Let your gentle spirit be known to all men. The Lord is near.
– Philippians 4:5 –
This passage of Scripture comes in a list of brief commands that Paul means to demonstrate as the means of remaining spiritually steadfast (cf. Phil 4:1). That list is usually read through very quickly, and this command to be gentle often doesn’t enjoy the extended meditation that it deserves.
But the word is packed with meaning, so much so that the translators have always had a hard time translating the Greek word, epieikes. The verse at the top is the New American Standard Update. The older NAS has, “Let your forbearance,” or “your forbearing spirit be made known to all men.” The ESV says, “Let your reasonableness be known to everyone.” The HCSB has, “Let your graciousness be known to everyone.”
The commentators don’t help either, as their lists are even longer: gentleness, graciousness, forbearance, patience, sweet reasonableness, mildness, leniency, yieldedness, kindness, charitableness, considerateness, magnanimity, bigheartedness, generosity. In some measure, all of these concepts are at play in this one word. I thought it would be beneficial to select a number of them and amplify them a bit, so that we can gain a firm grasp on the nature of this duty to which we are called, but which is often easy to overlook. So here are five characteristics of the gentleness that is to dominate our demeanor as followers of Christ.
1. Reasonable Flexibility
First, there’s a reasonable flexibility. It’s interesting to note that when this word was used of someone in authority, it referred to someone who exercised a discerning leniency. This was someone who, when faced with a legal issue, and when he perceived that the strict application of the letter of the law would lead to commonsense injustice, he could discern a better course, and would, as one writer put it, “moderate the inflexible severity of wrath.”
Now, it was a discerning leniency; this was not someone who was unjust and would set aside the law at his whim. But it was a reasonable flexibility. Martyn Lloyd-Jones says this person had “the capacity to differentiate between what is really of vital importance and what is not, to stand like a rock by the things that are vital, [and] to be reasonable about the things that are not.” This is someone who was not so inflexible, unbending, and unyielding that they would insist on a person’s detriment for the sake of mere formalities.
What a great need there is for those of us in the church to be marked by a reasonable flexibility. Some of us simply cannot abide it if something isn’t done according to a particular policy or preferred method. Others consistently insist on their own way, and make others’ lives difficult until they bend to their direction. You may be the kind of person that other people are always accommodating and pacifying, lest there be some needless altercation. Paul says to us, “Let your gentleness be evident to all men.” Be mild, be kind, and—as long as it doesn’t violate the Word of God—be yielding. Be reasonably persuadable—reasonably flexible.
2. Temperate Gentleness
Secondly, there is a temperate gentleness that pervades the disposition of one who is “gentle.” You know these people. These are the people about whom you say, “He is just a gentle man,” or, “She is just a tender, warm, and welcoming woman.” There is a softness and a tenderness about them. They always seem to know when it’s appropriate to be soft-spoken, and there never seems to be a harsh word on their lips. It seems almost impossible to frustrate them. There is a coolness and a calmness to their spirit, and they seem to have a calming influence on those around them.
The gentle person is someone you’d feel very comfortable speaking with about things that are troubling you in your life—someone you would feel very comfortable sharing your struggles in your Christian walk with. This isn’t someone who is going to be abrasive, and dismissive, and prickly; they’re not going to slap you on the shoulder and tell you to “suck it up!” This is someone who can be tender, and warm, and nurturing.
Are you that person? Is there a welcoming and nurturing disposition about you? When your brothers and sisters think of you, do they think of you as someone who can tenderly shepherd them through their struggles? Or are you someone they think of and say, “There’s no way I’m going to speak to him about that! He’s got all of the gentleness and grace of a chainsaw!”
Some of the men might be thinking, “Mike, put a lid on all that mushy-gushy talk, will you? I’m a man! I’m brusque and brash and gruff! I don’t go for all that touchy-feely stuff you’re talking about!” Well, let me remind you of the man’s man who endured beatings, and imprisonments, and lashes, and stonings, and who went without food, and water, and clothing, and who when his boat was shipwrecked spent a night and a day in the ocean, clinging to a piece of the wreckage to fight for his own survival (2 Cor 11:23–29). This was a gritty man. This was a man’s man. And this man wrote in 1 Thessalonians chapter 2, “But we proved to be gentle among you, as a nursing mothertenderly cares for her own children.” Friends, are you marked by such a temperate and gentle disposition that your brothers and sisters feel as safe and as cared-for in coming to you with their problems as a nursing infant feels in the arms of her loving mother?
All the bristly, abrasive, manly men need to remember: your Lord Jesus was the manliest man to ever walk this earth. He literally went through hell on the cross, absorbed the unmixed fury of Almighty God exercised on His own innocent soul, voluntarily submitted to the grave, and three days later, on His own authority, took His own life up again (cf. John 10:18), and came out on the other side! And that man, your Savior, was gentle enough to take a little child in His arms (Mark 9:36), gentle enough to liken Himself to a shepherd who tenderly cares for His sheep, gentle enough to invite all those who were weak and heavy-laden under the burden of their sin to find rest in Him, “for,” He said, “I am gentle and humble in heart” (Matt 11:28–29).
