Germinating Gentleness

1 Thessalonians 2:1-9

July 29, 2001 | Brian Bill

Pastors are not always known for their gentleness because many of us talk too long or preach too loud.  On the other hand, people are not always real gentle with pastors either.  

I heard about a minister who received a note from an 11-year-old boy that said, “I liked your sermon on Sunday.  Especially when it was finished!”

A little girl became restless as the preacher’s sermon dragged on and on.  Finally, she leaned over to her mother and whispered, “If we give him the money now, will he let us go?”

Another pastor stood up to preach his first sermon.  He was so frightened that he could hardly speak, but he had prepared a good, long message, so he just kept plodding through it.  After a few minutes a man yelled from the back of the church, “We can’t HEAR you back here!”  The pastor tried to preach louder, but a couple minutes later, the man called out again, “We can’t HEAR you!”  The young preacher tried a little harder but now he was really nervous.  Finally, the man at the back stood up and shouted, “We can’t hear a thing you’re saying!”

Just then another man in the front row stood up, turned around and said, “What are you COMPLAINING about?  Just sit down and be thankful, or at least let me change places with you!”

As we come to the 8th defining characteristic of the Christ-life, we have to admit that gentleness is another description that is not very common among believers.  It’s more like an exotic fruit that’s hard to find.  We’ve heard about it, but don’t see much of it.  But when we do, it emits an attractive fragrance that points people to Jesus.

A Review

Before we focus on the fruit of gentleness, let’s review some of the things we’ve been learning in our “Developing Your Character” series.

1. We cannot create fruit on our own. 

Galatians 5:17 reminds us that the sinful nature and the Spirit desire contrary things.  The Fruit of the Spirit can only come from the Spirit of God.  Fruit is not something we do; it’s what we display.  Our responsibility is clear from Galatians 5:25: “Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit.”   I hope you haven’t left here each Sunday thinking that you just need to “try harder.”  The key is not to work but to worship, not to try more but to trust more.

2. The Fruit of the Spirit is a package deal. 

Galatians 5:22 uses the singular “fruit” and not “fruits.”  It’s not a ‘pick and choose’ list like a buffet table to browse through.  It’s a full-meal deal. 

3. The focus is on Christian character. 

As we’ve said before, it’s important to distinguish between the gift of the Spirit which happens at salvation; the gifts of the Spirit, which have to do with service; and the graces of the Spirit, which relate to Christian character.  Building Christian character must take precedence over displaying special abilities. 

4. The fruit must be displayed both individually and collectively.

We’re not given the Fruit of the Spirit just so some individuals can be more faithful or more gentle.  If the church is to be the community God desires it to be, then these nine virtues should also work in our lives corporately as the body of Christ.

5. Not all fruit ripens at the same time. 

As we submit and surrender to the Spirit, keeping in step with Him, He will bring to maturity each of these Christ-like qualities, but some may take a little longer to become fully grown. 

6. The Fruit of the Spirit should be the result of living the normal Christian life. 

These character traits are not meant to be the exception for believers but rather the norm! 

7. Bearing fruit is a both a gift and a task. 

There’s a paradox in living for Christ, isn’t there?  Fruit is always a gift, but it still requires some work on our part.  We’ve been given the Fruit of the Spirit and yet we’re reminded in Galatians 5:16 to “live by the Spirit.”  It’s ours, but we have to appropriate that which He has given us.  

As has been our practice each week, let’s read Galatians 5:22-23 together: “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control…”

Most of us think that we understand what gentleness is all about.  The dictionary defines it as being considerate, mild and soft.  When we think of meek, we often think of weak.  The biblical definition is much richer.

Gentleness is like a wild animal with its power in check

The Greek language, in which the New Testament was originally written, was extremely precise and expressive.  When the Greeks developed a word, they not only gave it a careful definition, they almost always illustrated it.  Their definition of gentleness was “power under control,” and they described it with a picture of a very powerful horse that had been tamed.  Gentleness is like a wild animal with its power in check.

