Fruit of the Spirit: Gentleness Bends

April 1, 2024 Jennifer Gross

Every Sunday in church, a wonderful man in my parish ushers. He hands out bulletins, directs people for Communion, and holds the offering plate. He carries the cross in during the procession that begins the service and out at the end of the service. We’ll call him W.

W is developmentally disabled, very short, and getting older. He has delighted in serving God and the church for decades. But lately carrying the cross has gotten more difficult. It’s tall and heavy, and the four steps in the chancel area don’t help.

One morning, W stumbled on a stair but kept himself—and the cross—upright and continued down the aisle at the close of the service.

Gentleness in Finding Support

The next week, he carried the cross as usual, but this time, one of the pastors walked with him up the stairs and back down again to ensure that he was steady. At the end of the service, the pastor again stood beside W as he got the cross, then put one hand on his shoulder as he walked down the stairs. Once on level ground, he carried the cross down the aisle, leading the recession.

Now, every week, the pastor or liturgist bends carefully to support W as he carries the cross up or down the stairs. Every week, the congregation sees how gentleness works: a spiritual leader bending to support W so that he can continue his ministry of faithfulness.

Paul names gentleness as a fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22-23:

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.”

Gentleness in a Harsh World

Unlike most fruit of the Spirit, gentleness is not always seen as a virtue. Our culture tells us that we need to be ambitious, to hustle, to be efficient, and sometimes to harden ourselves to the needs of others in order to succeed. It’s a dog-eat-dog world after all, and no one wants to get eaten.

But this is not Jesus’ way.

In Matthew 12, Jesus heals on the Sabbath, which angers the Pharisees. Jesus leaves that place, but many who needed healing followed Him. Jesus heals them all, prompting Matthew to quote the prophet Isaiah:

“Behold, my servant whom I have chosen,
    my beloved with whom my soul is well pleased. . . . 
He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
    nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
    and a smoldering wick he will not quench.” (Matthew 12:18a, 19-20)

Throughout the Gospels, Jesus speaks gently to those he heals. He touches the untouchable, values women in a time when they were considered of little value, and bends down to gather the children.

Sometimes we think of gentleness as antithetical to strength, but treating others with gentleness takes self-control (itself a fruit of the Spirit) and requires a certain care and attention to the needs of others. In his letters, Paul often counsels his readers to treat one another with gentleness, even when correcting opponents (2 Timothy 2:25) or dealing with a Christian who has sinned (Galatians 6:1). In Ephesians 4:2, Paul advises Christians to “[walk] with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love.”

Gentleness bears with others’ weaknesses, sins, and arguments, not resorting to sharpness, or quarreling, or condemnation, or putting someone in their place. Gentleness places a hand under a brother’s elbow and helps him to stand. Gentleness heals the ear of the high priest’s servant at the start of a long night that leads to the cross. Gentleness is not for sissies.

Gentleness and Identity

Perhaps counterintuitively, gentleness and its close cousin, humility, require a certain confidence in our identity. The prelude to Jesus washing his disciples’ feet in John shows the source of Jesus’ humility:

“Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into His hands, and that He had come from God and was going back to God . . . began to wash the disciples’ feet.” (John 13:3, 5a)

Jesus moves into this act of humility, service, and, yes, gentleness, from a deep knowledge of His identity as God’s Son (and as God Himself). Knowing His true worth, Jesus bent down to wash his disciple’s feet, and, ultimately, bent under the weight of the cross.

We do not become gentle of our own accord, but out of our identity as beloved children of the Father, as people for whom Christ died. As “the Spirit Himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God” (Romans 8:16), we receive the strength to bend, to encourage, to lift up, to assert the dignity of others and not care so much about our own. We can place a hand on someone’s shoulder to steady them, and then step back and rejoice as they lead the way, carrying the cross of Christ.

Scripture: ESV®

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