Shortly after meeting Jesus as a college student, I learned that Christian women were expected, above all, to be gentle.
Your beauty should not come from outward adornment, such as elaborate hairstyles and the wearing of gold jewelry or fine clothes. Rather, it should be that of your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight. (1 Peter 3:3-4.)
I was shocked. Dismayed. Discouraged.
I wasn’t born gentle. I have big feelings, definite opinions, a tendency to speak up. I wasn’t born into a gentle family. I was born into a loud family, an opinionated family. Looking around at my new Christian girlfriends I felt like the ugly duckling.
Gentleness came so naturally to them, and it felt unattainable to me.
So I watched and learned and worked hard, very hard, to be more gentle. I am thankful for early lessons in kindness, for the empathy that comes with growing up, for friends who were willing to speak up when my words stung, when my humor caused hurt.
But gentleness is a step beyond kindness, and remained out of reach. Mistaking a quiet spirit for a quiet personality, I felt like a gentleness failure. How could God ask me to be meek when He had made me so very not meek?
And then, sometime in my late twenties this definition of gentleness landed in my lap, like a gift from God:
In its use in Scripture, in which it has a fuller, deeper significance than in nonscriptural Greek writings, (gentleness) consists not in a person’s “outward behavior only; nor yet in his relations to his fellow-men; as little in his mere natural disposition. Rather it is an inwrought grace of the soul; and the exercises of it are first and chiefly towards God. It is that temper of spirit in which we accept His dealings with us as good, and therefore without disputing or resisting; it is closely linked with the word tapeinophrosune [humility]… it is only the humble heart which is also the (gentle), and which, as such, does not fight against God and more or less struggle and contend with Him. This (gentleness), however, being first of all a meekness before God, is also such in the face of men, even of evil men…
The meaning of prautes “is not readily expressed in English, for the terms meekness, mildness, commonly used, suggest weakness… It must be clearly understood, therefore, that the meekness (gentleness) manifested by the Lord and commended to the believer is the fruit of power. The common assumption is that when a man is meek it is because he cannot help himself; but the Lord was ‘meek‘ because he had the infinite resources of God at His command. Described negatively, meekness is the opposite to self-assertiveness and self-interest; it is equanimity of spirit that is neither elated nor cast down, simply because it is not occupied with self at all.
(Vine’s Expository Dictionary of the New Testament, Prautes)
Gentleness comes from an inwrought grace of the soul, practiced chiefly toward God. Gentleness involves the choice to stop resisting God, instead receiving life and circumstances from Him, in trust.
In one of my favorite books, gentleness is pictured by reeds, standing tall and strong. These reeds have a flexible joint at their base so they bend before the wind and rain, bowing beneath everything that comes to them and springing back up when released, growing stronger with each bend.
I stopped trying to be gentle, and began the practice of bowing in my spirit before God with each circumstance, each joy, each trial. Replacing my “WHY?”s with “thank you”s.
I learned to tell the difference between quietness of personality and quietness of soul.
And I began learning the great lesson of the fruit of the Spirit, which I’m still learning today: We cannot produce fruit on our own. “I am the vine,” Jesus said, “And you are the branches.”
In the same way that a branch can’t bear grapes by itself but only by being joined to the vine, you can’t bear fruit unless you are joined with me. (John 15:4, The Message)
Gentleness, meekness, a quiet and gentle spirit, is not something I can manufacture, or something that comes along with certain personality types. True gentleness does not come easily to any of us, male or female.
Gentleness is the natural result of a trusting relationship with God.
When I function as my own god, king of my world, seeking to control people and circumstances, steering things to my agenda, running everything through the filter of ME, gentleness remains out of reach.
When I live in the truth that God is God, that I can look for and find His goodness in every circumstance, when I bow before Him like tree branches in the wind, His gentleness frees me to be gentle.
I still have strong opinions and big feelings. I still speak up, I still care, often too much. God made me strong and my life has required that strength. I stopped believing that strong is the opposite of quiet and gentle a long time ago. But even great strength bends, bowing to our Great God, who is so gentle with us.