He was a mountain of a man, a construction worker hardened by heavy labor in all sorts of weather. Though he was young his face was lined by sun, wind and cold. His arms were the size of most people’s legs. And I remember his hands. They were huge and rough and strong. The first time I shook his hand I wasn’t sure I’d ever get mine back. But what I remember most about him is the day I visited him and his wife after the birth of their first child, a baby girl. The lines in his face were woven in a beautiful smile, and he held that tiny infant in those great hands with a remarkable gentleness, as if his newborn daughter was made of thin glass.
Check out different translations of Galatians 5 and you’ll discover that the next-to-last fruit of the Spirit bears different names – gentleness, humility and meekness to name just a few. That’s because the original Greek word, prautes, doesn’t easily translate into English. The problem with translating prautes as humility or meekness is that those words sometime connote weakness in English, but prautes is anything but weak. Instead it connotes an inner strength that responds to an unkind word with grace. Gentleness is the action of power under control. My friend, the construction worker, is a great illustration of gentleness that comes from real strength.
Our gentleness (or lack of gentleness) is best seen in our reaction to others, especially when they offend us or test our patience. Do we use our power to strike back, giving pain for pain? Or do we use our power to extend gentle words and actions in the face of hardship? The deeper question is, “Am I trying to control my power or am I submitting my power to the Spirit?” The spiritual fruit of gentleness grows in proportion to the grace we’re given to submit our power to God’s Spirit. So what can we do to grow in that grace?
Perhaps the best place to start is by choosing to be gentle with yourself. If you’re like most people you live with a deep sense of guilt and shame when you’ve responded poorly to the bad behavior of others. Your inner critic’s voice gets loud, “You are such a bad person. I can’t believe you did or said those things. Can’t you control yourself? What kind of rotten (parent, boss, spouse, friend, Christian, etc) are you?” Sound familiar? It’s a voice we all know. Talk back to that voice! Tell it to pipe down and then tell yourself the truth, that you’re a beloved, forgiven child of God who isn’t perfect.
And then practice gentleness. The next time someone speaks an unkind word or acts in an offensive way surrender your power to the Spirit, put a smile on your face and respond with grace. You won’t get it right every time, but over time you’ll find God’s grace meeting you in the moment and growing your capacity for gentleness. And remember, you’re always held in the strong hands of the One who proclaims you to be a beloved, forgiven child of God.
What helps you to respond with gentleness and grace in difficult moments?
Jeff Marian is lead pastor at Prince of Peace Lutheran Church in Burnsville, MN.