My desire as a boy was to be strong. I was verbally and physically picked on in elementary school. The longing to demonstrate my strength led to a few fights and endless daydreaming of what that day would feel like when I could show the bullies what I had inside me. And there were also the models of “manliness” I was exposed to. Athletic coaches were the most influential. They taught me that to get ahead in sports and in the world, I needed to push harder, and do whatever necessary to be better than the person in front of me. Success would come to those who could overpower the next guy. My cumulative adolescent understanding was that strength was proportional to aggression and determination to subdue anyone who stood in my way. But my feelings of weakness always seemed to be the most powerful things within me. And as a result, I never could sustain any personal campaign of viewing myself as a conqueror.
And then there was Jesus. I prayed to surrender my life to Him when I was a boy. But as I read the Bible stories, I couldn’t escape the feeling that He, as my model, was just as weak as me. Pretty disheartening for a kid trying to figure out the secret of vanquishing abusers and proving to everyone, especially myself, that I wasn’t weak. Jesus, afterall, let Himself be bullied and eventually gave Himself up to be killed on a cross. What hope was there for me?
I was several years into adulthood before a new perspective began to take shape in my mind. I noticed in certain people what I came to refer to as “quiet strength.” They didn’t flash muscles or aggressive attitudes. But there was an unmistakable solidness in their convictions, purpose, and courage. There were even the ones who were so secure in their inner firmness that they could prefer and let others get ahead of them without coming across as weak and inferior. How could that be?
Going back to the scriptures, a reframed picture of Jesus began to take shape. I started to see a man who understood the big picture of God’s plan enough to not get caught up in the immediate demands for demonstrating force. The story that particularly caught my attention was what he said to His disciples when one of them pulled out a sword to protect Him during His arrest: “Don’t you realize that I could ask my Father for thousands of angels to protect us, and He would send them instantly?” (Matthew 26:53, NLT). Jesus had access to unimaginable power, but He also had the inner strength to not use it – waiting for the right moment when His Heavenly Father said it was time.
Jesus, Our Model
Old Testament prophecies of the coming Messiah began to take on new meaning:
“Look at my servant whom I [the LORD] strengthen. He is my chosen one, who pleases me. I have put my Spirit upon him. He will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or raise his voice in public. He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle. He will bring justice to all who have been wronged” (Isaiah 42: 1-4, NLT).
This would have been a strange picture of a conquering king in ancient days, even more puzzling to its contemporaries than it is for us today. Jesus the Messiah came to bring justice and deal with the worst of bullies. But He was going to do it without screaming for attention and while keeping the weak and broken in mind. Within His great strength and profound calling He would demonstrate a gentleness that frustrated natural human thinking and even appeared as weakness. And yet, in the big picture, He demonstrated profound wisdom that eventually proved Himself the victor.
Jesus said of Himself: “Take my yoke upon you. Let me teach you, because I am humble and gentle at heart, and you will find rest for your souls” (Matthew 11:29, NLT). Many love this verse for how it reminds us that Jesus is gentle with us. But it also appears to indicate that He wants to teach us how to be humble and gentle at heart like Him. The Apostle Paul also instructs us to “Let your gentleness be evident to all” (Philippians 4:5, NIV). He then goes on to list gentleness as one of the Fruits of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22). It is meant to be a quality present in all followers of Jesus.
Gentleness in Me?
So what does the gentleness of Jesus look like when it’s at work in us? I can first say what I believe it is NOT. It is not an inner mushiness produced by fear or apathy. When we are afraid, we can become timid and our strength drains from us, and the resulting passiveness is typically nothing more than weak docility. But within a truly gentle person there is awesome strength that is under control, similar to a powerful engine that is idling but ready to respond when prompted.
Neither is gentleness the inability to take action when it is called for. There are times when the inner strength must be expressed, such as when Jesus made a whip and knocked over the money-changers’ tables in the Temple to confront the corruption of worship that He saw (Matthew 21:12-13). But it is always meant to bring honor to God, not to make myself feel more powerful.
Gentleness ultimately springs from a complete reliance on God’s big picture of His plan rather than my tiny understanding of the present moment’s need or emotion. God’s wisdom will always have contemporary voices calling it foolish, weak, unworkable, and irrelevant. But if I am trusting His way and His methodology, then I am free to gently treat each individual as one made in God’s image. And I can leave the timing for ultimate reckoning and use of force in my Heavenly Father’s capable hands.
God is Directing the Story
Though I still feel those old rumbles of fearful weakness within, I now better understand that I am a small participant in a much larger story. I am surrounded by and infused with the strength of the One who has saved me. And it doesn’t matter if I appear weak now because I know it is not the end of the epic I’m playing a part in. I can be content obediently serving those around me with strong hands that operate with a tender touch, like Jesus.
How does Jesus want to express His firm gentleness through you? To your family? Your friends? The world?