Lately, I’ve committed myself to understanding and practicing gentleness. The word itself seems ethereal and too light to touch, as though a definition will not bring forth meaning. So I suppose my exploration of gentleness includes my own meaning-making, primarily when it comes to turning gentleness into a practice. As someone who pays close attention to Scripture for a living, I’m drawn to Galatians 5:23, where gentleness is named as one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. But I draw from other connotations of gentleness, too, and these are typically aligned with being soft or weak. And maybe gentleness understood and practiced as a virtue or spiritual gift does mean being perceived as soft or weak, and I’m not so sure I like the sound of that.
My hands, people tell me, are soft. I’ve received this commentary more than once after shaking hands or high-fiving with someone, and I’m not sure what it means. To me, my hands are my hands. They don’t feel soft, and I in fact feel a few callouses. I immediately feel self-conscious when I hear this though, like my soft hands betray a real character flaw, a weakness that I internalize. As soon as it’s internalized, I’m trained to move toward self-deprecation, and a harshness that has no place in anyone’s life.
Biblical gentleness, I’m convinced, carries a sense of humility. Humility as I understood it for the longest time meant thinking less of yourself and more of others. But that’s not it. Humility means thinking less about yourself and actually necessitates self-assurance or self-composure. Not stoicism, but an identity rooted in belonging and being loved. Gentleness, then, turns inward and then outward. Gentleness with myself, with my mistakes, with the way my mind can’t ever reach the right word, with my failure, with the anger toward myself that coalesces in my gut. Gentleness can’t ever be an outward calm with something like rage boiling underneath. As cheesy as it sounds, gentleness should cultivate inner peace and loosen the knot sitting in your chest.
From that place gentleness radiates outward with the same care. So many times in the New Testament, gentleness is mentioned as a virtue integral to dealing with conflict or handling injustices. It’s not soft or weak in the sense that it leads you to avoid difficult things; it instead offers an alternative way of being in the middle of discord.
I am not gentle. Not in this way. But I hope for gentleness for myself, and for all of us. If it means being perceived or weak, so be it.
Brad Zwiers (’12) graduated from Calvin College in 2012 and Western Theological Seminary in 2015. He will not be graduating from any more schools. He often stares at books he wishes he could read but knows he will not finish and goes for long walks with his wife, Gwyn. Sometimes he plays basketball and always he follows the greatest sporting club in the world, Liverpool F.C.