St. Augustine once said, “As severity is ready to punish faults which it may discover, so charity is reluctant to discover the faults which it must punish.” Let’s explore one of the most fundamental characteristics of a godly man relating to being patient with people. It is found in the word, “gentle.”
“The saying is trustworthy: If anyone aspires to the office of overseer, he desires a noble task. Therefore an overseer must be above reproach, the husband of one wife, sober-minded, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not a drunkard, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own household well, with all dignity keeping his children submissive, for if someone does not know how to manage his own household, how will he care for God’s church? He must not be a recent convert, or he may become puffed up with conceit and fall into the condemnation of the devil. Moreover, he must be well thought of by outsiders, so that he may not fall into disgrace, into a snare of the devil.”1 Timothy 3:1-7
For the past few weeks, we have walked step-by-step through the qualifications of a pastor found in this passage in order to draw out how we, who are not necessarily pastors, can become more mature Christians in Christ. We have examined the importance of our reputation, our passion, our thinking, our appetites, our dignity, our hospitality, our skill at speaking, our reputation of sobriety, and finally our temper. This characteristic is similar to the last one but stated positively to capture a slightly different, more focused, definition.
What Does “Gentle” Mean?
For many, the idea of a masculine man is a stoic, intimidating, and insistent man who doesn’t take “no” for an answer. And “gentleness,” to the same people, is a quality of a woman, not of a man. However, the Bible shows us differently. It says that men are to be “tough and tender,” which is what the word “gentle” communicates.
In the original language, this word is rich with meaning. In fact, it is so rich that there is no single English word that captures it completely. One New Testament scholar called this word “one of the truly great Greek words that is almost untranslatable.” So, when we attempt to translate it, we use words like gentle, tolerant, tender, and yielding. But, these words only scratch the surface, because it also involves concepts like forgiveness, patience, kindness, meekness, and courteous — and, often at the same time.
Maybe the best way to understand this word is by comparing it with its antithesis, which is fortunately found in the previous characteristic. Remember, in Stubborn Calmness, we explored what is meant by the words “not violent.” We said that the word “violent” refers to using verbal and physical aggression to ignite fear in others in order to get them to do what you want. In other words, when a violent person is unhappy with the cards he is dealt, he attempts to change the outcome by bullying others. He acts in a way that is critical, abusive with power, and preoccupied with self-preservation.
A gentle person is the opposite. When he is wronged, he is forgiving. When people act ignorantly, he is long-suffering. When he doesn’t get his way, he is patient and doesn’t insist on his own ways, even if his ways are the right ways. In fact, to the Ancient Greeks, this word described how a person willingly chose not to pursue justice when his rights had been violated. In other words, when he is wronged, he chooses not to exact the full weight of justice.
We find an example of this in 1 Corinthians 6:7-8. Apparently, the church in Corinth was insisting on every right with extreme justice, and taking each other to court. So Paul urges them to be gentle with each other by making their own defense less of a priority. He said this:
“To have lawsuits at all with one another is already a defeat for you. Why not rather suffer wrong? Why not rather be defrauded? But you yourselves wrong and defraud—even your own brothers!”1 Corinthians 6:7–8
In other words, when the family takes the family to court, everyone loses, regardless of who’s right. So, why not take the loss for the sake of love and unity? That would be the gentle thing to do.
Aristotle, an Ancient Greek philosopher, contrasted “gentleness” with “strict justice” to better define the term. To treat those who wronged you with strict justice meant that you brought the weight of justice upon them with every right and allocation possible. It is to throw the book at someone, which is rooted in a motive of vengeance and self-preservation. So, “gentleness,” according to Aristotle, considers people’s limitations and makes allowances for them so that justice will not injure them personally. In other words, a gentle person doesn’t insist on his full rights. Why? Because he cares more about the person than being right.
Paul, who was quite familiar with Greek philosophy and culture, likely had this idea in mind. He wanted, by the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, believers to be gentle with people who required it. He wanted us to have persistent patience with difficult people so that we do not throw the book at them when we are wronged or when others act in ignorance. Instead, we exercise tenderness, forgiveness, patience, and tolerance respectively. It is to say that we have tough skin and tender hearts.
