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 1 Kings 18:36-40 36 And it came to pass at the time of the offering of the evening sacrifice, that Elijah the prophet came near, and said, LORD God of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, let it be known this day that you are God in Israel, and that I am your servant, and that I have done all these things at your word.
37 Hear me, O LORD, hear me, that this people may know that you are the LORD God, and that you have turned their heart back again.
38 Then the fire of the LORD fell, and consumed the burnt sacrifice, and the wood, and the stones, and the dust, and licked up the water that was in the trench.
39 And when all the people saw it, they fell on their faces: and they said, The LORD, he is the God; the LORD, he is the God.
40 And Elijah said to them, Take the prophets of Baal; let not one of them escape. And they took them: and Elijah brought them down to the brook Kishon, and slew them there.
American King James Version×). 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 1 Kings 19:1-8 1 And Ahab told Jezebel all that Elijah had done, and with how he had slain all the prophets with the sword.
2 Then Jezebel sent a messenger to Elijah, saying, So let the gods do to me, and more also, if I make not your life as the life of one of them by to morrow about this time.
3 And when he saw that, he arose, and went for his life, and came to Beersheba, which belongs to Judah, and left his servant there.
4 But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree: and he requested for himself that he might die; and said, It is enough; now, O LORD, take away my life; for I am not better than my fathers.
5 And as he lay and slept under a juniper tree, behold, then an angel touched him, and said to him, Arise and eat.
6 And he looked, and, behold, there was a cake baked on the coals, and a cruse of water at his head. And he did eat and drink, and laid him down again.
7 And the angel of the LORD came again the second time, and touched him, and said, Arise and eat; because the journey is too great for you.
8 And he arose, and did eat and drink, and went in the strength of that meat forty days and forty nights to Horeb the mount of God.
American King James Version×). 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 1 Kings 19:9And he came thither to a cave, and lodged there; and, behold, the word of the LORD came to him, and he said to him, What do you here, Elijah?
American King James Version×, 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 Mark 3:17And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder:
American King James Version×). 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 Luke 9:51-53 51 And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, 52 And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. 53 And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem.
American King James Version×).
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 Luke 9:54-56 54 And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, will you that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did?
55 But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, You know not what manner of spirit you are of.
56 For the Son of man is not come to destroy men’s lives, but to save them. And they went to another village.
American King James Version×).
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 Matthew 11:28-30 28 Come to me, all you that labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
29 Take my yoke on you, and learn of me; for I am meek and lowly in heart: and you shall find rest to your souls.
30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.
American King James Version×. 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 Matthew 5:1-9 1 And seeing the multitudes, he went up into a mountain: and when he was set, his disciples came to him:
2 And he opened his mouth, and taught them, saying,
3 Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
4 Blessed are they that mourn: for they shall be comforted.
5 Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth.
6 Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.
7 Blessed are the merciful: for they shall obtain mercy.
8 Blessed are the pure in heart: for they shall see God.
9 Blessed are the peacemakers: for they shall be called the children of God.
American King James Version×).
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 Acts 9:1And Saul, yet breathing out threatenings and slaughter against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest,
American King James Version×). 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 Isaiah 50:4The Lord GOD has given me the tongue of the learned, that I should know how to speak a word in season to him that is weary: he wakens morning by morning, he wakens my ear to hear as the learned.
American King James Version×). 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 Philippians 4:5Let your moderation be known to all men. The Lord is at hand.
American King James Version×). 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 Isaiah 40:11He shall feed his flock like a shepherd: he shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young.
American King James Version×).
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