Tolerance vs. Gentleness

I remember cradling him in my arms for the first time. My nephew was less than a week old, and he was the smallest child I had ever held. More than that he was my nephew. There was nothing more important in that moment than holding him gently. He was so fragile. As my brother passed him to me, the thought, “Don’t break him! Be gentle!” came with him.

Gentleness—it’s a fruit of the Spirit according to the apostle Paul in his letter to the Galatian church. But what exactly is it? It’s a question that implicitly or explicitly enters my mind whenever I am caring for someone as a pastor. In my Bay Area cultural context, when we talk about being gentle we often mean something like speaking softly, agreeing with whatever our friends say, and privatizing my own deepest beliefs so that they do not make any claims on the other. By “gentleness” we mean tolerance.

Now, I think Jesus is a pretty good model for gentleness. In fact, he thinks so too. In Matthew 11, he says:

“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.”

Ok, so Jesus is gentle—not occasionally, not depending on the circumstance—he’s gentle. It is an essential piece his character. Well then, how does he engage people?

Immediately before he claims gentleness as his own character trait, he says this:

Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you.”

How could Jesus possibly claim gentleness and humility for himself while talking like this? This kind of gentleness and humility does not look like the kind that I’m used employing with my friends and neighbors. In Oakland, the word “judgment” drops out of your vocabulary if you are gentle and humble, not to mention “woe”. So what could Jesus mean, right after woe-ing two cities, that he is gentle and humble in heart?

I hear Jesus doing here what I have found the Holy Spirit encouraging me to do in some recent pastoral conversations. Being gentle with my nephew means to handle him with care so that I don’t break him! Likewise, being gentle with those I care for as pastor and friend does not mean I don’t speak difficult truth; rather, it means that when necessary I must speak those challenging words with healing, not breaking, as their motive and goal. It means that, like Jesus, if I use a breath to say “Woe” I must use the next to say “Come to Jesus, all you who are weary and burdened, and he will give you rest.” As a pastor, I’m trying to learn the fine art of gently bending those for whom I care, so that they don’t tip over and break.

I guess Jesus just believed Proverbs 27:6, “Wounds from a friend can be trusted, but an enemy multiplies kisses.”