August 28, 2016
Although listed among the fruit of the Spirit, gentleness is an aspect of Christian character that is often neglected. Alistair Begg explains that biblical gentleness is not a natural personality trait but strength under control, pictured perfectly in God’s disposition toward His children and the humility of Jesus Christ. God forms gentleness in us through difficult circumstances as we learn to submit to His Word and grow in the practice of living with consideration for those around us.
Sermon Transcript: Print
We’re going to read just a few verses from the end of James and chapter 3—the third chapter of James. Our subject this evening is gentleness in the fruit of the Spirit, and we read this with our focus there.
“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness,” or the gentleness, “of wisdom. But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.”
Father, as we turn now to think about your Word, we pray that the things that we’ve sung concerning the great need we have for the Holy Spirit may be borne out in these moments, so that while we hear the voice of a mere man, that as we turn to the Bible, that the Holy Spirit will so quicken us in our listening and in our speaking that we might receive your Word as it is, the very word of God. For we pray in Christ’s name. Amen.
Well, we are getting to the end of our studies in the fruit of the Spirit. We are here penultimately, this evening, with this matter of gentleness. If you’re unfamiliar with where you find this, it’s in Galatians 5:23. There are only two elements of the fruit that are present in 23; the other seven are all there in 22. And so, having dealt or been dealt with by faithfulness this morning, now to gentleness.
Writing on the fruit of the Spirit in 1839, a Dutch Reformed pastor by the name of Bethune observed, “There may be no grace less prayed for or cultivated than gentleness.” “There may be no grace less prayed for or cultivated than gentleness.” A hundred and seventy-seven years later, here we are this evening, and I think we would be forced to agree that his comment still stands. I wonder how long it is since any of us actually knelt down and said, “Lord Jesus Christ, produce in me the fruit of a gentle spirit.” It may be some time. Whether we as a church have actually gone to God and said, “Lord Jesus, will you make amongst us such a spirit of gentleness that those who are most in need of your care may encounter it here?”
One of the reasons that it is neglected is because it is misunderstood. It is as misunderstood as it is undervalued. When people think of gentleness, they often think that it means some kind of spinelessness or weakness. And so, particularly men who have been interested in muscles and being macho do not find themselves immediately drawn to the idea of a gentle and a quiet spirit. And indeed, many females in contemporary society apparently are not very interested in it either.
The Greek word is praǘtēs. That is the word that is most used. It is translated “meekness” almost routinely in the Authorized Version and variously here in the ESV and the NIV and so on. Meekness or gentleness is essentially strength under control. Strength under control—that Moses was a meek man. That he was able to take on these characters and beat them down was an indication of his physical strength and prowess, and yet he was referred to as
If you had opened your Bible at Galatians 5, you would see that “gentleness” stands in direct contrast to “the works of the flesh,” which Paul points out before he comes to the fruit— “works of the flesh” which include “enmity” and “strife, … rivalries, dissensions,” and “divisions.” And gentleness is particularly the counterpart of anger. Of anger. It is not a temperament, nor is it a personality. It is, with the rest of the fruit, an outflow of the love of God—the love which heads the list, as we’ve seen each time.
And as I’ve studied it this week in preparation for tonight, I’ve looked down two lines: one, I’ve realized that this gentleness involves a Godward dimension, inasmuch as it involves, first of all, submission to God—submission to God in all of his Word and in his works; and then, in its manward side, consideration of others. Aristotle, who was good at definitions, defined meekness as the happy medium between excessive anger and excessive angerlessness—a balance that we discover only perfectly in the Lord Jesus. In fact, in one sense, in relationship to the totality of this orb of Christian godliness, as well as in relationship to it in its individual aspects, to think gentleness, think Jesus. Think gentleness, think Jesus.
James, in the passage that we read, James the brother of Jesus has urged his readers to conduct themselves in the meekness and gentleness of wisdom—a wisdom which he goes on to say not only is pure and peaceable and reasonable, but it is also gentle.
Now, we have to acknowledge that this comes really out of left field when you think about the climate in which we’re living. We live in a culture where gentleness is arguably not a commonly admired quality. That’s why, you see, as we’ve said, in making the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ attractive in a dark culture, these characteristics are wonderful. That’s why Paul, not only in Galatians but also in the rest of the Epistles, is saying to his readers again and again, “Make sure you’re not wearing your old clothes. Make sure you have taken off the clothes that marked your pre-converted life, and make sure that you’re wearing the clothes that are provided by the grace of God.” And part of our clothing—and we sang about it in the hymn; that’s why we chose it: “Let … lowliness,” or gentleness, or humility, “become my inner clothing,” so that that which is then both inner and unidentifiable in an ostensible way will eventually reveal itself—especially to those who know us best.
