Fashion designer Coco Chanel once remarked, “gentleness doesn’t get work done unless you happen to be a hen laying eggs.”
Sadly, this dismissal of gentleness is not reserved for the world. In our increasingly polarized society, Christians are also succumbing to the idea that what we really need is brute strength to get things done. Far from dismissing gentleness, the Scriptures speak of gentleness as the way the kingdom of God "gets things done."
But what is gentleness? And does it accomplish things?
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What Does the Bible Say about Gentleness?
In the Scriptures gentleness is at times translated as meekness. In many languages, gentleness and meekness are equated with gentle speech. Teddy Roosevelt said he thought it wise to “speak softly and carry a big stick.” Gentleness for many is synonymous with being quiet spoken, a pushover, and weak. This is why someone like Coco Chanel could say that gentleness doesn’t get things done. According to that definition, one could say that gentleness isn’t doing, it is being done to. But the Bible speaks differently.
There is one main Greek word translated gentleness—prauetes. The Linguistic and Exegetical Key to the Greek NT defines it this way:
“Prautes denotes the humble and gentle attitude which expresses itself, in particular, in a patient submissiveness to offense, free from malice and desire for revenge… controlled strength, the ability to bear reproaches and slights without bitterness and resentment; the ability to provide a soothing influence on someone who is in a state of anger, bitterness and resentment against life… the word indicates an obedient submissiveness to God and His will, with unwavering faith and enduring patience displaying itself in a gentle attitude and kind acts toward others, and this often in the face of opposition.”
Notice especially “controlled strength.” Gentleness is power under control. To really understand this word, think of a powerful animal that is brought under control. That is the biblical picture of gentleness. It is the opposite of being harsh with others. Harshness is usually the response of someone with little power trying to attain it through violence.
There is a secondary word, epieikes, which refers to being gentle, gracious, and forbearing. This means more “that which is fitting, right, and equitable.” Think of this more as being kind and nice. It is used in the OT to show God as being a kind and benevolent ruler.
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Bible Verses about Gentleness
In the Greek version of the Old Testament, the LXX, the word prautes appears 12 times, and 11 times in the New Testament. Here is a sample of their uses.
In the OT it’s often translated humble—as in Psalm 24:9, 33:3, 75:10, 146:6, and 149:4. In most of these instances it is used to indicate the one who will be “taught by the LORD,” is “lifted up by the LORD,” who will be “adorned with salvation” and “saved.” The word was also used to describe the meekness of Moses in Numbers 12:3, and in Psalm 36:11 it is the meek who will inherit the earth.
Prautes is also used to translate a different Hebrew word that is often translated “the poor.” This is the case in Job 24:4, Isaiah 26:6, Zechariah 9:9, and Zephaniah 3:12. Just as with “the humble” we see that God is working to defend and rescue “the poor.” The word can also be used to translate another Hebrew word that refers to things like enduring hardship (Psalm 132:1), toil and trouble (Psalm 89:10). And once again the Lord is working for their rescue.
In the New Testament, the word does not appear in the Gospels or Acts – though it does appear in root form in Matthew 5:5 to describe Jesus. The word is most frequently used by Paul, James, and Peter. 2 Corinthians 10:1 uses the meekness and gentleness (kindness) of Christ as an example for his own pattern. This is similar language to what Paul used in 1 Corinthians 4:21, when he contrasts gentleness with coming to them “with a rod.”
In Galatians, Ephesians, and Colossians the word is used in lists – combined with things like humility – as virtues and graces. In Galatians it is a mark of being led by the Spirit and it is shown as an example of walking in step with the Spirit in Galatians 6:1. When we attempt to restore someone caught in sin, we are to do it “in a spirit of gentleness.” In 2 Timothy and in Titus, gentleness is to mark the Christian leader. When correcting opponents, it should be done with gentleness. And as we engage others we should avoid quarreling with them but should instead have “perfect courtesy” toward all people. This is similar to how Peter uses the word (1 Peter 3:16).
James contrasts gentleness with “filthiness and rampant wickedness.” It is the mark of being one of wisdom. The one who is truly wise and who has received the “implanted word” will be marked by gentleness.
The less common word, epieikes, is used in Paul’s pastoral letters, as well as in James and 1 Peter. It is used similarly to prautes but is more of an opposite of violence. It seems to be synonymous with being a good person. When someone considers someone to have the quality of epiekes, they would say that this is a pleasurable person to be around.
