It might seem puzzling that in this, my last blog on “The Fruit of the Spirit,” we are talking about gentleness. First of all, gentleness, or meekness, is not the last fruit listed on Paul’s catalog from Galatians 5 – I took them a little out of order. And this fruit, based on the reading I’ve done, seems to be among the most confounding of all of the fruit. We can understand something like self-control, even if we aren’t very good at practicing it, and we can relate to the spiritual nature and need for love. But what do we really mean by gentleness? Or more to the point, what did Paul mean by gentleness.
One of the first things we have to confront is the question of translation. Most English translations use “meekness” rather than “gentleness,” and some use “humility”. While these words are similar, they don’t mean exactly the same thing, yet the meaning of the Greek word used by Paul, prautes, is also somewhat elusive. It can be associated with weakness or neediness, but Aristotle defined it as “the correct mean between being too angry and being never angry at all.” Others call it “not being overly impressed by a sense of one’s self-importance.” Sermonindex.net (author unspecified) describes it this way:
Prautes denotes the humble and gentle attitude which expresses itself, in particular, in a patient submissiveness to offense, free from malice and desire for revenge…controlled strength, the ability to bear reproaches and slights without bitterness and resentment; the ability to provide a soothing influence on someone who is in a state of anger, bitterness and resentment against life…the word indicates an obedient submissiveness to God and His will, with unwavering faith and enduring patience displaying itself in a gentle attitude and kind acts toward others, and this often in the face of opposition.
In the Beatitudes from chapter 5 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus says “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.” Given today’s understanding of meekness, we can envision a world full of wimpy, ineffective milktoasts. How could they possibly inherit the earth? And if they did, wouldn’t they just get run over by the aggressive, type “A” personalities? Yet Jesus himself is praised for being “meek and mild,” and “gentle.” But the Gospels never once refer to Jesus as “wimpy.” Even if we could somehow take away Jesus’ divine nature, he would still be regarded as a man of moral strength and firm character. He was definite; he knew where he was going; he did what he said he would do. But most importantly, he demonstrated an obedient submissiveness to God. As seems so often the case, in the Beatitudes Jesus is applying a broad meaning to the idea of meekness that includes both freedom from malice and vengeance, and a desire to live in a way that is submissive to the will of God. Neither of these automatically implies weakness.
Years ago I took some basic instruction on how to repair musical instruments which included the proper way to hammer out a dent in a brass instrument. The uninitiated might think that you just went and got a big hammer and whacked away at the dent until it disappeared. But in reality, this approach simply ruined the instrument. It turned out that a meeker approach was much more effective: you take a smaller hammer and gently tap-tap-tap out the dent until it disappears. As my instructor said, “it’s not how hard you hit it, it’s how many times you hit it gently.” There is an aspect to persistence, strength through perseverance, that accompanies the idea of meekness.
It is the sad, and annoying, presence of a lot of big hammers in today’s society that has come to disparage the idea of meekness. Through coarseness and crudity, today’s language reveals a side of humanity that desires shock and seeks control. The gentle exist to be run over and the meek shall inherit the dust bin. While there are many variations on this theme, God’s presence seems to fade farther and farther away from all of them. The language of Roman occupation – torture, oppression, crucifixion – was even crueler than today’s coarseness, so it is no wonder that Jesus blessed the gentle tap-tap-tap of the meek, persistent souls who submitted to the will of God. Jesus knew, and Paul learned, that shouting back at someone who is shouting at you only increases the shouting.
Ultimately, gentleness indicates a complete trust in God, which surely is among the most valuable gifts of the Holy Spirit. A part of that trust is in the strength of God. Just as Elijah did not hear the voice of God in the thunder and the storm, we can’t really do the work of God with big, destructive hammers. Just as Elijah heard the voice of God in the stillness and the quiet, we are called to do the work of God when meekness persists as the gentle tap-tap-tap of God’s love against the dents and sins of this world.