Now, as I said and have said on every occasion, each of these studies could be a series of studies in their own. I resist the temptation, and I want us to follow the line, in the time that we have, along a progression that goes like this: I want us first of all and briefly to look at three pictures, then take a lesson from Paul, and then we’ll close with a spiritual MRI. All right?
So, first of all, three pictures.
The first of these is in Isaiah chapter 40. If you’d like to turn to it, you’ll be able to identify it, and that will allow you to find it later. Again, we’re not going to delay and expound all of these, but here’s the picture. Isaiah 40:11, speaking of God, a picture of God that is ultimately fulfilled in Jesus:
He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young.
In verse 10, God is described in all of his sovereign power. Here, in verse 11, the Sovereign is also Shepherd. He tends his flock. He has a general care of those who are his own. He does so as a Shepherd. Those who have particular needs, the lambs, he gathers in his arm. He carries them in his bosom, and he gently leads those that have young. It’s a wonderful and a compelling picture of the might, the majesty, the untrammeled strength, authority, and sovereignty of God stooping down into our little lives and dealing with us in this way. Gentle.
Two pages forward, into chapter 42 and the opening verses—the servant of the Lord. This is the first of four Servant Songs by Isaiah, fulfilled, again, in Jesus. “Behold my servant, whom I uphold.” He says, “Here he is. I want to introduce him to you.” He’s “my chosen [one], in whom my soul delights; I [will] put my Spirit upon him; [and] he will bring forth justice to the nations.” At the end of the day, God will recreate the world as he intended for it to be. All will be righted. All the wrongs will be put to right.
And when this Servant steps forward, Isaiah prophesies, you will notice, that he’s not a bully, he doesn’t “cry aloud.” He doesn’t “lift up his voice.” He is not ostentatious. He is tender, so much so that “a bruised reed he will not break.” In common parlance, he wouldn’t hurt a fly. “And a faintly burning wick,” he won’t put it out. He won’t say, “Well, that thing’s useless. Let’s get rid of it.” Or, in human terms, “She doesn’t amount to much. We can discard with her.” Or, “There’ll be no tune out of her pipe again. We can throw that one out too.” No!
And when you fast-forward and find this quoted in the New Testament, in Matthew chapter 12—which you can do now or later, at your leisure—but in Matthew chapter 12, where it is quoted, in verse 15 or so: “Jesus … withdrew from there. And many followed him, and he healed them all and [he] ordered them not to make him known.” And, says Matthew, “This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah.” Here he is: he doesn’t “quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.” He deals gently with the hurting—those who are spiritually weak, those who are of little faith.
The third picture is still in the Prophets, and that’s in Zechariah. You’ll be familiar with it, won’t you? Zechariah 9:9—again, a prophecy that we find fulfilled in Matthew, in Matthew 21, where we read again of the Servant of the Lord:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey.
What an amazing thing this is! That the King of the universe, the creator of it all, the Lord of glory, as he steps down into time, as he makes himself known, he does so with such amazing tenderness and gentleness. That’s why we sang in that hymn last week,
Was there ever kinder shepherd
Half so gentle, half so sweet,
As the Savior who would have us
Come and gather [round] his feet?
It’s interesting, isn’t it, that in his self-designation he refers to himself as gentle? “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest. And take my yoke upon you, and learn of me, for I am gentle.” You’re not going to come to somebody if you’re afraid, if you think they’re going to send you away, if they’ll throw out the smoking flax, if they’ll dump the bruised reed. No! He’s gentle—gentle with his disciples when he looks at them and sees that they’re really tired, when they’ve come back and reported on their travels. And in Mark 6, Jesus says to them, “Come away by yourselves to a desolate place and rest [for] a while.” Such gentleness!
Three pictures that in the Old Testament are in black and white, and when you move into the New Testament, there you find them in resplendent color. Those are the pictures.
