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Gentleness and Anxiety

May 13, 2022 • Life for Leaders

Scripture – Philippians 4:4-7 (NIV)

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Focus

The call to practice gentleness appears repeatedly in Paul’s writing. While our anxieties can make it more difficult to be gentle, God promises gentleness as the fruit of his Spirit. When we practice gentleness, it is not only a powerful witness to the world and a way to help preserve the unity of Christian believers, but also a way to help free us from the grip of anxiety.

Devotion

Last September I wrote a pair of devotions on gentleness (here and here) referencing the teachings of Paul in Ephesians 4:2, Galatians 5:22-23, and Romans 2:4. The practice of gentleness is important for both the unity of the church and the witness of the church. It is—or at least ought to be—a fundamental trait of the Christian disciple and disciple-maker. Yet it is not an easy virtue to live out. Our culture devalues and even disdains gentleness.

Over the past few weeks, I have found myself drawn back to this topic, perhaps because my Wednesday morning fellowship group spent Lent memorizing and reflecting on Philippians 4:4-9.  I hadn’t been thinking about gentleness when I suggested the passage. I had been focused more on anxiety—something Paul addresses in this passage, and something I’ve struggled with over the past two years of pandemic. Yet here was another epistle in which Paul calls Christians to gentleness. The passage contains four commands in quick succession. They might be summarized as: be joyful; be gentle; don’t be anxious; pray.

This passage brought to light for me three particular aspects of gentleness worth considering. One is that gentleness is not just a feeling; it is something that must be practiced. In Paul’s words, our gentleness ought to be “evident.” Which is to say, there ought to be evidence of it. Gentleness should be heard in how we speak, seen in what we do, and noticed in how we treat others.

Second, our gentleness should also be evident to all. Those whom we treat with gentleness should include: our children and our parents; our close friend as well as the coworker who annoys us and the rude person on social media; the drivers who cut us off at the intersection or lean on their horn behind us; the people who are actually in our church and not just those we wish were in our church.

Now it might be tempting to view this sequence of four commands separately from each other, like items in a grocery list. But doing so misses a third important aspect this passage brings out. Even if Paul doesn’t explain it to us, I believe these four commands are intimately connected. Joy, gentleness, anxiety, and prayer relate to one another, and considering them together can help us understand more fully both why gentleness is important, and how we can grow in gentleness.

Tomorrow I will return to some connections between gentleness, rejoicing, and prayer. Today I want to consider some connections between gentleness and peace—and between anxiety and a lack of gentleness. Unfortunately, I can do so from personal experience. The department I teach in is going to be short-staffed this coming fall, and unable to offer enough courses to meet student demand. This has caused considerable stress for me over the past few weeks. It hasn’t been easy for our students, either. As many of them realized they would not get into all the courses they hoped for, I was bombarded with requests, and expressions of concern.

While most students were polite and understanding, a couple were sharply critical, accusing our department (and me as chair) of being inflexible and lacking foresight. That should have been a great opportunity for me to show gentleness, perhaps acknowledging to the students that I understood why they were anxious. After all, letting my gentleness be evident “to all” also includes to a student who has come across as critical and pushy. By being understanding and patient, I could have reflected Christlikeness. Instead, however, I initially responded out of my own stress, in a defensive and challenging way, escalating conflict rather than turning away wrath with “a gentle response” (Proverbs 15:1).  It took some prodding from God for me to recognize my lack of gentleness, and to choose a different way of continuing the conversation.

Perhaps you have experienced this: the more anxious you are, the harder it is to be gentle. It can become a negative cycle. The more we act harshly and rudely—the less gentle we are—the more anxious we become. The good news is that it’s possible to be gentle even when we feel anxious. By the power of the Holy Spirit, we need not be slaves to our feelings. Immediately after writing “Let your gentleness be evident to all,” Paul adds the reminder, “The Lord is near.” Now it’s possible to read this as a warning, like the old song telling you to watch out because Santa Claus is coming to town (and if you misbehave, you’ll miss out on presents.) For several reasons, however, I don’t think that’s what Paul is emphasizing. One reason is Paul’s teaching in Galatians 5:22-23 which reminds us that gentleness comes to us as a fruit of the Spirit; God’s nearness to us through his Spirit is what empowers us to be gentle.

Another reason is the wording right in this passage. When Paul writes “Let your gentleness be evident,” the implication is that gentleness is a trait we have already been given, and we simply need to practice it. The Holy Spirit is given to all believers. Gentleness is part of the fruit the Spirit bears. I believe that Paul’s reference to the Lord’s nearness is best understood as a reminder for us to lean on God’s strength to help us practice gentleness even in times when it isn’t easy—whether because it is countercultural or because of our own anxiety.

And when, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we develop and practice gentleness, it can help us be less anxious even as it helps preserve a Christian community and helps communicate Christ to an ungentle world. Paul’s passage ends with a promise of peace passing understanding that will guard our hearts and minds. While this promise immediately follows the command to bring our petitions to God, I believe it references this entire section and all of the commands: be joyful, be gentle, and pray. Certainly, bringing our petitions to God will help us be more at peace. But so will practicing gentleness. Would you like to be less anxious and more peaceful? Then be gentle. Would you like to grow in gentleness? Then turn your anxieties over to God and accept the peace he promises.

Reflect

Consider when, and toward whom, you find it most difficult to be gentle.  Why?

Who have you known who has demonstrated gentleness in significant ways? How has that gentleness been evident? What difference does it make? What words or actions of your own might make gentleness evident?

Act

Make a point today and over the coming week to be more gentle—especially with those you find it most hard be gentle  If you find gentleness a difficult trait to practice, in your prayers over the next many days continue to pray that the Holy Spirit would bear increasing fruit of gentleness in your life.

Pray

Lord, it seems at times that those who are rude, pushy, demanding, or harsh often get their way. It can be hard to be gentle in a world that despises gentleness and often rewards pushiness. Thank you that Jesus is gentle and humble of heart. Please help me to follow the way of Christ rather than the way of the world, and bear in my life the fruit of gentleness in such a way that it really does become evident to all.

In the name of Jesus who was described as a gentle lamb, we pray, Amen.

Find all Life for Leaders devotions here. Explore what the Bible has to say about work at the unique website of our partners, the Theology of Work Project. Commentary on today’s Life for Leaders theme can be found here: Resolving Conflict (Philippians 4:2–9)


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