Jesus said: ‘Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.’
When was the last time you observed someone acting in a gentle manner? What did they do that struck you as gentle?
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. Galatians 5:22–23
Recently, my 2-year-old nephew met his 6-week-old cousin for the first time. He spent the entire afternoon trying to ‘share’ all his toys with the baby, which entailed delightedly shoving each toy in his cousin’s little face so he might best appreciate each and every one. I, on the other hand, spent the entire afternoon repeatedly calling out, ‘Matthew, you need to be gentle with the baby. Be gentle!’ It was at that point that I realised our tendency to link gentleness with being ‘like a little child’ is perhaps somewhat misplaced!
Galatians 5:22-23 calls Christians to bear the spiritual fruit of gentleness. Yet how ought we to think about gentleness? How do we understand it? What does it look like in action?
Jesus and Gentleness’s Content
If we truly wish to know what gentleness is, then surely we should look no further than the one who declares, ‘I am gentle’ (Matthew 11:29). That passage is a very familiar one to many of us (even appearing in the Book of Common Prayer Communion service). And yet, when we look more closely, I think we find something perhaps a little unexpected about this concept of gentleness.
We tend to define gentleness as characterising the way we are called to act, and interact, in this world. For us, gentleness is so often a matter of conduct. However, in this Gospel passage, Jesus doesn’t simply describe himself as someone who acts gently. Rather, he says ‘I am gentle.’ Jesus’s gentleness is more than mere conduct, more than simply his manner. Rather, his gentleness has a nature. It has content. Jesus acts gently, because he is gentle.
In that same verse, the content of Jesus’s gentleness is closely linked with his humility. In fact, the connection between gentleness and humility is a frequent refrain throughout the rest of the New Testament (e.g., 2 Corinthians 10:1; Ephesians 4:2, Colossians 3:12). But it is perhaps no more wonderfully recounted than in Matthew 21:1-11, when Jesus sends his disciples to fetch a donkey that he may ride into Jerusalem. We are told that this odd request took place to fulfil the prophecy that the ‘king comes to you, gentle and riding on a donkey’ (see Zechariah 9:9). Surely there can be no clearer demonstration of gentleness than this? The king, entering his royal city, being praised by his people… all while knowingly riding towards his death on the back of, not a noble steed, but an ordinary donkey.
Here we see the content of Jesus’s gentleness. It is his willingness to bring himself low; to temper his might with meekness; to demonstrate his strength with sacrifice; to willingly give his life as a ransom for many. Jesus teaches us that the content of gentleness is not weakness. Rather it is strength that has been sacrificially tempered by love and which is eagerly directed towards bearing the burdens of others — even the burdens of the most undeserving.
Christians and Gentleness’s Conduct
What does this definition of gentleness’s content mean for our exhortation to its conduct in Galatians 5:22-23?
If we are indeed to learn from Jesus’s gentleness, then certainly we are to act gently towards all others and in all circumstances (e.g., Titus 3:2, Philippians 4:5). That is, rather than being people who assert our strength, our position, our “rights”, we are urged to make ourselves low, to lovingly serve others — even when they would dismiss, or even hate us for doing so.
And yet Paul’s words to the Galatians were written within a specific context. The church in that ancient city had become mired in internal division, quarrels, enmity, factions, and false teaching. Paul’s distress at the way they had forsaken both the gospel, and each other, is readily apparent throughout the epistle. He urgently calls them to put such desires of the flesh to death and, instead, to bear the fruit of the Spirit.
Gentleness is part of that fruit. The apostle calls his Christian readers to put aside their internal quarrelling, their enmity, their divisions with each other. He challenges them to stop conceitedly asserting themselves at the expense of others within the church. He exhorts them to cease biting and devouring other brothers and sisters in Christ. And he urges them to be gentle towards each other. To soften strength with sacrifice. To mitigate might with meekness. To not build themselves up in self-righteousness, but to ‘serve one another humbly in love’ (Galatians 5:13).
Gentleness is not weak or insipid. It is love’s strength in humble, burden-bearing and sacrificial action. And Jesus people are called to bear it in our life together.
Questions for Reflection
1. Why does Jesus’s speak of his gentleness alongside his call for weary and burdened souls to come to him for rest?
2. What would be the marks of a church congregation that intentionally sought to treat each other with gentleness? What is the relationship between such gentleness, accountability for godly living, and commitment to maintaining biblical truth?
3. How might cultivating the spiritual fruit of gentleness impact the way Christians respond to the ‘culture of outrage’ that seems so prevalent today?
in your Son is found true might in loving meekness,
true strength in servant-hearted sacrifice:
help us to indeed learn from Jesus,
so that we might better understand and testify
to the gentle graciousness you have shown us in him.
We pray this through the one who brings rest to our souls,
Jesus Christ our Lord,