Now, learning from Paul. Learning from Paul. The apostolic pattern follows the pattern of the Lord Jesus. And we often say that after the resurrection of Jesus, in terms of an apologetic, in terms of a testimony to the truthfulness of Christianity, probably the most compelling testimony and argument in defense of Christian truthfulness is the conversion of Saul of Tarsus. Anybody who reads that story realizes there’s a dramatic change that we have to explain as having taken place in this man—a radical change in him, because he had been such a tyrant. He was, Luke tells us, there at the execution of Stephen. He was such a fearful figure that when, actually, he professed to be a follower of Jesus, the followers of Jesus didn’t want to have anything to do with him. They were afraid that he would even show up at their assemblies, because he had been breathing out threatenings and slaughter.
Well, what in the world happened to him? What in the world happened to him? Well, he was transformed by the power of Christ. And the work of the Holy Spirit in his life was to produce the fruit of the Spirit in his life, so much so—and these are just random; you can amplify them yourself—so much so that, for example, when he writes to the Thessalonians, he’s able to say to them, “We were gentle among you, like a nursing mother taking care of her own children.” What? You mean, Mr. Threatening? Mr. Slaughter? Mr. Murderer? Yes! He asks the Corinthians, when he writes to them and he is concerned for them that they would be under his directive and his discipline, he says to them, “What do you prefer?” (This is 1 Corinthians 4.) “Shall I come to you with a whip, or in love and with a gentle spirit?” He knew what it was to be involved in the former situation, but now his life has changed. In the second letter to the Corinthians, he says that he is entreating them “by the meekness and [the] gentleness of Christ.”
Now, when you read that—and you will read it on your own, I’m sure—I wonder (at least I wonder; maybe you will wonder with me) if it was not that he was just temperamentally so other than gentle. You know, I mean, he obviously was able to do a pretty good job of hounding down these believers. He wasn’t a sort of milquetoast kind of character. He was a well-educated fellow. He knew where he stood. He had convictions about certain things, and enough to make sure that he would drive these people underground if he could. So, I wonder if it is not simply this: that his recurring emphasis—and it is a recurring emphasis—on gentleness, that as he urges those who are under his care and those to whom he writes in relationship to this, that it is a reminder to him of the wonder of God’s grace; it is a reminder to him of the fact that apart from the work of the Spirit of God, he would know nothing about gentleness. Because he was the blasphemer, the persecutor, the insolent person who had been shown mercy.
So, if you look in the Epistles, you will find that he says it again and again. For example, Philippians 4, remember, he says, “Rejoice in the Lord … again I say, Rejoice.” What does he say next? “Let your [gentleness] be known to everyone.” Well, that’s interesting, isn’t it? “You rejoice in the Lord. Don’t be anxious. Let your gentleness be known. The Lord is near.” He writes to Titus, as we’ve seen, encouraging Titus to be a good pastor to the people in Crete, and he says to him, “Make sure that you remind them to be gentle.” He writes to Timothy in his pastoral role in 2 Timothy 2, and he says, “When the Lord’s servant corrects his opponents, he must do so with gentleness.” When he explains the nature of discipline within the church at the beginning of Galatians chapter 6, what does he say? He says that “you who are spiritual,” who exercise the role of discipline in the life of someone who has fallen by the way, “you … should restore him in a spirit of gentleness,” so that the whole understanding of discipline exercised within a fellowship, exercised on a one-another basis, is in recognition of the fact that the one to whom we ultimately go is the one who doesn’t cry aloud in the streets. He’s not a bully. He’s not ostentatious. He doesn’t snuff us out. He doesn’t ditch us. He gives us an opportunity again and again and again and again. He responds to us with amazing gentleness. Therefore, how then could I be the child of that King and operate in any other way? It’s not an option!
Thirdly and finally, a spiritual MRI. I don’t know much about MRIs. In fact, I’ve never had one. I’m actually afraid of having one, but that’s a conversation for another evening. I do know, because I’m told, that it is an effective means of showing what’s really going on inside. It can reveal the absence of something that we were hoping to find there, and it can reveal the presence of something that we don’t want to see there. I don’t know about you, but as I’ve gone down this list—love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, and now gentleness—this has been like a spiritual MRI, showing up in my heart things that I hoped I wouldn’t see and failing to show up things that I long to see.
In the 139th Psalm, the psalmist begins by acknowledging that God knows all about him—knows all of his activities, knows all of his words, and knows even all of his thoughts. What is true of David is also true of us. At the end of that psalm, he then very bravely invites God to search him out at the level of his heart. He says, “Search me, O God, and know my heart! Try me and know my [anxious] thoughts!” “Put me down that tube. Do the MRI on me, and see if there is anything in me that grieves you, that makes you sad.”
