We are still working our way through the Fruit of the Spirit, identifying the kind of people the Holy Spirit transforms us into when we follow Jesus. These words are ones we use often in church, but they tend to be a little obscure, so we’re looking into what it looks like to live them out.
I told Caleb a long time ago that I wanted to talk about gentleness, and we have finally arrived. I wanted gentleness because I personally needed the time to study it and remind myself of the kind of attitude I need to have. You see, I like to think of myself as a gentle person, and in a lot of cases I am, but I have also spent a lot of my life with people telling me that I come across as judgmental or critical.
I hate that. I don’t mean to be that way. Yet, I’m logical. I like facts. I’m a perfectionist. I like rules. Rules create order and keep us safe! I’m enthusiastic. I’m passionate.
But blend all of those things together, and you don’t wind up with gentleness.
I don’t know if y’all feel this, but to me, figuring out how to be gentle is crucial to the success of my relationships. If I’m not a gentle wife, it hurts my marriage. When I’m not a gentle friend, it leaves me coming across as critical. It makes me someone people don’t want to be around.
I want to be somebody that people want to be around! I want to be a ray of sunshine for Jesus. I know that’s cheesy, but it’s truly how I feel.
Maybe y’all feel more connected to the other side of this. You’re not the one that people call critical, but you have a friend who is hard to be around because of the things they say and the way they act. Either way, we can all feel the negative effects that people who aren’t gentle bring.
So here I am, trying to understand the kind of gentleness the Bible talks about. I started from this place, maybe you’re here too:
When I think gentleness, I think of when you ask a new mom to hold her baby, and she sits you down and tells you how to hold your arms and says, “be gentle.” I think of when you’re a kid and your mom is brushing your hair and it hurts so you say “Please be gentle.” I imagine how you feel if you’re building a house of cards and you’re getting close to the top and you “gently” place the last one on top.
These ideas convey tenderness or softness. That’s one part of gentleness, but it’s really only scratching the surface.
So then what is gentleness?
Here’s a really simple definition: the quality of being kind, calm, or soft
In other words, gentleness means humility, willingness to defer self, kindness in love, and demonstrating understanding and awareness of the feelings of others. And a big idea captured here is that even when you have the facts, the knowledge, the knowhow, you don’t just slap people in the face with it.
Before we go any further, I want you to think of that person you would like to slap in the face with some knowledge. They are the person you avoid. They like to argue for no reason. They don’t make good arguments or use logic. They are just bad people and not worth your time. This is someone who culturally or socially might be considered your “enemy.” Hang on to that person.
So I’m working on this idea of gentleness, and God allows a situation in my life where I experience receiving gentleness from a whole bunch of people firsthand.
We went to White Out (youth camp) that first weekend of spring break, and on the way home I began to experience some major pain. I thought maybe I was just sick to my stomach or maybe had food poisoning. It got so bad that I had to pull over, take some Tylenol, and have someone else drive. We finally finish the five hour drive and get back to the church, and everyone gets picked up and leaves by like 7pm. Caleb and I go home, and we’re not there for very long when the pain comes back very strong and I just know—this is a problem. I need medical attention.
I am scared. Really scared, honestly. I had not been to the ER since I was six years old. I had never had surgery before (not even wisdom teeth). And by golly I did not wake up on Sunday morning anticipating going in for surgery that day! So I was scared of all of the unknowns. I was freaked out by the idea that if I was right about what was going on and it was appendicitis, they would cut into my body and remove an organ. That’s so freaky to me.
So I’m panicking, and this is where I first experience gentleness. Caleb pulls me close and says, “I know you’re scared, but you know who loves you? You know who’s in control? You know who’s gonna take care of you?” He prays for me and says, “Come on, I’ll take you to the ER.”
He could have been like:
I’m tired from White Out. Drive yourself and call me if there’s a problem.
Stop crying. It’s just your appendix. You don’t even need that one.
Going back to the definition, he was soft toward me. He showed me sensitivity, and he demonstrated and understanding and awareness of my feelings.
