The Fruit of the Spirit: Gentleness
If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of someone else’s harshness, you know it doesn’t feel good. Yet we find ourselves feeling harsh toward others. As we continue our study of the fruit of the Spirit, though, we find that gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit.
Galatians (Geneva Commentaries), John Brown
Galatians (Crossway Classic Commentaries), Martin Luther
Galatians For You, Timothy Keller
I can’t recall exactly what the signs say, but I see signs now in storefronts sometimes that encourage those coming in to speak gently, or something like that, because you never know what others are going through. We’ve probably all been on the receiving end of harsh words or intimidating actions from others, and can attest that it feels pretty awful. It’s hard to imagine many more psychologically damaging things, things that really stick with your nervous system, than facing real hostility from someone else. And yet, we sometimes feel that hostility toward others, though we may bottle it up. It may even be a way we respond to being harshly treated. But today, as we near the end of our study of the fruit of the Spirit, we find that gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit. So approach others with the gentleness the Holy Spirit works in you. To help you do that, we’ll ask of gentleness the three questions we’ve been asking of each fruit of the Spirit: What is it, why is it a fruit of the Spirit, and how can we act on it?
What is gentleness?
The second to last item listed in the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23 is gentleness. Remember our best guide to understanding the meaning of a word is context, and we start with the closest context. In this case, we have something in the very close context in Galatians 6:1. There we read that if any brother is caught in a transgression, you who are spiritual should restore him in a spirit of gentleness. So we learn there that gentleness isn’t so much an action in itself; it’s a spirit in which we do other actions, such as, in this case, restoring a brother caught in a transgression. That’s the only other occurrence in Galatians, so the next place we look is other writings of Paul. In 1 Corinthians 4:21, Paul asks the Corinthians if they want him to come to them with a rod, or with love in a spirit of gentleness. There, again, we have this language of a spirit of gentleness, and it is contrasted with coming with a rod. Paul wrote the first letter to the Corinthians to warn them. He saw a number of concerning things in their church. To use the language of our text, he saw the works of the flesh running rampant among them. Though the gifts of the Spirit abounded in them, the fruit of the Spirit was sorely lacking. Especially prominent in the church at Corinth among the works of the flesh we see in Galatians were sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, enmity, strife, jealousy, rivalries, dissensions, envy…most of the list, come to think of it. So Paul writes to them to call them to repentance, and depending on their response, he suggests two alternatives of how he will come to them in person: Either with a rod, if they don’t repent, or in a spirit of gentleness, if they do.
We learn from this some important things about gentleness. First, we learn that it is not always loving to be gentle. 1 Corinthians 4:21 implies that coming with a rod would have been the loving thing for Paul to do if the Corinthians refused to repent. And we see throughout the Bible that the rod, though contrasted with gentleness, can be used lovingly. So God, in 2 Samuel 7:14-15, tells David that when his sons commit iniquity, he will discipline him with the rod of men, but his steadfast love will not depart from him. In Psalm 2, in a prophecy of Jesus, the most loving human there ever was, we read that he will rule with a rod of iron and dash the nations in pieces like a potter’s vessel (Psalm 2:9). In Proverbs 13:24, we read that whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him. So in Hebrews 12:6 we read that God disciplines the one he loves. And in Psalm 23, we find that the Psalmist even took comfort in this: It is not only God’s staff, but God’s rod, that comforts him (Psalm 23:4).
So we don’t want to think of this fruit of the Spirit of gentleness in such a way as to imply that all use of the rod is necessarily from the flesh, and nonetheless, in 1 Corinthians 4:21, Paul contrasts coming with a rod with coming with a spirit of gentleness. How can we make sense of the potentially positive use of the rod alongside its contrast with gentleness, a fruit of the Spirit? In two ways: One, we can say that when faced with the choice between the rod and gentleness, the Holy Spirit inclines us to prefer gentleness, insofar as it depends on us. So Paul tells the Corinthians he’s willing to take either option, but it’s clear from the fact that he’s writing the letter and calling them to repentance that he’d rather they repent, and he be able to come with love in a spirit of gentleness. We see this in Galatians as well. Galatians has some “rod-like” sayings: “If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed” (1:9), “O foolish Galatians, who has bewitched you?” (3:1), and perhaps the most severe: “You are severed from Christ, you would be justified by the law; you have fallen away from grace” (5:4). And yet, listen to this from 4:20: “I wish I could be present with you now and change my tone”! The churches of Galatia were also in grave danger, so Paul had to warn them firmly, but he wishes he didn’t have to! He wants to come to them in a spirit of gentleness. So one way we can make sense of the potentially positive use of the rod alongside its contrast with gentleness, is to say that those in whom the Spirit dwells will prefer to be gentle, though they are willing to use the rod when love requires it.