So, let’s take the test. Two parts: in relationship to our submission to God, in relationship to our consideration of others.
Submission to God: part one of the test. Do I have a teachable spirit? A teachable spirit. “Therefore put away all filthiness,” writes James, “rampant wickedness and receive with [gentleness] the implanted word, which is able to save your souls.” You’re never going to benefit from the Bible, he says, if you come with a filthy mind, if you come with an argumentative spirit. You can sit for a thousand years and listen to the Bible taught, and it will be as water on a duck’s back. It will be as rain on a tin roof. That’s why he says, you see, it is essential that the fruit of gentleness, of humility of heart, is revealed in the way in which we listen to the Word of God being taught.
Also, a repenting heart in submission to God. Gentleness, sensitivity—not only teachable to his Word but repenting when confronted by the truth of his Word. None of us tonight’s perfect. All of us make mistakes. We do bad things that we didn’t want to do; we fail to do good things that we should have done. And we suffer if we fail to face up to these things. If we try to simply ignore them or to hide them, we will find at least this: one, that our fellowship with God is spoiled; and two, that our usefulness for God is diminished. The loss of abiding fellowship with God and usefulness in the service of God may be traced to an unrepentant heart. That’s why Luther said repentance is a daily activity.
So, sensitive to the teaching of the Word of God, repentant as the Word of God comes to convict us, and then, thirdly, that we would be marked by a trusting faith. A trusting faith.
You see, it’s very easy to talk about submission to God when everything is going well. That’s why, I think, today we’ve been singing about when we go… What was it we were singing this morning? “When the sun’s shining down on me…” Was that this morning? Was that this evening? It’s this evening! Shows you how quickly time passes, doesn’t it? So, it’s one thing when the sun is shining down on me. But the sun is not always shining down on us! It was this morning that we sang about when the trials come and difficulties come and so on. A trusting heart.
Because, you see, gentleness is not mainly developed in tranquility. Gentleness is developed in trials and difficulty. So the very things that I don’t want to have in my life are the very things that, in my life, will make me the full-orbed person that God wants me to be. I don’t want to be sick. I don’t want to be disappointed. I don’t want my heart to be broken. I don’t want any of these things. But God is sovereign in his dealings. He knows what he’s doing, and he is expressly committed to conforming his children to the image of his only beloved Son—to make us, in short order, like Jesus, in gentleness as in everything else.
That’s why I always quote the thing—and I never go and look for it, and so every time I say the same thing. I can never remember who it was. I think it is J. M. Barrie, the author, that Barclay quotes in one of his commentaries, where somebody asked J. M. Barrie where his mother got her lovely, tender, gentle eyes—her lovely, sympathetic, gentle countenance. And J. M. Barrie said, “She got that when my other brother died in infancy”—that it was that which so marked her.
General Booth of the Salvation Army had cataract surgery which went badly—which was tough, because he had already lost one eye. So he was blind in one eye, and the cataract surgery failed. It fell to his son to tell the general the results of the surgery. His son’s name was Bramwell, given the task of telling his dad. Booth’s first response was to say, “Does this mean I shall never see your face again?” Then, after a moment, he added calmly, very calmly, “God must know best.” And then, after a pause: “Bramwell, I have done what I could for God and [his] people with my eyes. Now I shall do what I can for God and the people without my eyes.”
MRI: listening to God’s Word with a repentant heart, a teachable spirit, and a trusting faith.
Part two of the test: in consideration of others. And I’m just going to frame this in the questions that I wrote down for myself. If you find them painful, I’m absolutely thrilled. I don’t see why I should have to find them as uncomfortable as I have found them. So, here we are. This is the MRI. Here’s the test. You’re sliding down the tube. We’re talking about a gentleness in relationship to God who is there and out there. But what about in relationship to one another? What about a gentle spirit in consideration of the needs and concerns of others? Here are the questions. Some of them I’ve put in the plural, just to make myself feel a little better.