So we go to the ER, and we’re in the waiting room waiting for some lab results. There is another older man there with his wife who is also clearly in significant pain. He goes and beats on the door of the room the triage nurses are in, and they open it. He then starts berating them for not working well enough, not being helpful enough, not doing their jobs well—trying to “threaten” them.
He was not gentle. He acted in a strong response to his fear for his wife and his frustration at the waiting. He did not receive any gentleness either.
In contrast, Caleb was also there waiting with his hurting wife. Every time we had a new nurse or CNA come in, he’d say “Thank you for what you do. I know this isn’t easy.” He and I understood that we were at the mercy of the caregivers, and we tried to be kind and humble in the care that we received, in how we spoke to them, in the requests we made, and in how we asked questions.
We were then on the receiving end of gentleness. All of my nurses and doctors could tell I was nervous. Again, they demonstrated awareness of my feelings and acted kindly toward me. They were soft toward me.
They could’ve been like:
It’s just a small surgery.
Get over it.
Here are the facts, deal with them.
We’ve got patients way worse off than you. I don’t have time for this.
But they didn’t. They took time to sit with me and explain every part of the surgery and recovery process. They waited with me and allowed Caleb to stay with me. They were empathetic and kind.
Going through all of this, seeing people act different ways, and being treated with gentleness reminded so strongly of Jesus in John chapter four.
This is the story we call, “Jesus and the woman at the well.” I have studied this passage a lot in my life. It teaches a lot. It accomplishes a lot. It’s theologically rich.
It’s not a passage about gentleness, and yet I saw for the first time the way gentleness was employed.
Here’s the situation: Jesus and his disciples are traveling from Judea to Galilee, and they have to go through Samaria. Samaria is a place the Jews like to avoid. Jews think of Samaritans as like “half-breeds.” They are considered religiously and ethnically impure, and they are strongly disliked by the Jews.
So Jesus, a Jewish rabbi—not to mention the perfect Son of God and Savior of the world—approaches this well. Jesus is a traveler in this moment. He doesn’t have a bucket to get water for himself.
Then someone with a bucket approaches. Not only is it a reviled Samaritan, it’s a woman! Women were not often held in high regard in this time. Not only that, but it’s high noon—the hottest part of the day. The fact that this woman is coming to draw water at this time likely indicates that even her own society has further outcast her. Typically, only the worst of the worst—those with great sins or illnesses—came to get water at this inopportune time because they weren’t acceptable to socialize with.
So Jesus the Jewish rabbi and sinner of sinners Samaritan woman meet at the well.
He needs her to provide him with a physical drink of water.
She needs him to offer her salvation, what Jesus calls “living water.”
They get to talking, and Jesus says this:
“He told her, ‘Go, call your husband and come back.’
‘I have no husband,’ she replied.
Jesus said to her, ‘You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.’”
Let’s pause here. Imagine yourself in Jesus’ situation. You are standing at the water fountain with the person you thought of earlier: the guy in your school who no one talks to. The guy who is super weird; the girl who disagrees with you on nearly everything. You need to share the gospel with this person. How are you going to do it?
I follow a guy named Adam Grant, and he said that one day a student came into his office and called him a “logic bully.” She told him that he always came at her with facts and emotionless logic. She felt like she couldn’t really evaluate things and make decisions for herself because he thought through things so logically that she was being “bullied” into agreeing with him even if she wanted to feel differently.
I heard him tell that story, and I thought, “Dang. I think I tend to be a logic bully when it comes to teaching the Bible.”
Like my first impulse is to be standing with this woman at the well and say, “Hey sis, the God you claim to follow has a thing or two to say about sexual purity, so if you want to follow Him you’re gonna need to make some changes.”
For me, it feels so clear. I’m like, “Well if you want to follow Jesus then here are the rules and if you don’t like it then suck it up or get out because you’re making a bad name for the rest of us.”
I can feel you cringing at me. I can hear you thinking, “Gosh Rylee, no wonder people tell you you’re judgmental!”
I know. For so long, it didn’t feel like judgment to me. These are Jesus’ expectations, not mine!
But turns out that’s NOT a great way to teach someone about what it means to follow Jesus. It’s not a good way to share about His love and the grace of salvation. It’s not a way to explain why Jesus is worth loving.
