Yesterday during the sermon time, I used the word “gentleness” to translate the Greek word εὔσπλαγχνος (eusplagchnos) that appears in Ephesians 4:32 where the NRSV translates it as “tender-hearted”.
31Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, 32and be kind to one another, tender-hearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you. (Ephesians 4:31,32)
εὔσπλαγχνος (eusplagchnos) certainly includes the idea of “gentleness, but is more accurately translated as “compassionate”.
During the reflection part of the sermon time, I was asked how I would define the word “gentleness”. It is a big question and deserves more space than I was able to give it in church yesterday.
The Greek word most commonly translated gentleness in the New Testament is πραότης – praotes. It most frequently appears in lists of commendable attributes, where once the NRSV translates it as “meekness”.
the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, 23gentleness (πραότης – praotes) and inner strength. (Galatians 5:22,23)
I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beg you to lead a life worthy of the calling to which you have been called, 2with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love, 3making every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. (Ephesians 4:1-3)
As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness,(praotes) and patience. (Colossians 3:12)
24And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kindly to everyone, an apt teacher, patient, 25correcting opponents with gentleness. (II Timothy 2:24,25)
Remind them to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, 2to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show every courtesy to everyone. (Titus 3:1-2)
The problem with lists is that they provide no useful context that is helpful for understanding what the author means by using the word.
There are six other uses of praotes in the New Testament.
In II Corinthians 10:1, Paul uses praotes to describe Jesus.
I myself, Paul, appeal to you by the meekness and gentleness of Christ. (II Corinthians 10:1)
In I Corinthians praotes is used in contrast to a spirit of demanding harshness.
21What would you prefer? Am I to come to you with a stick, or with love in a spirit of gentleness? (I Corinthians 4:21)
Praotes is not a passive word. It describes the attitude with which we might approach a person in need of restoration, and the tone we are encouraged to adopt when called upon to give a defense of our faith. It is also the attitude we are commended to take in performing works of compassion.
My friends, if anyone is detected in a transgression, you who have received the Spirit should restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness. (Galatians 6:1)
Always be ready to make your defence to anyone who demands from you an account of the hope that is in you; 16yet do it with gentleness and reverence. (I Peter 3:15,16)
Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. (James 3:13)
Finally, praotes is recommended as the way in which we are to embrace (“welcome”) the word of God that dwells in our being.
21Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness (praotes) the implanted word that has the power to save your souls. (James 1:21)
This last usage is the most helpful.
In response to the request to define “gentleness” in the sermon time yesterday, I quoted Ephesians 4:29 where we are instructed to
29Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)
Words that “give grace” are words that create space for people to explore more deeply the nature of their true being. They are words that enable people to live authentically. Words that “give grace” are spacious words.
Gentleness is an attitude towards life which enables us to create openings. It provides room for the other to be. Gentleness trusts that, if people open deeply to the presence of God, they will be led into the way of life and truth. Therefore, gentleness does not feel the need to exert pressure or to manipulate. It has nothing to protect, no agenda to promote. It does not need to retaliate, get even, or prove itself right.
Gentleness is not demanding. It does not push or resist. It gives permission for people to discover their true nature and to open to the presence of love at work in their lives. This is why, Paul concludes his list of the fruit of the spirit, which includes “praotes”, with the curious statement that,
There is no law against such things. (Galatians 5:23)
The fruit of the spirit, do not operate in the realm of rules and regulations. They are not amenable to the will. They are not responsive to the determinations of self-will.
Gentleness is a gift given to the heart that is open. The practice of the gift of gentleness creates the openness that is the essential ground in which it will grow. If we want gentleness, we must soften and open. We must let down our guard and approach life with the tenderness that seeks to be sensitive to the realities of life as they are rather than demanding that they be as we would wish they might be.
Gentleness is difficult for us because it feels like weakness. In fact gentleness is a strong quality. We are able to be gentle because we do not feel threatened; we trust the inner strength of God’s Spirit. We can afford to give space to the other, because we have experienced the spaciousness of God’s Spirit in our own lives.
Gentleness is the ultimate sign of deep inner security. It reaches out to life without fear or anxiety because it knows that it is safe. There is nothing stronger than the presence of God’s Spirit dwelling at the heart of our being. Therefore, we are able to live with openness and softness in the midst of whatever circumstances life may provide. The strength of true gentleness will never be diminished by the harshness that characterizes so much of life.
When I practice gentleness, I am in tune with my true self. I am trusting in the flow of God’s Spirit that sustains my life. Gentleness enables me to empower people in my life to connect more deeply with the beauty that is their nature. There is no law, no effort, no exertion of self-will, no determination that has the power to create the beauty that is the inevitable fruit of gentleness.