In sum, the Scriptures show God as a kind and gentle leader. And God in Christ is exemplified by the gentleness with which he labored among others. Therefore, as followers of Jesus we are called to exhibit this character trait in our own lives. And it is to those who are gentle and meek who will inherit the earth—the gentle are the ones who receive God’s rescue.
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Why Is Gentleness a Fruit of the Spirit?
But why is gentleness such an important virtue? Of all the character traits which could have been part of the fruit of the Spirit, why is gentleness in that list? Doesn’t gentleness keep us from getting things done? Why is it important for Christians to be gentle?
I am a huge fan of the show “The Curse of Oak Island.” It’s about a couple of brothers and their friends searching for a treasure on an island in Nova Scotia. People have been searching for this treasure for hundred of years. In the 1960s, one man decided to use heavy equipment and bulldozers to move earth and get 100 feet below ground to access the treasure. It was a failure, and he tore up a good deal of potential evidence. He was said to have been cracking a walnut with a sledgehammer.
The current search on Oak Island is slow and methodical. If the previous search had been crushing a walnut with a sledgehammer, the current team is crushing a walnut with precision lasers and analyzing content all the way through the process. They are believed to have been as close as anyone possible. They are finding things that have been overlooked for years. Gentleness is getting something done.
Gentleness is typically used as an opposite of harshness. Consider what would happen if the omnipotent God was characterized by harshness with his creatures made of dust. The picture would be exponentially worse than a very small child trying to hold a kitten, not wielding his power correctly and doing irreparable harm to the small animal. If God were brutish, not a one of us could stand. Yet, he is gentle with us. In Matthew 11:29 Jesus takes upon himself this descriptor: “I am gentle and lowly in heart.”
I think Dane Ortlund says it well:
“And when Jesus tells us what animates him most deeply, what is most true of him—when he exposes the innermost recesses of his being—what we find there is: gentle and lowly.” (Ortlund, Gentle and Lowly, 19)
Is it not fitting then for believers to exude this same characteristic? We who have the mind of Christ ought to also have at our core a gentleness of spirit. This is why this grace is listed among the fruit of the Spirit. Each aspect of this fruit is characteristic of Christ Jesus.
Through Christ we have been given everything we need for life and godliness. We may not realize it, but we are graced a tremendous amount of power. It is necessary, then, that we wield this authority with gentleness. Great damage has been done by Christians who have wielded God-given authority for their own ends instead of for the kingdom. Gentleness is a marker of power used and handled properly.
Would you rather be around someone who is marked by a gentle spirit or one who is harsh, brutish, critical, and aggressive? We may think that those who are harsh will “get things done,” but we have to look at the fruit.
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How Can We Grow in Gentleness?
We grow in gentleness much in the way that we grow in every fruit—we abide in Jesus. But more specifically we grow in gentleness by practicing it. It’s helpful to think about the areas where we are tempted to respond with harshness instead of gentleness. Typically, those are areas where we are acting in the flesh instead of in the Spirit. They are often areas where we carry deep wounds and trauma from our past. Finding healing in those wounds can often help us to respond with gentleness instead of harshness.
Honestly, a change in our worldview/theology would do a great deal of work here as well. We have swallowed the world’s view of power and control. When we celebrate leaders who “get things done” but do so in a way entirely contrary to Christ, we are tainting our hearts. I’ll be blunt and say that one of the best things you can do to grow in a spirit of gentleness would be to turn off the 24-hour news stations and talk radio. We have to ask ourselves if gentleness doesn’t “work,” perhaps we are striving for the wrong kingdom. We grow in gentleness by surrounding ourselves with gentle people. We learn to make their aims our aims.
Remembering the end of the story can be helpful as well. Often our harshness comes from a place of fear. We are harsh and brutish when we are attempting to grab ahold of authority or power that isn’t our own. We do this whenever we feel afraid of the future. But the more we come to know the God who holds our future, as well as where God is taking us, the less prone we will be to carry around a harsh and bitter spirit within our hearts. Consider Revelation 21 as a passage to meditate upon.
The Need for Gentleness
Gentleness may be one of the greatest needs in our day. I think about what Paul said in Philippians on shining like stars in a crooked and perverse generation. Gentleness in our day of polarization and heated rhetoric might go a long way in helping people to see the beauty of Jesus.
We like to think that if Jesus were on earth today, he’d be carrying around a whip. But that’s ignorant of Roman history and the state of corruption within the religious leaders in his day. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. He will still be gentle and lowly in heart. He is gentle with you. And he is calling upon us to exude that same characteristic in our interaction with others.
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