I surfed some web sites this week on wild horses and discovered a curious phrase.  When describing horses that have been tamed, one site referred to them as “gentled.”  Even today, to break in a horse is to “gentle” him.  The horse is still powerful but the force is now under the control of the master.  When God “gentles” us, we become powerful under His control.

Jonathan Edwards suggests that gentleness “may well be called the Christian spirit. All who are truly godly and are real disciples of Christ have a gentle spirit in them.”  

If this is true, then we’re in trouble.  It’s hard to think of a truly “gentle” person isn’t it?  Sure, there are some around, but many of us are more like wild mustangs than humble horses.

The Gentleness of Jesus

Since the fruit that the Spirit desires to cultivate is rooted in the very character of God, we must get to know Him better if we hope to see it mature in our lives.  In a very real way, Jesus is the embodiment of gentleness.  He is all-powerful but through his self-sacrificing love, He chose to treat people with meekness and humility.  Philippians 2:6-7 describes the “gentling” of Jesus: “Who, being in the very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.”

When we look for a king born of royalty, we instead find a baby born to a peasant girl, wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a feeding trough.  When we look for Jesus to take the world by storm, to win over those who have power, influence and prestige, we find Him instead speaking gently to the weak and the outcast.  When we look for Him to make His move by entering the royal city on a big white horse ready for battle, we find Him instead riding on a gentle donkey.  

When we gather with Him in the upper room we expect to hear plans for how the kingdom will be set up but instead He drops to His knees, calls us His friends and gently washes our feet.  When Jesus is arrested and taken before the authorities, we look for Him to set them straight by declaring that He is God’s anointed one; instead we find Him strangely silent.  Matthew 27:14: “But Jesus made no reply, not even to a single charge—to the great amazement of the governor.”    When the apostle John, in Revelation 5:6, looked for the conquering Lion to open the scroll and its seven seals, he sees instead a gentle Lamb, looking as if it had been slain.

Though Jesus gave Himself a number of figurative titles such as the Good Shepherd, the Bread of Life, the Light of the World, and the Vine, when it comes to actually describing His character with specific virtues, there are very few self-portraits.  That means that the descriptions He does give are very important.  Listen to how Jesus describes Himself in Matthew 11:28-30: “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.  Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

In the very next chapter, the Pharisees are angry with Jesus and plan to kill him because He healed a man on the Sabbath.  Choosing to avoid this conflict, Matthew 12:15 tells us that “Jesus withdrew from that place…”  Matthew then quotes the prophet Isaiah, who wrote hundreds of years before the time of Christ, to show that Jesus fulfilled yet one more prophetic prediction.  This prophecy describes the gentleness of Jesus.  Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 12:20: “A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”  

A reed was a hollow-stemmed plant that grew along riverbanks in Egypt and Palestine.  They grew anywhere from three to twenty feet high.  Reeds were used as a symbol of weakness and fickleness in the Bible.  In Matthew 11:7 Jesus describes a reed as “swayed by the wind.”  When the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus in Matthew 27:29 they placed a reed in his right hand to let everyone know that they thought He was powerless.

We can say at least two things about a reed:

1. It was weak. 

If a large bird landed on it, it would break.  And because of the wind, or people trampling along the shores, almost all reeds were bruised and blemished.  There is hardly anything more frail or brittle.

2. It was worthless. 

If someone came across a bruised reed they would not pick it up but would instead step on it or kick it out of the way.  Although reeds were used to make baskets and flutes, they had very little value, especially when they were bruised.  

Many times, people are like bruised reeds.  God has created humanity to be innately vulnerable as described in Psalm 103:15-16: “As for man, his days are like grass, he flourishes like a flower of the field; the wind blows over it and it is gone, and its place remembers it no more.”  

