into the cup, together we proclaim the mystery of our faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again.
Lord Jesus, it was not as you walked with the two disciples along the road that they recognized you, but it was in the breaking of the bread. I pray that you would make yourself known to us now in this time as well. Let our hearts burn within us, awaken newness of life within us, forgive of our selfishness, and cause us to see through a new set of eyes. May your gentleness be our guide, we pray. Amen.