3. Patient Forbearance
Third, the man or woman manifests the gentleness that Paul calls us to in Philippians 4:5 is marked by patient forbearance. An easy way to comprehend this nuance is to observe what terms the Word of God contrasts it with. 1 Timothy 3:3 says elders must not be pugnacious, but gentle. A pugnacious man loves a fight. The older translations rendered this Greek word, “striker,” one who strikes. If anything or anyonegets in this man’s way, his first instinct is to strike. And then in Titus 3:2, Paul gives directives not just for the elder or overseer, but for every member of the body of Christ. He says, “Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.” So where the pugnacious man was ready to strike or bash whatever got in his way, here the man who is not marked by gentleness is eager to malign the person who does him wrong. Someone sins against this man or mistreats him, and his first instinct is to speak evil of that person. A gentle answer might turn away wrath, but this man is ready with a harsh word that stirs up the fire rather than puts it out (Prov 15:1).
But the gentle man is not so easily offended. His instinct is not to bash physically or bash verbally. He is marked by a humble, patient forbearance. Calvin said this man is “not easily moved by injuries.” Especially in the context in which the Philippians found themselves—facing both the pressures of persecution from without and the cancer of disunity from within—this word speaks of the one who is “able to submit to injustice, disgrace, and maltreatment without hatred or malice, trusting God in spite of it all.” Martyn Lloyd-Jones helps again: “[These] people have a control and mastery over themselves so that though darts are thrown, they do not find a sensitive place. …so that when these darts come, you can somehow receive them, and not worry about them—longsuffering, able to bear and forbear, not easily offended.”
Is this you, dear reader? Have you so pursued and found your joy in the Lord that when the darts of sinful offense are thrown at you, they don’t find a sensitive place? Have you gotten a sensible and sober view of your own sinfulness, such that there is something of Paul’s confession in your own heart: that you are the chief of sinners (1 Tim 1:15), and so are always getting better than you deserve—even when someone wrongs you?
Or are you pugnacious? Quick to take into account a wrong suffered? You say, “You don’t understand! I’m not worried that they’re offending me; I’m worried that they’re offending God and His Word! That’s why I’m harsh and brutish and cantankerous and needlessly offensive!” And yet Paul told Timothy, “The Lord’s bond-servant must not be quarrelsome, but be kind to all, able to teach, patient when wronged, with gentleness correcting those who are in opposition” (2 Tim 2:24–25).
4. Humble Surrender
And that leads very naturally into the fourth characteristic: humble surrender. The gentle man humbly and willingly surrenders his own rights. Even in secular usage this word had this connotation. The pagan philosopher Aristotle said that this word described “the one who by choice and habit does what is equitable, and who does not stand on his rights unduly, but is content to receive a smaller share although he has the law on his side.”
And that is so relevant for us in the church. Some of the most challenging, difficult, discouraging, wearying meetings I have been in have been those where professing believers refuse to patiently forbear sins committed against them because, they say, “The other person was wrong! They sinned against me, and I have a right to this, that, and the other thing!” “Yes,” they admit, “I know that love doesn’t take into account a wrong suffered, and bears all things, and believes all things (1 Cor 13:5, 7). I know that we are commanded to forgive one another, just as God has forgiven us in Christ (Eph 4:32). But I was right and she was wrong!”
And Paul says to you, dear friend, “Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be defrauded?” (1 Cor 6:7).
What an astounding thing to say! Paul was addressing the Corinthians who were embroiled in such conflict with one another that they were even taking one another to court! How much further away from conducting yourselves in a manner worthy of the Gospel can you get? And Paul says, no matter who wins the lawsuit, you both lose. It’s already a defeat for you. And then he says, “Why not rather be wronged?! Why not rather be defrauded?!” How can it be that you could insist so severely on your own rights? You who profess to belong to the Savior who ransomed your soul from sin and death precisely by refusing to insist on His own rights! Who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself!
William Hendriksen said, “The lesson which Paul teaches is that true blessedness cannot be obtained by the person who rigorously insists on whatever he regards as his just due. The Christian is the man who reasons that it is far better to suffer wrong than to inflict wrong” (193).
Fellow Christians, where is that Gospel-shaped gentleness that gladly yields your own rights and prefers to suffer wrong if it be for the benefit of others? Where is that eagerness to forgive someone who’s wronged you at the very first sign of their repentance (Matt 18:22)? How can we, who have been forgiven a debt of trillions upon trillions, throw our brothers and sisters into the debtor’s prison of our hearts for the pennies that we’re owed (Matt 18:35)?
No, have this attitude in yourselves which was also in Christ Jesus (Phil 2:5), who surrendered the glories of Heaven itself in exchange for the abject degradation of death on a cross, so that He could be the Servant of all.
5. Happy Contentment
Finally, the one who manifests this gentleness to which we’re called is also marked by a happy contentment. And for the one who is relentlessly pursuing his joy in the Lord (Phil 4:4), this only makes sense. If we have fastened our affections on the glory of God in the face of Christ, and if in salvation the Holy Spirit has opened our eyes to behold and feast upon that glory, where is dissatisfaction going to come from? You see, the gentle Christian is happily content.
Spurgeon says of the gentle person, “If he can have God’s face shining upon him, he cares little whether it is hills or valleys upon which he walks.” And as the hymn says: “O while Thou dost smile upon me, / God of wisdom, love, and might, / Foes may hate and friends disown me; / Show Thy face and all is bright.” The gentle Christian is the content Christian.
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What a wealth of truth is stored up into this one word, gentleness. Let me summarize by quoting Pastor MacArthur. He writes, “Perhaps the best corresponding English word is graciousness—the graciousness of humility; the humble graciousness that produces the patience to endure injustice, disgrace, and mistreatment without retaliation, bitterness, or vengeance.”
May God grant that our joy would be so fixed in the Lord that our gentleness would be made manifest to all people.