Recently, when quiet enough to listen, I’ve heard whispered the word gentle. The whispers have become a beckoning to explore how to be gentler in my relationships with creation, others, and myself.
Gentle has a checkered history in common English usage; it’s bound up with gentlemen and gentle-ladies, their training (taming?), and the parochialisms, privileges, and manners of class.
In the scriptures, though, gentle keeps sematic and spiritual company with closely-related words like humble, kind, and merciful.
My maternal grandfather, Fred, was, for me, an example of gentleness. He listened deeply, spoke softly, and moved deliberately—not always slowly, but at a pace that suited his purpose. He knew how to be still, and his stillness radiated warm calm, even amid the chaos, for others.
On long rides in his pick-up truck into the West Virginia countryside, we shared stretches of silence that were peaceful and settling, not tense and awkward. Fred didn’t often give advice but told stories that offered wisdom. He encouraged without imposing burdensome expectations. He treated people with kindness and, even when angry, paused before speaking to choose his words and tone carefully.
Fred suffered from lung cancer with honesty and dignity, giving care while receiving it. He’d want me to say that he wasn’t perfect. He sometimes lost patience and walked away, but not before sharply using words that made it clear that the WW2 sailor he had been lived on in him. He wasn’t perfect, but he was gentle. Fred’s eyes were tender. His work-calloused hands conveyed affection. His words spoke a blessing.
I want to be gentler like Fred and, especially, like Jesus, who said: “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, 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. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28-30).
Gentleness and humility are at the heart of Jesus’ heart, and as a teacher, they are his curriculum. They are the fruit of our becoming increasingly like him: “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22-23). What if the practices of mercy and the habits of kindness are the burdens he calls us to carry? What if tenderness, mercy, and servanthood are his yoke and the keys to real rest? Maybe gentleness is a pathway to the renewal, so many of us need.
Gentleness is relating to oneself and to others with the awareness that all of us are acquainted with fear, even though we try to hide it; feel isolated and lonely from time to time; wrestle with shame and guilt from which we long to be free; want to be seen, known, and understood for who we truly are; and often feel overwhelmed by life’s pressures and demands.
Gentleness isn’t weakness; it includes strength which serves justice and mercy. It isn’t silence in the face of injustice but speaking the truth in love. It isn’t inaction; it is acting to make peace, reconcile, bless, and heal.
I’m reluctant to call my commitment to learn more about gentleness, a resolution, a goal, or even an intention. It feels more like an invitation or an opportunity to which I get to say a glad “yes.” “Rejoice,” Paul said to his friends in Philippi, “and let your gentleness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4:4).