Another way we can make sense of it is to recognize that even in their use of the rod, the gentle hope for the restoration of those on whom they use it, as long as such restoration is still possible. If you recall when we looked at the fruit of the Spirit of joy, we noted that joy does vary in this life because we are not yet with the object of our joy, God, and there are still forces that oppose him in this world. So we see throughout scripture that Spirit-filled people grieve, and yet while they are sorrowful, they are always rejoicing. Similarly, we could say that gentleness will only be complete in heaven. Heaven will be a world of perfect gentleness, because there will be nothing left to oppose. The enemies will all be defeated. Yet while here, the rod, correction, firm warnings and the like are necessary, yet we might say that just as we are sorrowful, yet always rejoicing, the Spirit inclines us to be firm, yet always gentle. Parents must use the rod to oppose sin in their children, but not to oppose their children! And Paul uses firm warnings to oppose sin in the church of Corinth and the churches of Galatia, but not to oppose the Corinthians or the Galatians! So in 1 Corinthians 5, just after the verse where he asks the Corinthians if they want him to come with a rod or with love in a spirit of gentleness, he tells the Corinthians to do something that sounds quite harsh to modern people: He tells them to remove a man from the membership of their church, and to not even eat with him. And he puts it in very stark terms: He calls it “handing him over to Satan” (1 Cor 5:5). That doesn’t sound very gentle, does it? But listen to why he tells them to do it: “When you are assembled in the name of the Lord Jesus and my spirit is present, with the power of our Lord Jesus, 5 you are to deliver this man to Satan for the destruction of the flesh, so that his spirit may be saved in the day of the Lord” (1 Cor 5:4-5). His desire is that the man turn from his sin and be saved!
Or listen to these words from Paul to Timothy about qualifications for elders: “And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim 2:24-25). Do you see that spirit of gentleness there? The Lord’s servant must correct his opponents; no waffling there. But he must do it with gentleness, because, God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and that’s what the Spirit inclines us to want, even for our opponents. So now we can attempt a definition: The gentleness which is a fruit of the Spirit is a tender disposition toward others that communicates favor and welcome, even when love requires correction. It’s a tender disposition, meaning tenderness is our default setting toward others, our preference. And even when love requires correction, that tender disposition communicates favor and welcome. Favor meaning, “I’m for you! I want your good!” That’s what we saw in 1 Corinthians 5 and throughout Paul’s writing to the Galatians: I’m warning you because I’m for you!
Gentleness communicates favor and welcome, welcome meaning, “I want to be with you! I want to be close to you. Come in!” We see that in Galatians 6:1, where we’re told to restore the brother caught in a transgression in a spirit of gentleness. What is this restoration, after all? It’s not restoring them to the Lord; we don’t have that power. It’s restoring them to the church, welcoming them back in to the community after they’ve been caught in a transgression. This is exactly what Paul tells the church in Corinth to do to the man they removed after he repents: “Turn and forgive him,” Paul says, “or he may be overwhelmed by excessive sorrow” (2 Cor 2:7). That’s gentleness. Gentleness is a tender disposition toward others that communicates favor and welcome, even when love requires correction. It’s a disposition that communicates to people, “I’m for you” and “I want to be with you.”
We can see the opposite in our list of works of the flesh in the phrase of verse 20: “fits of anger” and perhaps also in the words “dissensions” and “divisions.” A fit of anger is when we are quick to get the rod out. We aren’t using it out of love for God or another person. We’re using it because we love something else, and this person is in the way of it. I love getting things done, and this person is in my way, so now I’m angry with them. I love the praise of others, and this person is stealing it, so now I’m angry with them. I’m not for them; I’m against them. I don’t desire their good; I desire their harm. I don’t want to be with them; I want to get rid of them. That’s a spirit of anger, as opposed to a spirit of gentleness. An angry spirit is the opposite of gentleness; a divisive spirit is also. Remember in 2 Timothy that the opposite of the Lord’s servant who corrects his opponents with gentleness is one who is quarrelsome, one who is looking for a fight. When faced with the choice of the rod of a spirit of gentleness, he secretly hopes for the rod. Scroll twitter for 30 seconds if you want to see the opposite of gentleness in this way, as people read one another’s comments in the worst possible light, in hope of sparking a fight, rather than in hope of restoration. And, of course, divisive people want to be rid of someone else, not welcome and be with them. So the opposite of gentleness is an angry, divisive spirit, that prefers to be harsh and to exclude others.
