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The Counter-Cultural Virtues of Gentleness and Kindness

September 17, 2021 • Life for Leaders

Scripture—Ephesians 4:2 (NIV)

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.

Focus

Kindness and gentleness are not often valued in our culture, and practicing them may even impede our worldly success. However, through the example and teachings of Jesus, as well as the letters of Paul, the Bible describes kindness and gentleness as virtues: as character traits we are called to practice.

Devotion

I think it’s fair to say that kindness and gentleness are in short supply in our culture.

It is often (and accurately) pointed out how lacking these traits are on social media, but the issue goes well beyond incivility on Facebook. I rarely see gentleness modeled by our cultural icons. Quite the contrary. Gentleness may get an occasional positive spin, but it is not often associated with strength or success. Examples of gentleness stand out as exceptions rather than norms. Kindness and gentleness do not get us “ahead”; they rarely help with worldly ambitions. Indeed, practicing gentleness may often impede our pursuit of wealth or worldly power.

Consider how many television shows—reality shows, dramas, talk shows, and even sitcoms—feature characters who delight in meanness or harshness, who regularly ridicule and insult others, or who “get ahead” by cutting others down. I’ve seen cooking shows that feature chefs ridiculing contestants; political and sports talk shows (both radio and television) whose ratings seem to be bolstered by hosts harshly putting people down; and reality shows that feature bosses who boast of their power to fire people (and become famous by exercising that power).

Even if viewers see the lack of kindness as a negative trait on the surface, many harsh characters are still portrayed as rich, powerful, and successful. Thus viewers merely laugh at the meanness, while perhaps secretly seeing those traits as part of what got that person ahead (after all, at the very least those unkind figures have their own television show!) In that way—and in many others—harshness is glorified and put forth as a model, while kindness and gentleness are devalued.

Sadly, I’ve even seen this played out within churches where pastors and other leaders seem to follow a worldly model that associates authority with harshness, and gentleness with weakness.

The Bible offers a very different model. Through the example and teachings of Jesus (e.g. Matthew 11:29, 2 Corinthians 10:1), as well as the letters of Paul, the Bible describes kindness and gentleness as virtues: as character traits we are called to practice (Ephesians 4:2) and be clothed in (Colossians 3:12), and as part of the fruit that the Holy Spirit bears in the lives of those who dwell in Him (Galatians 5:22-23).  Tomorrow I will share some of my own struggles with practicing gentleness, and also address what difference our gentleness might make in the lives of others. But today I think it’s worth taking a few moments to reflect on the how of gentleness.

While passages like Ephesians 4:2, Colossians 3:12, and many others make it clear that followers of Christ ought to live with gentleness and kindness, it is equally clear that these traits are difficult to practice and are generally lacking in our daily culture, and that imitating the world’s icons is not the key to developing gentleness. What then is the key?

I think the most important answer is found in Paul’s letter to the Galatian church, near the end of which (Galatians 5:22-23) he notes: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control” (NIV, emphasis added). Note that both kindness and gentleness are listed as part of the fruit that the Holy Spirit bears in our lives. This tells us two important things.

First, it reaffirms what we see in so many other passages: that kindness and gentleness are good traits which God desires to develop in us; they are virtues that reflect God’s kingdom. If we pray with Jesus, “Your kingdom come, your will be done”, then we should desire kindness and gentleness to become evident in our own lives: in our words and our actions; in the way we treat our family, our friends, our neighbors, our church family, and even those we don’t like or whom we might consider enemies. It doesn’t tell us that kindness and gentleness will get us “ahead” or help us achieve our worldly ambitions. But it does make it clear that we should desire to live with kindness and gentleness anyway, even if they are counter to worldly success.

Second, the passage tells us where gentleness and kindness come from: how they can become more a part of our character. They come from the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives. As noted, they won’t come from imitating the heroes of our culture. They also won’t come from mere self-effort. No self-empowered striving will suddenly make us gentle against the worldly current and culture of harshness. We need the Holy Spirit to be working within us. We need to submit to the Spirit’s work and participate in that work. One simple way to start would be to pray that the Spirit will help us be kinder and more gentle—acknowledging that we can’t do it on our own, and inviting the Spirit to do that work within us. Perhaps we even need to start by asking the Spirit to help us desire to be gentle.

Reflect

Consider some ways or times that somebody has been gentle or kind with you? What difference has that made to you?

What are some areas in your life—at work, at home, at church, or in other contexts—where you need to practice more gentleness? What would that look like?

Act

Pray the prayer below and ask God to help make you more gentle and kind.

Consider today one or two persons (perhaps somebody at work if you work outside the home, or somebody in your family, or perhaps somebody in your church community) toward whom you might be called to act more gently. Consider what they would look like. Mention those persons to God in your prayer, asking specifically that you would be kinder and more gentle in how you treat those persons.

Pray

Lord, I know you desire me to be gentle and kind. I confess that I often lack kindness and gentleness; I am too often harsh or unkind at work, at home, in my church. Indeed, Lord, I confess that sometimes I don’t even want to be gentle; I would prefer to be like the icons of my culture.  Please help me to be more gentle. Help me to desire more gentleness in my speech as in my actions. Let gentleness and kindness be the clothing that I wear.  Even as I pray this Lord, I thank you for doing a good work in me. I thank you that your Spirit does indeed bear in me the fruit of gentleness and kindness. And I praise you that even when I fail to live kindly and gently, that you still love me and you don’t give up on me. I praise you especially for how you have been kind and gentle with me. 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: God’s Grand Plan: A Practical Guide (Ephesians 4:1–6:24)


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