Gentleness: The Mark of a Christian

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Gentleness, so sadly lacking in this world, should be evident in the life of a Christian. What is gentleness, and how can it be a part of your life?

I love those dear hearts and gentle people who live in my home town. Because those dear hearts and gentle people will never, ever let you down." The words of this song, written 47 years ago by Bob Hilliard, call to mind a time when the world was (at least in our collective memory) a more neighborly place. Do you sometimes find yourself wishing for those times? Do you yearn for a return to civility?

Author Robert Fulghum addressed the problem of a general lack of courtesy and politeness this way: "All I really need to know about how to live and what to do and how to be I learned in kindergarten . . . Share everything. Play fair. Don't hit people . . . Say you're sorry when you hit somebody" ( All I Really Need to Know I Learned In Kindergarten , Villard Books, New York, 1989, p. 6). The author then mentioned that the world would be a better place if everyone, including the leaders of governments, lived by these basic principles.

This sandbox wisdom happens to be in agreement with the Bible. It can be described with one word from the Book of Books. That word is gentleness.

Gentleness—mildness of manners or disposition—is too often lacking in our world. Gentleness—not to be confused with weakness or a lack of resolve—is a trait of character we all could use more of.

Gentleness doesn't come naturally. Gentleness is something Christians must learn. It is a trait that is godly, and as His children God expects us to become gentle, as He is.

Becoming gentle is not easy. Sometimes gentleness comes with great difficulty and through harrowing circumstances.

How Elijah learned

An example of learning gentleness the hard way is the life of Elijah. This man of God—the quintessential Old Testament prophet—boldly denounced sin. He exuded courage, seeming to fear no one. On one occasion he called fire down from heaven in a magnificent display of his (and God's) disapproval of lawlessness.

He then proceeded to lead a band of men to execute hundreds of pagan prophets (1 Kings:18:36-40). Surely at this point no one would have mentioned Elijah and gentleness in the same breath.

Elijah was a fierce warrior in the battle against apostasy. But, hard on the heels of this impressive victory against pagan religion, God allowed another type of experience to befall Elijah and teach him something about godly character. The false prophets whom Elijah killed were devotees of wicked Queen Jezebel. Upon hearing of the prophet's zeal in slaughtering the heathen seers, the queen swore out a warrant for Elijah's arrest and execution.

When we read of this episode in Elijah's history, we see the normally resolute man of God suddenly and inexplicably terrified. He acts like a broken man. He flees for his life. He is on the run for 40 days, then finds himself at Mount Horeb (Sinai), where he seeks refuge in a cave (1 Kings:19:1-8). God asks Elijah why he fled. Elijah bitterly replies that he went there because he was "very zealous" for the truth, but his only reward was a death sentence (1 Kings:19:9, 10).

God tells His servant to watch. God then effects three powerful displays. First, a fierce wind rips boulders loose from the mountain. Second, a mighty quake shakes the land. Third, a fire suddenly flares.

At various times God had used all three of these phenomena to communicate with human beings. On this occasion, though, God uses a quite different medium. Elijah hears a "still small voice." The prophet immediately recognizes the voice and comprehends the message.

The Expositor's Bible Commentary notes of this passage: "Even God does not always operate in the realm of the spectacular!" (Vol. 4, p. 150). God apparently wanted to show Elijah His gentle side. People who serve God must retain their humility and be of a gentle spirit. There comes a time to act strongly and loudly, but other times call for a quiet and gentle approach.

Jesus' disciples learned

The disciples of Jesus Christ learned this same lesson. Like Elijah, they wanted to burn evildoers. They mistakenly thought ferocity was the ideal behavior for a servant of God. As He had with Elijah, God intervened, through Jesus Christ, to show them they were wrong.

Friends of James and John called those two "the Sons of Thunder" (Mark:3:17). The Gospel of Luke shows this was an appropriate nickname for the pair. Jesus and His disciples were traveling to Jerusalem, and on the way they sought lodging in a Samaritan city. Historians tell us of long-standing enmity between the Samaritan and the Jewish people. Samaritans refused to allow Jews to enter their city (Luke:9:51-53).

Because they feel snubbed, James and John say they would like to duplicate Elijah's miracle of destruction by fire. Jesus is put off by their attitudes, and His unequivocal response comes through in the statement that "He turned and rebuked them."

Jesus lets James and John know that their attitude is not right because the "Son of Man did not come to destroy men's lives but to save them" (Luke:9:54-56).

In the biblical accounts of Elijah and the Sons of Thunder, Christians can learn an important lesson-that we are to be predominantly gentle people, just as our Savior, Jesus Christ, was gentle. In Jesus' many statements about Himself, one of the most memorable is found in Matthew:11:28-30. Here He plainly states that He is "gentle and lowly in heart."

In His message to His disciples in Matthew 5, commonly called the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus honors pacific people: "Blessed are the poor in spirit . . . Blessed are the meek . . . Blessed are the merciful . . . Blessed are the pure in heart . . . Blessed are the peacemakers" (Matthew:5:1-9).

We see the quality of gentleness woven through the fabric of the message. This trait stands in the Bible as the proper temperament for a servant of God. People who breathe "threats and murder" miss the point of their calling, as was the case with the unconverted Saul of Tarsus (Acts:9:1). Heavy-handed tactics are like a hefty ax that lacks a keen edge. They are more suited to bruise than to prune.

Ours is not a gentle world

When we think of gentleness, we note a marked contrast between that ideal and the standards of our era. Ours is an age that is too often marked by hostility and malice, rather than compassion and reasonableness. It is steeped in the doctrine of cutthroat competition.

Fair, ethical and friendly competition can produce a superior product for the money, but, when abused, competition can exact a great price in human relationships. Vicious and unfair competition can reduce man from a creature of potential gentleness to a product of social Darwinism. The strongest, most competitive survive. Conglomerates and cartels consume small, family-owned businesses. The result can be an inhospitable community, to say the least.

Even our speech too often barbs and bristles, adversely affecting our relationships. The tongue can divide and destroy. Mortimer B. Zuckerman, editor of U.S. News & World Report , wrote: "In these fraught times, our rhetoric must be toned down, our words more carefully weighed . . ." (U.S. News & World Report, June 12, 1995, p. 94).

Destructive, harsh tactics do not reflect the values of the Bible. The prophet Isaiah recorded: "The Lord God has given Me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him who is weary" (Isaiah:50:4). This scripture is in reality a prophecy of Jesus Christ, our example. Society should know a Christian for his gentleness.

Paul wrote, "Let your gentleness be known to all men" (Philippians 4:5). This apostle, formerly the violent and persecuting Saul of Tarsus, had learned the gentleness of God-just as had Elijah. The Greek word for gentleness is epieikes ; it is sometimes translated "graciousness," "courtesy" or "moderation." According to William Barclay, no English word completely captures the meaning of epieikes . Matthew Arnold, a 19th-century English poet, defined epieikes as "sweet reasonableness" ( The Daily Study Bible Series , Vol. 14, p. 96). If epieikes is an evasive concept to translate, it is also an elusive trait to internalize.

Epieikes is manifest in Jesus Christ, as we have seen.

The book of Isaiah shows us that Jesus Christ will deal with an afflicted humanity with the utmost tenderness. "He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather the lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young" (Isaiah:40:11).

Ours is an age in which the followers of Jesus should shine forth as lights in the world by emulating the gentleness of Christ in word and deed.

Those who would follow Jesus Christ must by all means learn what it means to be meek and lowly in heart. GN

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