The counterfeit of gentleness is timidity. It is similar to affirmation, the counterfeit of love, or niceness, the counterfeit of kindness and goodness. Timidity means I’m actually just so scared of conflict, scared of confrontation, and really, if we want to call it what it is, just so scared of people, that I’ll never use the rod, never correct, never speak out against injustice. Timidity doesn’t genuinely restore a brother caught in a transgression, because it can’t even acknowledge that a brother is caught in a transgression. It’s not genuinely welcoming, because it can’t even acknowledge when someone isn’t yet “in.” It’s not genuinely for the good of another, because it’s willing to let others run headlong into sin and judgment to preserve its own comfort. The Chaves family, members here, were recently in Buffalo for a snow storm that ended up being deadly for some. Imagine you’re inside your house, safe and warm during such a storm, and someone is outside without shelter, at risk of dying in the storm, but they think they’re safe and sound. What does a gentle person do in such a situation? They go outside, and they say to the person, “Hey, I’ve got to tell you, and I know it’s going to be hard for you to hear: If you stay out here, you’re going to die, and I don’t want that for you. My house is safe and warm, and I would love for you to come in. Would you come with me?” The angry, divisive person tries to figure out how to get more people in the house out into the cold. But the timid person simply stays inside, but maybe shoots a text to the person outside that says, “Hey, I know some might be telling you you’re going to die and making you feel like you need to change, but I just want you to know that in my mind and heart, you’re safe and warm,” while in fact, they’re outside dying in the cold. But these are the responses of which our flesh is capable: The opposite and the counterfeit. We love things, and when people get in the way of them, we get angry, and so engage in the opposite of gentleness. Or we love feeling better than others, so we are quarrelsome. Or we love ourselves, and to protect ourselves from discomfort, we engage in the counterfeit: timidity. So let’s talk, then, about why gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit.
Why is it a fruit of the Spirit?
I’ve already mentioned how our flesh inclines us to the opposite and counterfeit of gentleness, but remember when we think of the flesh, we should not only think of what most of us would consider grossly immoral acts. We should also think of religious efforts that spring from our nature, that don’t require the work of God’s Spirit. That’s what the false teachers who had infiltrated the churches of Galatia were trying to draw them into. They were telling them to get circumcised and observe certain days, months, seasons, and years, things the human flesh can do. That sort of thing can make you religiously observant, but it doesn’t make you gentle.
One of the most common characteristics of religiously devout communities, in fact, is how harsh they are. Some of you perhaps grew up in churches that had harsh cultures, led by harsh pastors. In some cases, that may be because the church had ceased to be a true church by ceasing to preach the gospel, and religion had filled the void. In other cases, the gospel may have been preached, but not believed, and therefore the fruit of the Spirit of gentleness was not present. Whatever the case, religion does not produce gentleness, because religion operates on the premise that my righteousness determines my standing before God. That’s why you have to get circumcised and observe the days and so forth, or fill in whatever rituals another religion may require. Now, if your righteousness determines your standing with God, what happens when you perceive a trace of unrighteousness in yourself or in others? It scares you. It’s a threat to you, and what does our flesh do with threats? It seeks to eliminate them, to protect itself. It’s harsh with them. So religious people can be very hard on themselves and on others. A few weeks ago Chris Andino from 10th Presbyterian preached here and referenced Colossians 2, where Paul criticizes religious practices that “have an appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body,” but are “of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh” (Col 2:23). In other words, instead of opposing sin, which is good, the religious are so threatened by the mere appearance of it that they oppose sinners, which includes both themselves and others. And the heart is, “I want to destroy you,” not “I want to heal you”; “I want to cut you out,” not, “I want to bring you in.” So gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, first, because the flesh cannot produce it, either by way of anger, division, timidity, or religion.
But it’s also a fruit of the Spirit because it is an attribute of God. God is fundamentally gentle. Think about this: Both love and wrath are attributed to God in the Bible, but we’re never told that God is wrath. We are, on the other hand, told that God is love (1 John 4:8). Love is of God’s essence, while wrath is how God’s love reveals itself when facing sin. No sin, no wrath. But without sin, and even without creation, God is love. The Father eternally loves the Son in the communion of the Spirit, which means this tender disposition that we’ve been talking about, that communicates favor and welcome, is eternally present between the Father and the Son in the unity of the Holy Spirit. We might say it is his default setting.
And we see this revealed in creation. He creates the first humans and he gives them commands, but not in a harsh manner. Before he tells them to be fruitful and multiply, he blesses them (Gen 1:28). Before he tells them not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, he tells them to eat from every tree of the garden (Gen 2:16). And he doesn’t say things like, “If you even look at that tree, so help me…” Satan tries to make him sound like that, but that’s not what God said. And then, even when they eat the fruit he commanded them not to eat, the first thing he does isn’t blast them. He speaks to them, and even then, he speaks gently. He comes to Adam, not with a curse, but with a question. And the question isn’t, “How dare you?” It’s, “Where are you?” (Gen 3:9). What’s that communicate? It communicates, “I want to be with you.” Then God does correct, and God does pronounce the curse, but in the middle of it, he also promises redemption! He says there would come a child of the woman who would crush the head of the serpent who lied to them.
And that child of the woman is the clearest revelation of the gentleness of God we have, because he is the ultimate revelation of God. It was he who said, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” We have free copies of a book on the back table with the Orange Box for you to take if you don’t yet have one. It’s called Gentle and Lowly, a title taken from this verse, where Jesus describes himself as gentle and lowly in heart. Let me quote you a section of it on that verse. Ortlund writes: “We learn much in the four Gospels about Christ’s teaching. We read of his birth, his ministry, and his disciples. We are told of his travels and prayer habits. We find lengthy speeches and repeated objections by his hearers, prompting further teaching. We learn of the way he understood himself to fulfill the whole Old Testament. And we learn in all four accounts of his unjust arrest and shameful death and astonishing resurrection…But in only one place—perhaps the most wonderful words ever uttered by human lips—do we hear Jesus himself open up to us his very heart…[there] we are not told that he is ‘austere and demanding in heart.’ We are not told that he is ‘exalted and dignified in heart.’ We are not even told that he is ‘joyful and generous in heart.’ Letting Jesus set the terms, his surprising claim is that he is ‘gentle and lowly in heart.’”
Ortlund goes on to explain that in the Bible, the heart is not just part of who we are, it’s the essence of who we are, and Jesus, as the true Son of God, one in being with the Father, says his very essence is gentleness. Yes, this is the same Jesus who Psalm 2 said would rule the nations with a rod of iron, who turned over tables at the temple, and who pronounced curses on the pharisees. He’s not timid. And once he finished pronouncing curses on the pharisees, do you know what he said next? “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you were not willing!” (Matt 23:37). Do you see what he would rather have done? He would rather have gathered them like a hen gathers her brood under her wings! His arms were wide open to them; that’s the posture of Jesus’ heart, even toward sinners like us deserving of his curse! And even when we nailed his arms open to a cross, he didn’t call down a curse on us. Instead, he prayed: “Father, forgive them” (Luke 23:34), because he came not to bully us into submission, but to submit himself to suffering on our behalf, so that we could be forgiven. He went under the rod of God’s judgment that our iniquities deserved, so that even now, risen from the dead, he comes to all who labor and are heavy laden in a spirit of gentleness and says to them: Come to me, and I will give you rest.
So come to him today, and he will give you rest. The day is coming when he will come with the rod, to dash the nations in pieces like a potter’s vessel, but today he comes with a spirit of gentleness, holding out to you the hope of salvation. Come to him, and he will give it to you, and he will give you his Spirit, to work in you the same gentleness that is in him. In him, God is for you, and God is with you. Though he will still discipline you when you sin against him, he will never remove his steadfast love from you. He will take even your sins and use them for your good, and he will never leave you nor forsake you. He’s not hostile toward you, he’s not trying to get rid of you. He’s hostile toward your sin, in order to help you, in order to bring you even closer to himself. His heart is tender toward you, and you can know there is nothing in it but love for you if you are in Christ. As the Spirit gives you a sense of that deep down, he gives you a tender disposition toward others that communicates favor and welcome, even when love requires correction. That’s why gentleness is a fruit of the Spirit, and it’s what the Spirit is working in you if you are in Christ today. Let’s close, then, by considering how we can act on it.
How can we act on it?
We can begin by considering how we welcome one another. If gentleness is a tender disposition that communicates favor and welcome, the Spirit inclines you to greet others in such a way that would tend to make someone feel, under ordinary circumstances, that you are for them and want to be with them. I confess to my shame this is a weakness of mine. I feel safer to be kind of stand-offish, but scripture commands us to greet one another with a holy kiss (e.g., Rom 16:16). While we aren’t bound to that particular form, we are bound to the principle: Christians should especially greet one another with warm affection as those who are already together in Christ, but we should even have a welcoming posture to those who aren’t yet in Christ, like the example of those inside the warm house while others are dying out in the snowstorm, acknowledging they aren’t yet in, but letting them know in the spirit in which we approach them that we want them to come in. It is in that very context that Peter tells us to give an answer for the hope that is in us, but to do so with gentleness and respect (1 Peter 3:15). Learning to smile, to hug, and to gently say, “Could I share with you the message of Jesus?” or even, “Could I explain to you how I see that differently?” are ways to act on gentleness.
We can then think of the example in Galatians, of how we treat a brother who is caught in a transgression. Verse 1 of chapter 6 tells us to restore him in a spirit of gentleness. So again, we cannot be timid; we cannot restore someone we cannot acknowledge needs restoration. In Matthew 18, Jesus lays out for us the process we are to follow in such situations: We go to the person individually and confront them, if that doesn’t produce restoration, we take 1 or 2 others, if that doesn’t produce restoration, we tell the church, and if the person refuses to listen even to the church, we remove them from the membership of the church (Matt 18:15-17), still in hope, as Paul said, that they will turn and then, if they do, we restore them in a spirit of gentleness. That’s the process, but gentleness speaks to the spirit in which we engage the process. Our heart throughout should be their restoration. The hope should be that they turn and we can receive them back in with open arms, and that will show itself in subtle ways: The words we choose, the tone with which we communicate with them, our facial expression when we do, and so forth. And it shows itself in that when someone does repent, they should not hear from us further evidence of their guilt. “Yeah; I can’t believe you did that. Especially when you consider…” They should hear something like, “God is faithful and just to forgive you your sins and cleanse you from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).
Most of you aren’t elders, but I mentioned that this is an elder qualification. 1 Tim 3:3 is even clearer, in the classic list of elder qualifications, that an elder must be “not violent, but gentle.” While most of you aren’t elders, we should all aspire to the character of elders, and church members are responsible for identifying elders. One way to act on gentleness, then, is to aspire to gentleness as you would any other elder character qualification, to make sure when you do have opportunities to lead others, that you’re leading them in a way that communicates favor and welcome, not in a way that is coercive. And, identify men who are gentle as elders, and follow them. The flesh often wants to follow timid men, because they’ll never get in the way of us doing what our flesh wants to do. Or the flesh wants to follow angry, divisive men, because they seem strong, and they at least provide direction in a world that often lacks it. But if you want to follow the good shepherd, who is himself gentle and lowly in heart, make sure the men you’re following are gentle in heart as well, and pray for me and the other pastors here, that God would work this heart in us more and more.
For similar reasons it’s required of elders, opportunities to act on gentleness are common in the New Testament in our household relationships. So Peter, in addressing wives, tells them to prioritize the beauty of “a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:4). So, wives, when the Spirit inclines you to encourage and submit to your husband’s leadership, that’s an opportunity to act on gentleness. Husbands similarly are commanded in Colossians 3:19 by way of prohibition: “Husbands, love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” Husbands, when you feel the desire to come down hard on your wife, do not act on it. Speak and act toward her in such a way that she knows she’s safe, and that you want to be close to her. Fathers especially are warned not be harsh with their children (Col 3:21, Eph 6:4). They must discipline as we saw earlier, but make sure it’s measured, and make sure your son or daughter knows they’re safe, knows you love them, and knows you want to be close to them. So also, masters of household servants, or employers in our day, are told to stop their threatening of their employees (Eph 6:9). You who are in management roles, be gentle with your employees.
Our Lord is gentle and lowly in heart. His heart is to bless, to favor, and to bring near. It is so much his heart that he was willing to suffer under the rod for our transgressions, so that we could know the love of God in a spirit of gentleness. So approach others with the gentleness the Holy Spirit works in you.