A reed came to represent the poor and the oppressed.  The word “bruised” means to be “broken by calamity.”  It’s a picture of an individual who has been wiped out by life.  It also refers to the person who has a tender and repentant heart like David did in Psalm 51:17: “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

Do you feel weak and worthless this morning?  Have you been battered and thrown around by the storms of life?  Has sin scarred you?  If so, listen to these gentle words: “A bruised reed He will not break.”  This word “break” means, “to rend in pieces or crack apart.”  It was used of the breaking of the legs of those who were crucified in John 19:31.  Friend, Jesus is not out to break you into little pieces.  He longs to take your bruises and heal them.  Psalm 147:3 says, “He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds.”

Jesus is gentle and will not break a bruised reed “and a smoldering wick He will not snuff out.”  Wicks were made out of linen and when the oil ran out the flame would flicker and emit a cloud of smelly smoke.  All the dirt and filth that was around the flame would start smoking as well.  The smoke would become an irritant so people would just reach out and snuff it out.

Jesus refuses to snuff out the weak, the smoldering, and the irritating.  Instead, He leans over, carefully adds oil to the bowl, being cautious not to drown the wick, and then gently blows to get the fire going again.

Over the fourth of July when we were on vacation, we went to a beach to watch the fireworks.  I decided to build a fire but didn’t have very good wood.  Some of it was wet and green.  When I finally got the fire going, it was really smoky.  The girls and I would add little twigs but it didn’t help much.  Finally, when we were ready to leave, I kicked some sand over the feeble fire and it went out in a hurry.  

Friends, Jesus will not throw sand on the flickering flames in your life.  Instead of quenching the fire, He will fan it into flame so you can burn bright again.  Have you been run over by life, or burned out by its pleasures?  He says to you this morning, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest…for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”

Jesus handles bruised reeds with a care and precision that no one else can match.  In any other hands these reeds would snap in an instant – all life, all hope, all power gone.  But in his hands that have been “bruised” for us, the stalk is made to grow again, and the smoldering wick is brought back into a full flame.

The Gentleness of Jesus Followers

The Bible is clear that those who call Christ their master will display gentleness.  Philippians 4:5 is quite challenging, “Let your gentleness be evident to all.  The Lord is near.”  As we walk closely with Him, His gentleness will rub off on us.  In fact, that’s the only way that we can be gentle.  The Bible gives us two tasks as it relates to gentleness:

1. Pursue it

We can’t just sit back and hope that we’ll become gentle.  1 Timothy 6:11 says, “But you, man of God, flee from all this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance and gentleness.” The word, “pursue” means to chase after it until you find it. 

2. Put it on. 

Once we find gentleness, we’re to clothe ourselves with it.  Through an act of the will we decide to put it on, much like we put on our clothes.  Colossians 3:12: “Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”


Let me give you four practical ways that we can pursue gentleness and put it on in our lives.

1. Practice Prayer and Fasting. 

When we pray for others it’s difficult to be harsh or angry with them.  When we bring even our enemies before the throne of grace, we begin to see them with eyes of tenderness.  And, as we pray we enter into God’s very presence, which should give us a profound sense of humility.  We come as fellow bruised reeds and smoldering wicks to find grace, mercy and gentle healing.

I really like Isaiah 57:15: “For this is what the high and lofty one says – He who lives forever, whose name is holy. ‘I live in a high and holy place, but also with him who is contrite and lowly in spirit, to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the spirit of the heart of the contrite.’”  As we pray and fast, God will heal our brokenness and burn His fire into us so that we can shine brightly again.

2. Give grace to people. 

While it’s certainly true that it’s easier to get close to someone when they have no rough edges, the truth of the matter is that we all have the capacity to rub each other the wrong way.  In Scripture, gentleness is frequently placed in opposition to words such as harsh, violent, unrelenting, strict, and severe.  To be a person who is gentle is to be a person who gives grace to others.   Since grace is “unmerited favor,” we shouldn’t make people try to earn our gentleness.  Ephesians 4:2 says, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.”

We need to be reminded that no one is perfect, except God alone.  Your spouse will disappoint you.  Your kids will fail you.  Your friends will let you done.  Your church will drop the ball at times.  Your pastor won’t meet all your expectations.  The time will come when you will have a legitimate gripe.  You will be right and they will be wrong.  