Theological Motivation to be Patient with People
First, God is gentle. Consider what the psalmist wanted us to know about God in this passage:
“The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him. For he knows our frame; he remembers that we are dust.”Psalm 103:8-14
God is mindful of our frailties and shortcomings. He knows that we are vulnerable beings. Therefore, He is patient and long-suffering with us. He is a compassionate father to those of us who are his children. He makes allowances for our weaknesses, knowing that we often act in ignorance. This ought to motivate us to be persistently patient with others who have wronged us in less severe and fewer ways.
Second, Christ is gentle. I’m distinguishing Christ for a moment because He is God in human flesh. So, He models gentleness in a more relatable way. He commands, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. 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” (Matt. 11:28-30).
The gentleness of Christ is seen throughout all of the Gospel accounts because Christ had tough skin and a tender heart. He was constantly wronged, but His responses to His wrongdoers were that of patience, not of self-preservation. He was never heavy-handed with his authority to protect His own rights—not even on the cross where He was murdered. This ought to motivate us as Christ’s followers to walk in the way of gentleness just as our Lord and teacher did.
Third, the Holy Spirit is gentle. Now, I want to draw attention to the Spirit of God, because Scripture tells us that His Spirit dwells in the hearts of those who trust and obey Him to produce the kind of fruit that is fitting for a godly man. “Gentleness” is the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23). It is what the Holy Spirit produces in the children of God and followers of Christ.
This introduces to us some serious principles. First, it tells us that gentleness is a work of the Spirit, so those without the Spirit cannot relate to others in a truly gentle way. A few verses before this, we learn that people without the Spirit of God relate to others in strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, disputes, dissensions, and factions. This implies the second principle, that gentleness is evidence of true salvation, which ought to motivate you to work on becoming a gentle person as a believer.
Here are five steps to help you build a more persistent patience to glorify God in your life.
To improve, you need to find a baseline. So, ask yourself: “Would my wife describe me as gentle?” What about your children, or your coworkers? Think about how you recently responded to people who wronged you. Were you patient with them? Were you eager to forgive and overlook offenses? Or, did you appeal to justice in its full authority to preserve your own desires? Answering these questions honestly will help you know where you need help in terms of patience.
I’ve shown how the Bible describes God as abundantly gentle, but I only scratched the surface. I suggest you spend time studying the character of God in terms of how He relates to those, like ourselves, who have wronged Him. Here is a list of passages to help you get started. Read through these and look deeply into how gentleness is exemplified. This will inform and empower you to be more gentle.
Scholars agree that gentleness is a byproduct of humility. When we are easily angered or rule with an iron fist, we do so out of pride and self-preservation. So, to develop gentleness, we should first seek to be humble. I suggest thinking about the ways you have wronged God. Then, write your thoughts in a journal to reflect on how God has been gentle to you. Remember that every time you have wronged others, you have wronged God primarily. If you need help getting started, consider your salvation. Romans 5:8 tells us that, “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.” It would be helpful to think about this often. When you recognize how much gentleness you need in your life, it humbles you, and you can put on a more gentle mind yourself.
It can help you appreciate gentleness by seeking and experiencing it from others. So, if your temper has been short with others, make an effort to apologize to them sincerely. Tell them how your hotheadedness is wrong and that God wants you to be more tolerant of other people’s differences knowing that we are not all perfect. Ask their forgiveness. If they forgive you, you will experience the gentleness you need to possess. If they don’t, this experience will still help by driving a stern reminder in your heart to be gentle with others, as you need it yourself.
Bad habits don’t die quickly. They require power, energy, and diligence. I invite you to regularly pray about your temper, your desire to be correct, your tendency to rule with anger, and the ways that so regularly temp you to fly off the handle. God wants you to be persistently patient with challenging people, especially when you oversee others. So, trust God and rely on His strength to help you become a more godly man.