If I were to survey churches all over the country, asking people to describe the characteristics of a Christian believer, I wonder how many would say gentle. I doubt there would be very many. I’d probably hear many people say things such as loving, compassionate, and so on, but gentle is not often top of mind.
What does Paul mean by gentleness in Ephesians 4? Most dictionaries will tell you that gentle or meek—meek is another possible translation—means timid or lacking courage, but those are not biblical definitions. Perhaps one of the best synonyms would be self-controlled. Jesus wasn’t timid. He certainly did not lack courage, yet he once said, “I am gentle and lowly in heart” (Mt 11:29).
I like self-controlled because it implies discipline and restraint. Gentleness doesn’t have anything to do with weakness or cowardice. It’s a word used to describe a wild animal that’s been domesticated. The lion at the circus is no less strong or courageous than it was out in the wild, but its trainers have restrained it. It has learned how to control its abilities. It can still tear someone apart. It remains a powerful animal with massive claws and sharp teeth, but it doesn’t attack anyone just because it’s hungry. It’s subdued if you will. Its power is under the control of its trainer.
According to Galatians 5, gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit. From the inside out, God transforms his people from the vindictive, defensive, quick-to-lash-out people we once were into quiet, mild-mannered people. Even so, Paul reminds us that we do not always balance the scale or walk worthy of our calling. In other words, we sometimes fight against the Spirit to please the flesh. Paul told the Galatians, “If we live by the Spirit, let us also keep in step with the Spirit. Let us not become conceited, provoking one another, envying one another” (Gal 5:25-26).
One of the most difficult things for us to control is emotion. How many times have you reacted without thinking because you were angry? The fury boils up in seconds, and you’re lashing out before you’ve had even a moment to think. Instantly, you regret what you said or did, but it’s too late. At least I hope you regret it. I’m afraid that we’re often prone to justify ourselves. He or she deserved it. Maybe, but vengeance isn’t ours to give. What does Paul say?
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:19-21)
David is a good example of gentleness. King Saul was jealous of David and tried to kill him more than once. In 1 Samuel 24, David has an opportunity to stop it once and for all. He could have killed him. It would have been easy enough because Saul walked right into the cave where David and his men were hiding. Plus, he was seemingly justified, but he didn’t do it. Instead, the Bible says:
David arose and stealthily cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. And afterward David’s heart struck him, because he had cut off a corner of Saul’s robe. He said to his men, “The Lord forbid that I should do this thing to my lord, the Lord’s anointed, to put out my hand against him, seeing he is the Lord’s anointed.” So David persuaded his men with these words and did not permit them to attack Saul. (1 Samuel 24:4-7)
Of course, there’s no better example of meekness than Jesus himself. Can you imagine standing trial for crimes you didn’t commit and not defending yourself? Jesus didn’t say a word despite Pilate’s best attempts to get him to explain himself or maybe plead for mercy. At one point, Pilate asked in a fit of frustration, “You will not speak to me? Do you not know that I have authority to release you and authority to crucify you?” (Jn 19:10). Jesus did respond to that. He said in what I imagine was a surprisingly calm tone, “You would have no authority over me at all unless it had been given you from above” (Jn 19:11).
I’m not suggesting that gentleness forbids us from talking. It’s just that gentleness or meekness is not impulsive. Impulsiveness is where we usually fail. It’s in the face of criticism, opposition, or frustration that we typically lose our cool, and all semblance of gentleness is lost. We shout at our spouse when he or she annoys us. We blow our horn at the guy who cuts us off on the road. We post aggressive messages on Facebook to tell the world of our disagreements with something or someone.
Take a step back. How do those around you perceive you? Would they call you gentle? Are you a model of meekness? A meek person is in control. He’s slow to anger. He’s a peacemaker, quick to forgive, and always ready to support others. He doesn’t walk around with a sense of superiority. Even when he deals with critics of his faith, he responds with loving gentleness. Peter said:
Be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame. For it is better to suffer for doing good, if that should be God’s will, than for doing evil. (1 Peter 3:15-17)
Are we better than our Lord? Should we walk around with arrogance, ready to attack the first person who criticizes or upsets us? Peter said:
For to this you have been called, because Christ also suffered for you, leaving you an example, so that you might follow in his steps. He committed no sin, neither was deceit found in his mouth. When he was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly. (1 Peter 2:21-23)
That’s an interesting way to put it: “Christ continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly.” Do we have enough faith in God to be gentle? That’s what it requires. Meekness means we’re trusting God with our circumstances. We don’t have to pounce like the wild lion because we know that God will take care of our enemies himself. He’ll take care of us, too.
Sadly, more times than not, we’re not even confronted by enemies when we fail to be gentle. We’re just frustrated or annoyed at some meaningless thing. Perhaps we’re just ego-driven in the moment, trying to defend our reputations. Even worse, we sometimes excuse our lack of gentleness in the name of God. “I’m only defending God,” we say. “I’m defending his truth,” as we verbally abuse and discourage some poor babe in Christ. I’ve been guilty too many times to count.
Remember what Jesus said: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called sons of God” (Mt 5:5, 9).