This is the crossroads of gentleness.  Which path will you take?  Condemnation and the cold shoulder, or grace and gentleness?  Before you make that decision, remind yourself how gentle Jesus is toward imperfect people just like you.  We can choose to live our lives disappointed and angry with everyone around us, or we can be armed with the virtue of gentleness and enter into the blessing of authentic relationship.  God can use us to mend bruised reeds when we give the gift of gentleness to others.

Gentle words can penetrate a hard heart

Interestingly, when we see people who are caught in the web of sin, the Bible challenges us to not talk about them but to actually go and talk to them.  Even though we may be really upset about what they’re doing, we won’t win them over by harsh words.  Gentleness is to be used to restore others.  As I read Galatians 6:1, ask God to reveal to you the name of someone who has been slipping into sin: “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.  But watch yourself or you also may be tempted.”  Gentle words can penetrate a hard heart.

When writing to Timothy about how to handle those who cause problems in the church, Paul gives some very practical advice in 2 Timothy 2:25: “Those who oppose him he must gently instruct, in the hope that God will grant them repentance leading them to a knowledge of the truth.”

Question.  Are you judgmental or gentle toward those who sin differently than you do?  Try to see people as bruised reeds and smoldering wicks.  As you do, God will use you in the process of gentle restoration.

3. Speak gentle words. 

I love this little prayer: “Lord, make my words soft and gentle today because I may have to eat them tomorrow!”  One of the best ways to germinate gentleness is to monitor our mouths.  Our words have the power to build others up, or tear them down.  Ephesians 4:29 challenges us, “Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen.”

We can spread the germs of gentleness to others simply by watching what comes out of our mouths.  Do you know someone who speaks harshly with you?  Instead of blasting back, practice the promise of Proverbs 15:1 and watch what happens: “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”  Proverbs 15:4 says that the tongue that brings healing is a tree of life.   Proverbs 25:15 tells us that a gentle word is stronger than you might think: “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.”

Fellow parents, this is something that most of us need some help with.  At times our words are so harsh that our kids can feel like bruised reeds and smoldering wicks.  Let’s speak gentle words of life to them.  Fellow fathers, Ephesians 6:4 challenges us to not exasperate our children but to bring them up in the training and instruction of the Lord.  One of the best ways to do this is by speaking gentle words to them.  

And, for those of you who are married, determine to be gracious, not grating.  Ask yourself these questions:

  • Are my words building up my wife or are they bruising her sense of worth and dignity as a woman created in the image of God?
  • Are my words encouraging my husband or are they extinguishing the flame of God in his life?  


4. Witness with gentleness. 

The Bible reminds us to treat people with dignity and respect no matter how they’re living.  People can smell our self-righteous attitudes.  Let’s put our energy into living the Spirit-filled life so that the Fruit of the Spirit will be on public display.  Then, lost people will want to know the reason for the hope we have.  When we tell them about Jesus, 1 Peter 3:15 challenges us to “do this with gentleness and respect.”  

Earlier in this same chapter, Peter says that an unbelieving husband will be won to Christ not by sharp words from his wife but by “the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight.” (1 Peter 3:4)

I want to close this morning with an adaptation from the introduction to Brennan Manning’s book, “The Ragamuffin Gospel.”  

The gospel of gentleness is for the bedraggled, the beat-up, and burnt-out.  

It is for the sorely burdened, the wobbly and weak-kneed who know they don’t have it all together.  

It is for the inconsistent, unsteady disciples; for poor, weak, sinful men and women. 

It is for earthen vessels who shuffle along with feet of clay. 

It is for bruised reeds and smoldering wicks, bent and broken people who believe their lives are a grave disappointment to God.  

It is for me and it is for you and everyone else who knows they do not have it all together.

Jesus came for the sake of those who fail.  He came as a friend to the friendless.  A mender of broken hearts.  A comforter for those who mourn.  A hero of the helpless.  A bearer of burdens for the heavily laden.  And a gentle Savior who will not break you or snuff you out.

Do you have any thoughts or questions about this post?