What is Gentleness?

What is Gentleness? November 17, 2023

What is gentleness and why should I bother being gentle?

An Illustration of Gentleness

It was about 12 and a half years ago, almost exactly. I was in the hospital just after the birth of First Girl. I had obviously never been a dad before and had very little experience with newborn babies. She looked so fragile lying there in her bed in the NICU (long story, perhaps for another time). Then the nurse asked me, “Do you want to hold her?”

I was elated and terrified at the same time. Elated to finally hold my little girl after waiting for 40 weeks for her to be born. Terrified because she seemed so fragile, so vulnerable. I was afraid I would break her. She was the smallest human being I had ever encountered.

But I held her anyway, and she survived so I must have done something right. I cupped her in my hands, cradled her in my arms. I treated her much like I might handle something fragile and valuable, like a laptop computer or a family heirloom. I didn’t want to accidentally hurt her by being too firm, too strong. I was, in a word, gentle with her.

Gentleness is like holding a baby. It accomodates to a person’s value and vulnerability. Public Domain.

Gentleness Defined

Gentleness is a topic I’ve written about a few times. I noted the general lack of gentleness not only in society at large but also within the American church. I wrote how it is the forgotten fruit of the Spirit. I noted how it is a little regarded virtue that must make a comeback if the church wants to have a viable public witness in this world ever again. Since those three blog posts failed to change the world, I will once again address the subject, this time with what I hope are some newer insights.

Gentleness is one of those things that can be hard to define. We know it when we see it but it can be difficult to put into words. As I have meditated on Scripture and on the word gentleness, I think I may have been able to put into words what I have struggled to do prior. Gentleness, simply put, is treating another according to their value and their vulnerability.

According to Their Value

When I first held my first daughter, I knew she was of infinite value, not just to me but objectively speaking as well. She is a human being, created in the image of God and is of incalculable worth. I was not going to treat her flippantly like an old baseball glove or a dirty T-shirt I would just toss carelessly in the general direction of the laundry hamper. I was going to treat her according to her value. I was gentle with her to make sure I was appropriately handling something of such value.

In treating other people, we are treating people of infinite worth, of incalculable value. Every single person we meet is a human being created in God’s image and of utmost value to him. If someone is of utmost value to God, he or she darn well be of utmost value to us. Therefore, the proper response to treat that person as though they are of inherent and infinite value. Our behavior toward them must correspond to their worth. That’s one aspect of gentleness.

According to their Vulnerability

To be told to be gentle is to imply that you are treating people who might be weaker than you, more vulnerable than you. I would not have to be gentle with someone bigger or stronger or more authoritative than me. I would be at the mercy of their gentleness toward me. The First Girl didn’t need to be told to be gentle with me. She couldn’t be gentle with me if she wanted to. She wouldn’t have to. I would have to be gentle with her because she was far more vulnerable in that instance than me.

In 2 Samuel, when King David’s son Absalom rebels against him and plunges the kingdom into civil war, David is very clear with his army officers: be gentle with Absalom. “For my sake, deal gently with young Absalom,” David told his officers. He is not to be harmed.

David’s officers may end up being in a position where they have a combat advantage over Absalom, where he is in a vulnerable position and they have his life in their hands. They are not to take his life. They are to spare it. They are to treat him according to his vulnerability and have mercy on him.

Of course, one of David’s generals, Joab, saw Absalom with his hair stuck in a tree and instead of dealing with him gently per David’s orders, killed him. He saw Absalom in his vulnerable position and did not spare him. He was not gentle.

Those who are stronger or more powerful or have more authority are to be gentle with those weaker or less powerful or under their authority. They are to restrain the use of their power in such a way as to accommodate the vulnerability of the other person. They are to show kindness and mercy and friendship and care to the other.

Gentleness as a Way of Life

One of the things I have been learning lately is that gentleness is a way of life. I’m learning as a dad is how much stronger I am than my daughters and how much authority I have over them. I am not a naturally gentle person; I’m quite loud and can be extremely sarcastic, even caustic sometimes. I am learning though to parent gently, to treat my daughters according to their value both to God and me and according to their vulnerability. I try very hard to convey through my words and actions the gentleness that God wants me to have toward them. My words should be empathetic, nurturing, encouraging, and loving, even when correction is needed. I try to show them that I am just like them, a person in process, and try to help them see that my gentle correction is not about them being bad people but about learning to become better people, a path that their dad is still on.

When it comes to dealing with other people, we need to remember that all people have weaknesses and vulnerabilities. We all intuitively know that these weaknesses and vulnerabilities can be exploited for our advantage. It’s like playing pick-up basketball and realizing that the guy you are guarding can’t dribble with his left hand, so you cheat to the side of his right hand and pretty much force him to go wherever you want him to, even stealing the ball from him. We like to have the advantage over people, and knowing their vulnerabilities helps us take that advantage.

But gentleness demands that we do not take advantage of someone else’s weaknesses. It demands that we demonstrate mercy and empathy toward them and understand that like all of us, this person too is on his or her way. This person too is in process. Gentleness recognizes the value of this person is of infinite worth and knows better than too exploit this valuable person’s vulnerabilities.

And that leads to my final point. Even if we are unaware of a person’s vulnerabilities, even if we might be more vulnerable than them, we should still treat them as though they are of infinite value. We should still treat them with respect and consideration and kindness. We should never demean a person or write them off but always uplift them and hold out hope that they can grow and learn and make progress on their journey.

Too much rhetoric and too much behavior in this country and within the church is ungentle. We do not treat people as valuable before God and exploit perceived vulnerabilities. Sure, there are people in real life and online that I do not much care for and disagree with vehemently. But that doesn’t change the fact that they are of inherent and infinite worth and I should treat them accordingly. And it doesn’t change the fact that they, like me, are broken and fragile and in need of God’s grace and I should treat them accordingly. We all need to be gentle with each other.

Gentleness is treating another person according to their value and their vulnerability. It takes into account how much a person is worth (infinity) and how vulnerable he or she is. Gentleness accomodates itself to act in consideration of another person and treats them kindly, respectfully, and lovingly.

Browse Our Archives