The first one: Are we considerate, generous, and fair in our dealings with others, or are we rigid, exacting, and demanding? Am I prepared to be gentle and sensitive to the pressures and insecurities that are the portion of my friends and my families and my colleagues? Do I show consideration to the mail carrier, the checkout clerk, the bank teller, and everyone else? Do we tell ourselves we are standing on principle when in fact we’re merely insisting on our own opinions? Are we becoming increasingly compassionate, genial, reasonable, and kind or disturbingly crusty, rigid, unyielding, and inflexible?
Jerry Bridges, whom I quoted this morning, recalls a friend who used to sign off his letters in this way: “Keep tough and tender.” And Bridges observes, “Tough on ourselves and tender with others.” The absence of a gentle spirit reverses it and does so with relative ease.
Isn’t it wonderful that this is the fruit of the Spirit? That this is not a lecture this evening; this is an opening up of the Bible. This is not me saying, “Now, look, your life is like a Christmas tree—an artificial Christmas tree—and here’s another thing for you to go out and try and stick on it in the hope that you will be a much better person to live with,” and so on. No! We started, “Come, Holy Spirit, dwell here among us. We need your power, your saving grace. Show us yourself! Do something! You’re the only one that can make us like this. We can’t make a church like this. You can! You want to! You will!”
And in our own personal lives, the same way. Are you impatient? I’m impatient. I’m just impatient generally. I want InstaGro—whatever that is! I see it every so often. It’s manufactured here in Ohio, for those of you who are agricultural folks. It’s in Caledonia, Ohio. I looked it up to see. I thought I’d investigate who invented the name. But InstaGro: “No, I want it all to grow now! Tonight! Tomorrow! Tomorrow I’ll be so joyful, so peaceful, so gentle, nobody will be able to stand me! I’ll be so radiant and amazing. People will be coming over and taking their vacation just to be near me. Make me like this now, will you?” But that just shows how impatient I actually am! And part of the fruit is patience—trusting God, asking him, “Fill me with the Holy Spirit. Make me fruitful by your power at work in us. Do it for us as individuals. Do it for us as a church, please, we ask you. We ask you.”
Father, we do ask you. We come to you this night in the awareness of your amazing, tender love towards us in Jesus, confess to you how easy it is for us to champion the wrong side of this equation, to bolster a spirit of animosity, or of pride, or of whatever it might be, under the disguise of our concern for orthodoxy, or whatever it might be. Lord, we’re not going to give up on any of that. We know your Word is clear. This is not about fudging doctrinal issues; this is about the forming of Christian character in a heart, in a life, in a family, in a marriage, in a home, in a church. And so we earnestly pray that you will make your Word come alive in us and that we might be the better for it. For we humbly pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
 George Washington Bethune, The Fruit of the Spirit (Philadelphia, 1839), 100. Paraphrased.
 See Numbers 12:3.
 Galatians 5:19–20 (ESV).
 Aristotle, Nicomachaean Ethics 4.5
 Bianco of Siena, trans. Richard Frederick Littledale, “Come Down, O Love Divine” (c. 1390, 1851).
 Isaiah 42:1 (ESV).
 Isaiah 42:2–3 (ESV).
 Matthew 12:15–19 (ESV).
 Zechariah 9:9 (ESV).
 Frederick W. Faber, “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy” (1854).
 Matthew 11:28–29 (paraphrased).
 Mark 6:31 (ESV).
 See Acts 7:58.
 See Acts 9:1, 26.
 1 Thessalonians 2:7 (ESV).
 1 Corinthians 4:21 (paraphrased).
 2 Corinthians 10:1 (ESV).
 Philippians 4:4 (KJV).
 Philippians 4:5 (ESV).
 Titus 3:1–2 (paraphrased).
 2 Timothy 2:24–25 (paraphrased).
 Galatians 6:1 (ESV).
 Psalm 139:23 (ESV).
 James 1:21 (ESV).
 See Romans 7:19.
 Martin Luther, Ninety-Five Theses (1517), thesis 1.
 Matt Redman and Beth Redman, “Blessed Be Your Name” (2002).
 Harold Begbie, The Life of General William Booth, the Founder of the Salvation Army (New York: Macmillan, 1920), 2:422.
 Jerry Bridges, The Practice of Godliness (Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1996), 187.
Copyright © 2023, Alistair Begg. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations for sermons preached on or after November 6, 2011 are taken from The ESV® Bible (The Holy Bible, English Standard Version®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
For sermons preached before November 6, 2011, unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are taken from The Holy Bible, New International Version® (NIV®), copyright © 1973 1978 1984 by Biblica, Inc.TM Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide.