This sermon is part of the sermon series "Fruit: It Does a Body Good". See series.
This is the seventh week we've been growing through our study of the fruit of the Spirit. This week we're going to look at gentleness. You might be thinking, Are you serious? Do you know what happens to gentle people? They get walked over. They get stepped on. They get laughed at. And most often they're ignored. So thanks but no thanks. I'll take all the others but I'll pass on gentleness. Why might we have a negative response when we hear the word "gentleness"? The dictionary defines the word as this: mild, moderate, soft, and delicate. Submissive; to voluntarily assume equality with an inferior.
But if we look at Galatians 5:22, we find that gentleness is one of the qualities that God wants to cultivate in our lives. Gentleness is a part of the fruit of the Spirit. Perhaps a struggle we have with gentleness is that we don't really understand what it is. Charles Swindoll writes:
In our rough and rugged individualism, we think of gentleness as weakness—being soft and virtually spineless. Not so. Gentleness includes such enviable qualities as having strength under control, being calm and peaceful when surrounded by a heated atmosphere, emitting a soothing effect on those who may be angry or otherwise beside themselves, and possessing tact and gracious courtesy that causes others to retain their self esteem and dignity. Instead of losing, the gentle gain; instead of being ripped off and taken advantage of, they come out ahead.
Now that's something worth striving for. Instead of losing, the gentle gain. Instead of being ripped off and taken advantage of, they come out ahead.
Power under control
The Greek word for gentleness comes from two words—prautēs and epieikēs. prautēs means humility, considerateness, meekness. It usually refers to things, objects, or people—words that are gentle, soothing medicine, soothing actions, soothing feelings. This word might refer to tame animals or charitable and generous people. prautēs is something you expect from your friends.
epieikēs is a word used to express a balanced, intelligent, decent outlook on life—a good citizen, an admired person, a trusted individual—these all fall under the heading of epieikēs. Plato called this the cement of society. So the Greeks defined gentleness as power under control, and their word picture was that of a horse that had been tamed. You see, gentleness was to them a powerful animal whose passion and power was fully and completely under control.
What are some of the word pictures that we could assign today? Bring to your mind pictures we saw when hurricane Katrina ravaged the south. We saw water and wind totally out of control, reeking devastation and destruction wherever it went. But now think about this: that same power from water, when brought under control, is the power that rushes over a dam turning the turbines that will generate electricity and light to surrounding cities. Power under control.
A disease out of control can destroy the body and even kill the individual. I'm old enough to remember the horrors of the polio epidemic back in the 1950s. Parents were afraid to send their children to school. They were afraid to send them out to play. The same disease under control, however, can produce a vaccine that saves lives. I remember the day when the Salk vaccine was introduced, bringing hope and health to so many. Power under control.
In order to get a better picture of what this kind of gentleness is about, let's take a look in Scripture for some examples—some word pictures of power under control. God wants our lives to reflect the character of Christ. So let's take a look at some situations that Jesus found himself in—situations with people who would try our patience, test our gentleness, and would keep us humble.
In the fourth chapter of John, Jesus encounters the woman at the well. This is the woman who was married five times and is now living with a man who isn't her husband, and she's a Samaritan, to boot. Not the kind of person you want to be associated with. Jesus asks her for a drink of water, and her response isn't all that kind, yet Jesus responds gently. Why? Is he afraid of her? Is he afraid someone might see them together? Or worse yet, is he afraid that she may leave and tell people that Jesus spoke to her? None of the above. He responded gently because he saw beyond her reputation. He saw a thirsty and needy person. He saw a person who needed his living water. He saw a person who needed restoration, and with gentleness, he restored her.
Then Jesus encountered the woman caught in adultery in John 8. Those who caught her were salivating. They could feel those smooth stones in their hands and were poised to stone her to death; they could hardly wait. Did Jesus join them? Did he pick up a stone and join the crowd? No. Using his finger he wrote in the sand, and when he was finished, they were all gone. Just the woman was there. Jesus looked at her and said, "There's no one here to condemn you. I don't condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin." Clearly she was guilty. Jesus knew that, but he saw beyond her reputation. He saw a person who needed to be restored, and with gentleness he restored her.
Then in Luke 19, we read the story of Jesus and that wee little man in the tree, Zacchaeus. Zacchaeus—the hated tax collector, rich because he took money from other people, absolutely despised by everyone. Does Jesus, upon seeing Zacchaeus, point his finger at him and accuse him of being the thief he really is? No. Jesus looks up, points to him, and says, "Zacchaeus, come down from that tree. I'm coming to your house for dinner tonight." Jesus saw beyond Zacchaeus' reputation. He saw a man who needed to be restored, and with gentleness he restored him.
