Gentleness: The Misunderstood Fruit of the Spirit

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Today it does not help us when english translations of scripture associate gentleness with meekness. For example, in the NRSV Beatitudes of Matthew we have “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth”, while in the NJB we have Blessed are the gentle: they shall have the earth as inheritance” (Matt 5:5). Gentleness has become associated with meekness, and today to be meek is to be the shy, retiring type, one who does not get involved.  

It could be said that today, at least in the West, gentleness is seen by many as a weakness. What use is this meek gentleness in a competitive world? The gentle, surely, are the ones who do not have the stomach to do what needs to be done; they are the ones who lack the necessary assertiveness to ‘make it’ in life. The gentle are the ones left behind.  

If to be gentle is also to be meek, then does this mean that the gentle need not get involved in the world at all; just let the strong and powerful have their way? The meek will inherit the earth (or what’s left of it) it seems, because they will be the last one’s standing. By not getting involved, maybe the meek are playing the long game. The gentle, it seems, are not to be active at all; more quietists who patiently accept things as they are with no attempt at change. They will be the ones left to clean up the mess.  

Gentleness, however, is included as a fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22):

…the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. There is no law against such things. (Gal. 5:22-23)

Does this mean that as we grow in the life of the Spirit we will find ourselves taking more of a back seat in life? The witness of Jesus in the gospels says no. He could not stand by, he could not not get involved as the cultural and religious systems of his day made life unjustly hard for some and easier for others. And yet Jesus describes himself as gentle:

Come to me, all you who labour and are overburdened, and I will give you rest. Shoulder my yoke and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. Yes, my yoke is easy and my burden light. (Matt 11:28-30, NJB).

The example of Jesus tells us that gentleness is not about non-engagement, it is instead about how we engage, how we involve ourselves. Gentleness speaks into non-violence, not non-involvement. Going gently is about doing our best to not add to the spectrum of violence already active in the world. This can be a challenge when we react very strongly – in the gut, like Jesus – to the systemic injustice of the word we live in. Black Lives Matter/black deaths in custody, and the impact of COVID-19 on people with limited material and psychological resource are two instances of systemic injustice many across the globe are focusing on right now – not to mention climate change.

What is the nature of this focus? How might the gentle focus on these issues? Growing in gentleness is about not meeting force with force, both within ourselves and the world generally. Growing in the life of the Holy Spirit is about losing this tendency to forcefulness; over time it becomes increasingly harder to reciprocate force with force. This is because our humanity is being deified; as this happens, forcefulness disappears as all the fruit of the Spirit grow.

The fruit of the Spirit grow together. Gentleness grows with love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, and self-control. It is good to remember this. Here, our use of language and reflection has us focusing on the one fruit of gentleness, however, just as apples grow on a tree, all the fruit of the Spirit grow within us together.      

As we grow in this life of the Spirit, it becomes increasingly difficult to act violently. We discover, in our own experience, the many subtleties of force and the ways in which egoism powers this force. This is a humbling discovery. We grow to see how we live forcefully, from energies such as pride, impatience, and trauma – energies that are so much a part of human life.      

The gentle are people of conviction, rather than force. The temptation is to force our convictions onto others in the understanding that these convictions are right and just. They may be, however the forcing of them is not. Others will generally, and to some extent, push back on forcefulness with force of their own. It is better to look for creative and non-violent ways to present our convictions to others and the system; ways that are compelling and based on just relating.   

Being gentle is about respecting the autonomy and humanity of all first, no matter who they are, what they believe, and how they live. To be someone of this gentle conviction is to be compassionate. The compassionate life, both for self and others, is gentle.   

So, how might those growing in gentleness highlight the injustices of Indigenous deaths in custody and COVID-19, and climate change:

  • Yes, we would be out protesting – though without oppositional force. We would co-operate with the police. If the police act with force, we would not reciprocate with force. We would act defensively to protect ourselves, allowing the violence done to us to speak for itself. This involves risk of physical and psychological injury. In this is the question ‘what are you willing to be injured for, indeed what are you willing to die for?’  
  • We would not be damaging property, nor looting.
  • When we are gentle, there is a greater chance we can be open and responsive to the creativity of the Spirit. There is great creativity in the life of the Spirit. Our protesting would then be creative and non-violent engagement. What might be some practical examples of this?

Recommend reading: Jesus and Nonviolence – A Third Way by Walter Wink, Fortress Press 2003.

2 comments

  1. Very interesting. Yes, meekness is not timidity, timidity has fear in it, so meekness must be seen, as you say, in the light of the other fruits of the Spirit. St Paul’s second letter to Timothy says, “ God did not give us a Spirit of timidity and fear, but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” Gentleness is strength, kindness and self-control.

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