Is it true that Jesus wants full obedience and total surrender? Yes. He has clear expectations laid out. But having the right information doesn’t make you right if you do the wrong things with it.
What about you guys? Do you relate to me at all with wanting to logic bully people into agreeing with you?
Even when you’re right, it’s still ineffective. You have to share the right information in the right way, and the Bible says that way is through gentleness.
The Bible talks about speaking the truth in love. Paul writes about it in Ephesians, but the idea has been around for nearly all of time. Even in Proverbs, Solomon writes:
“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
Why does this matter? Because we have to speak the truth. We accomplish nothing if we keep silent.
Back to the woman at the well: The truth is, the Bible DOES have a lot to say about conducting ourselves in a holy manner and in a way that is sexually pure. But if it’s about speaking truth in gentleness, then my gut reaction is not the way to go.
Here’s how Jesus handled the situation: He uncovered reality, but He wasn’t unkind, judgmental, or belittling. He even went on to answer her spiritual and theological questions, teaching her—a Samaritan woman. Then He stayed a few days in her village to continue teaching her neighbors and answering questions.
He acted kindly toward her in love. Jesus understood her situation and met her in it, speaking truth over her gently.
We are supposed to be gentle with other people like Jesus was. Bearing the fruit of gentleness will draw people toward the God who shows you gentleness.
Gentleness also needs to define our relationship with God. I don’t know about you, but I have for sure had situations where I am trying to logic bully God into agreeing with me about a situation and giving me what I want—it doesn’t ever work out. This ranges from getting the job I want to why I feel it’s okay to continue putting off repairing the relationship I shattered when God says otherwise or anywhere in between.
We’re talking about Fruit of the Spirit here. Gentleness comes from God and is developed in us by God’s Spirit, so it should also impact the very nature of our relationship with God.
Here’s a quote I found that describes gentleness toward God well:
“Those who are gentle are humble and thankful toward God, having a peaceful mind and submitting wholly to His plan.”
Humbly submitting wholly.
This means God has control over what movies you watch.
It means He has the final say over what clothes you put on your body.
It means your Friday nights belong to Him.
Biblical Gentleness is deferring our wants and our desires to God’s wisdom and God’s decisions. When we give ourselves wholly to Him like that, the overflowing result is that we would act in gentleness toward those around us.
It matters because if we’re not even willing to give ourselves to God, we’re not going to convince anyone else to either. And beyond that, when we aren’t gentle toward God, we inflict the same kind of damage on our relationship with Him that we do on our relationships with other people.
So all of that, and I come back around to this: I don’t know about you, but I don’t want that reputation as a critical person. Do you want to be known as someone who is harsh and unkind and hard to deal with? Surely not.
Our resolution to being the kind of people we want to be, the kind of people that other people want in their lives, is right here in this idea of gentleness.
We live in a culture where we have so much information in our hands. We are told to be loud, to insist that we are right, to put others down until they agree with us, to do whatever it takes to come out on top of the argument.
But clearly God’s idea for His people is different than that.
And gosh this is so hard because when everyone around you says one thing, it takes a lot as a Christian to decide that your standard is different. It can be hard to commit to doing things God’s way.
But imagine if Jesus had come at the woman at the well with judgment. Imagine if He had asserted His authority as a rabbi or as a male and put her down, criticizing her for her life and current situation. Do you think the whole village would have spent the next two days listening to Jesus teach and coming to salvation? Probably not.
Imagine how many people in your circle might be drawn to God because of your gentleness. You guys have heard from me several times now. I’m a dreamer. I like to imagine the ways that our schools and homes would change if we took what we talk about in this room really seriously. We’re about to go to our discussion groups, but first, I’m gonna read you the discussion questions right here. I want you to already begin to meditate on what living with gentleness might look like for you:
In what way has a lack of gentleness hurt your relationship with someone—whether you were the harsh one or someone was harsh toward you?
Who in your life is your woman at the well? How can you exhibit gentleness toward that person?
What situations tempt you to share the right information in the wrong way? How can we combat that temptation and speak the truth in love?
Identify a way you are withholding gentleness in your relationship with God. What are you willing to give Him?