Now picture this scene from Luke 2. Martha, a friend of Jesus, had invited him and his disciples over for dinner. Lots of preparation needed to go into this meal. So picture Jesus in the living room, Mary—Martha's sister—sitting at his feet, and twelve disciples sitting with him. It's a beautiful scene: Jesus is teaching, and Martha's in the kitchen. All Luke says is that Martha was in the kitchen then she came out. Between Martha in the kitchen and the word then, I'm guessing there was some banging of pans, slamming of cabinet doors, some heavy sighs, all in hopes that Jesus might come in and say, "Can I help you? Is something wrong?" But Martha gets all worked up, comes out, stands in front of Jesus, hands on her hips, and says, "Tell my sister to help me." Face to face with his friend Martha, Jesus could have rebuked her. She deserved it, didn't she? Instead, he says, "Martha, Martha." Two times he calls her name in a tone of endearment. He saw beyond her frustration. He saw beyond her anger. He saw beyond her jealousy. He saw a woman who needed to be restored, and he restored her.
The source of Jesus' strength
Yeah, you might say, but that was Jesus. He was the all-powerful Son of God. If I live like that I may get stomped on. That's true. You might. You probably will. Jesus did—from a worldly perspective. Judas betrayed him. Peter denied him. His friends deserted him. That sounds like getting stomped on to me. But before all of the betrayal when Jesus was about to die, Jesus was in the garden. He knew what was coming. He knew he needed to draw strength from his Father.
When I was growing up, my parents had a picture in our home of Jesus in the garden, kneeling before a big rock. His hands are folded, he has a serene look on his face, and there's a light coming down from heaven. That's not the way it happened. Earlier in Matthew 26, Jesus said, "My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death." Have you ever felt like that? Then we read that "He fell with his face to the ground and prayed, 'Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.'" "Isn't there another way?" he was saying, "Yet, not as I will but as you will." You can feel the agony in his heart, as well as the release as Jesus gives up his will to the will of his Father.
There is freedom and strength in that exchange. Jesus left the garden, filled with the power from his Father. He walked into the next scene full of strength, dignity, and power—power and strength under control, because he knew who was in control. In verse 53, Jesus speaks a most powerful statement: "Do you think I cannot call on my Father and he at once will put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?" You see, Jesus willingly gave up that power to embrace a greater power. Jesus was strength under control—under the control of his Father.
Under God's control
Our art work for this week is a beautiful example of gentleness. It is a woodcarving done by Bill Lund. As I studied this woodcarving, I thought of Bill's hands in control of his knife, gently carving away to create this scene. Here is Bill's description of the piece:
Lars is the single man with his hands in his pockets. He is actually a widower who has lost his wife and now lives alone. Lars returned home after a long illness and has been told by his doctor to take it easy until he is fully recovered. His neighbors, Oscar and Sarah, went over to welcome him home and discovered that he was without heat and decided to help Lars by splitting wood for his woodstove. Unseen in this woodcarving is also their promise to get him some groceries and prepare some meals for him. Sarah carries the load of wood, and Oscar feels the weight of the ax as he splits the dried log—something that he hasn't done in a long time. Lars stands helpless on the side, wanting to help Sarah carry in the wood, but he can do nothing. He can only say thanks.
In the detail and fine lines, Bill has captured the essence of gentleness, each person exhibiting strength under control. Lars is giving up his independence; Oscar and Sarah are giving up some of their time and strength. Oscar hasn't held an ax in a long time, but that's his gift to Lars. Lots of logs are already chopped and ready to provide heat for the cold winter, and in this scene Oscar stands poised with the ax. Lars is letting go of his control. Letting go of our way, our lives, our plans, and responding in gentleness is hard. It's difficult to stand by and allow others to do for you what you are used to doing for others.
My mom was a strong woman and ahead of her time. She chaired committees, baked for masses of people, and even told the mayor how to run the city many times. But slowly an illness began its deteriorative work, and her world became increasingly small. Her life became more of what she couldn't do and less of what she could do. For a long time she fought this illness. She fought her loss of independence, and she fought those of us who tried to help her. But my mom loved God; she'd been a Christ follower for a long time. And after a period of time, those holy habits began to rise to the surface, and she was able, as Peter says in chapter two of his first letter, to entrust herself to the One who judges justly. My mom had to let go. Life wasn't as she planned, but she knew she'd make it through as long as Christ was with her. And she knew he would never leave her or forsake her. In her letting go, she drew us in, and we were able to walk with her through those difficult days, admiring a woman who knew that she wasn't in charge of her own destiny—a gentle woman who knew she didn't have to be in control, because God was. That's power and strength under control.
The guise of gentleness
So what does the fruit of gentleness look like in my life, in your life, in our relationships, in our church? First it means that there are going to be times I'm not going to get my way. I know it's hard for some of us, including me, to accept, but it's true. It means that I'm going to do all I can do, and then I'm just going to let go and trust God. It means I have to give up my right to be right. And it means, like Lars, there are going to be times when I'll need some restoration. And there are going to be times when I will need to offer restoration. So gentleness is displayed in my attitude.
Paul writes in Philippians 2:4-5: "Let each of you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus." And what do we know about his attitude? "He took the very nature of a servant. He humbled himself even to the point of death on a cross."
Think about it: each of us living to serve one another, to love one another, to put one another's interests above our own. It's an attitude that prompts us to park a little further away from church so that others can park closer, or an attitude that prompts us to serve in with childcare during the week or donate some food regularly to the food pantry. Maybe you can come up with an even better idea. This kind of attitude can be seen in a teachable spirit, thinking once in a while, Well, maybe I am wrong. I know that's a hard concept, but we have to work on it. We need to choose this attitude. We need to choose to listen and then make an informed decision. It's an attitude that's in the DNA of people who stay close to the vine.
Whether he was washing feet, serving lunch, healing the sick, or standing before Pilate, Jesus knew he was the Son of God sent to serve and to restore. He was the Son of God sent to die for our sins. That's the truth that shapes our attitude, and that's the gentleness we see from God, who sent Jesus here so that our relationship with God could be restored. It was Christ's gentleness that allowed him to forgive and to love. And he calls each of us to be like him—to exhibit power and strength under control. This is the attitude of Christ.
Gentleness is also displayed in my behavior. Paul writes to the Ephesians and tells them to be completely humble and gentle, bearing with one another in love. In the Bible, gentleness is often used as the opposite of such words as harsh, unrelenting, strict, and severe. Bearing with one another in love means to hang in there with a person, to do acts of kindness—bring a meal to someone, drive a friend to the hospital, care for your child. Behavior comes after attitude. When the attitude of your heart is in the right place, your behavior will follow.
If our behavior reflects the gentleness of Christ, we will be people whose energy is focused, people who offer grace to one another, people who encourage rather than condemn, and people who give and receive mercy. That's power and strength under his control.
Finally, gentleness is displayed in my conversation. To the Colossians Paul wrote, "Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt so that you may know how to answer everyone." What does salt do? It preserves, it melts ice, and it brings out flavor. In conversations, do people find my words full of grace and seasoned with salt? Someone once said, "Never enter a life except to build." The modern translation is like this: if you don't have something good to say, don't say anything at all.
I remember first I was asked to speak. It was for a very small group, and I thought, Phew, how bad could it be? It was bad. It was worse than I ever imagined. And I know it was bad because at the end, after I had stumbled and mumbled over everything, the director of the group reached over and patted my hand. I carried that horrible feeling with me for so long, and about a year later, the same director was speaking at a very large event. She approached me and said, "Cynthia, I think as part of my message I'd like someone to tell their faith story. Would you do it?" Well, I almost died even thinking about it. But she said to me, "Why don't you write it out, and then you and I will sit and have coffee and go over it." Her words were sprinkled with salt; they preserved goodness; they melted the ice of fear inside me. Had she responded differently in the face of my fear and weakness in speaking, my life might have taken a very different turn.
James writes in chapter three that our tongue is like a fire. The power of the tongue brought under control can be used to strengthen, encourage, and guide. Every time we open our mouths—whether in our homes, our workplaces, our churches—every time we have a choice. Think to yourself, Will my words help or hurt? Will they build up, or will they tear down?
The fruit of gentleness must be seen in your attitude, in your behavior, and in your conversation, especially when things don't go the way you want them to. Your spouse will disappoint you. Your boss will rub you the wrong way. Your kids will disobey. Your friends will betray you. Even your church will fail you at times. There will be times when you will be right, and everyone else will be wrong. What will you do? What choice will you make? Will you come out fighting? Will you add to that chip on your shoulder? Or will you respond honestly and humbly, using words sprinkled with grace and gentleness?
The right choice isn't one that just happens. The right choice, the fruit of gentleness, isn't something that comes naturally. Gentleness comes from a life committed to living close to the vine. It is a cultivated life committed to a deepening relationship with God. It's a life that offers grace because of the grace God has given. True gentleness is power and strength that's been brought under God's control. Gentle people have been transformed by the surprising message of God's grace, and they delight in showing that grace to others.
Cynthia Fantasia serves as pastor of women at Grace Chapel in Lexington, Massachusetts.