It's not an easy word, that gentleness.
Does it mean showing weakness? And how is it different to kindness? How can you be meek and gentle without seeming to be ineffectual or worse, a complete push-over?
To start with, I admit I just thought of gentleness as just another word for being humble - I'm sure in some versions of the Bible, it is called humility rather than gentleness - or is that just me mixing up my passages?!
But now, I realise I haven't really given gentleness a fighting chance. Because actually, there is strength in gentleness. It's not a power struggle dominating kind of strength, but rather a firm, quiet point of view, a slow-to-anger response, and never being too 'important' to do the little things.
Last time I went job hunting, I had a story to tell which I hoped would be a good example of a 'can-do' attitude, that I'd do what it took to get the job done without worrying whether the 'task' was appropriate for the official job title. To illustrate, I shared the story of my role as Finance Manager, where I was reporting directly to the CEO and providing timely financial information to make strategic decisions for the company. The size of the company (which had recently downsized from 40 to 20) meant it now fell to me and my assistant to order the milk, stationery, Friday drinks, tasks which we used to have a whole Administration team to carry out. I even found myself unblocking a toilet early one Monday morning to save the company the cost of a call-out to the plumber. I think it's important never to be too precious about where we find ourselves in life. If we can manage to greet each task with the same degree of enthusiasm and conviction no matter what it is, then we will find less bitter pills to swallow along the way.
There's another story told about a corporal directing three men as they tried to lift a log into place. It was too heavy, but the corporal demanded again and again "All right men, one, two, three, lift!" A man in an overcoat came by and said to the corporal "Why don't you help them?" The corporal pulled himself up to his full height and replied "Sir I am a corporal". Without a word, the man stepped in, and with his help the log went easily into place. The man was George Washington.
Here are some meanings I found for gentleness, some of which really surprised me:
- Humbleness that does not consider itself too good to do something
- Restraint coupled with strength and courage
- Enduring injury with patience and without resentment - being able to take unkind remarks with good nature
- Having a humble, kind demeanour which calms another's anger
- Powerful, yet tamed and under control. Like a tamed horse, it's strength is no longer wasted in the wild, but it has been focused in order to fulfill a purpose
- Conduct on the part of people who have the power to show otherwise - like a king forgiving a servant who has failed at a task, and instead of punishing him, chooses to show kindness and forgiveness.
On the other hand, gentleness is not:
- A false modesty, or
- A spineless refusal to stand for anything - that's called being a coward!
Why be gentle?
It's not just about do unto others as you would have them do unto you, there is a regenerative aspect to gentleness. Treating people gently brings about restoration, and it protects us in situations where we would otherwise act out maliciously from a sense of anger or injustice.
That is not to say that a gentle person cannot get angry, but rather that a gentle person will be angry:
'on the right grounds, and against the right persons, and in the right manner, and at the right moment, and for the right length of time' (Aristotle)
How can we develop gentleness in our lives?
Sometimes we learn gentleness through God's tender touch in our lives, and at other times through difficult times, through resistance. If we allow ourselves to learn through resistance, we are in fact undergoing a process like the smoothing of a stone where eventually all the hard abrasive edges are worn away, and we are left with a stone that is smooth on all sides, no matter which way it is turned, it feels soft and gentle to the touch in our hands.
If nothing else from this, I've learnt that I need not be afraid that the gentleness of the Spirit means weakness of character, when in fact, it takes strength, God's strength, to be truly gentle in a turbulent world.