Gentleness is one of the prized characteristics of the Bible. It is listed among the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5.23). It is mentioned by Jesus in the Beatitudes (Matt 5.5). Jesus described Himself as “gentle and humble in heart” (Matt 11.29). It is one of the characteristics we are to exhibit as we walk worthy of the calling with which we have been called (Eph 4.2). Gentleness should be a part of the Christian’s life, but yet I wonder how well we understand it.

When we commonly think of gentleness, we think of yielding and restraint, and this is true to an extent. When we admonish a small child who is vigorously petting a cat or dog to within an inch of the animal’s life, we tell the child, “Be gentle!” We are telling them to bring their strength under control. Pretty much every example of gentleness we have in our daily lives involves a softened response from the response some could make. But when we are gentle in a biblical sense, we aren’t controlling our strength by softening our response, but by placing the power we have under God’s control.

God calls for us to be gentle, but not every action that met with God’s approval in Scripture would be considered “gentle” in the sense of a softened response. I remember a conversation a couple of years ago about gentleness in which someone summarized the biblical perspective of gentleness as, “Be gentle, but leave room for the zeal of Phinehas.” He was referring to the incident in Numbers 25, wherein an Israelite came into the camp with a Midianite woman, and Phinehas followed the two into the man’s tent and put a spear through the two of them. This is about as ungentle of an action as we might see, based on the common definition of gentle. And yet God approved of what Phinehas did. So was this gentleness or wasn’t it?

When we understand that biblical gentleness is not just controlled strength, but strength placed under God’s control, this was absolutely a gentle action. There was blatant sin in the camp and the command was given for those who had joined themselves to Baal of Peor to be put to death. This man came into the camp with the Midianite woman without any remorse, while the congregation was weeping over the plague that was going through the camp because of what had been going on. A divine line had been drawn in the sand. This man wasn’t just crossing it; he was parading all over it, and this demanded swift action.

Biblical gentleness (also translated as meekness and often found in close association with humility) often calls for strong action. But the difference beetween “gentle strength” and “ungentle strength” lies in whether that strength is being used under God’s control (i.e., for God’s purposes), or under our own. A case in point is Moses, described in Numbers 12.3 as “very humble, more than any man who was on the face of the earth.” In the context of that statement, Moses was being criticized by his own siblings. Moses, it appears from the text, made no effort to defend himself. Indeed, we are told specifically that the Lord heard it, and it was the Lord who came to Moses’ defense. Contrast this with the events of Exodus 17, when water was brought forth from a rock. When the people grumbled about the lack of water and demanded that Moses give them water, he asked them, “Why do you test the Lord?” In this and other circumstances, Moses was quick to uphold the holiness of God and to rebuke rebellion against Him. In Exodus 32, Moses’ reaction to the golden calf was to grind it to powder, put it in the water, and make the people drink it. He called for all who were for the Lord to come to him, and confronted the people with their great sin. Yet even in this, he still said, “And now I am going up to the Lord, perhaps I can make atonement for your sin.” He pleaded to God that the people be forgiven. On multiple occasions, he would rebuke the people and beseech the Lord for mercy on their behalf. This is gentleness.

Moses’ downfall was when he failed to humble himself and put his strength under God’s control. At the other time water was brought forth from a rock (in Numbers 20), God commanded Moses to speak to the rock. However, Moses gathered the people together and said, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” He then struck the rock. Moses had power, but he failed to put it under God’s control, and he tried to elevate himself to God’s level (“shall we bring forth water”).

One of the reasons that gentleness frequently appears in connection to humility is that biblical gentleness requires humility; in fact, we might even look at it as an application of humility. For us to put our strength under God’s control, we have to submit ourselves to God. What makes an action “gentle” or not is not whether it is a “strong” action or a “soft” action, but whether it is an action taken in submission to God, and for God’s glory. A soft response for the purpose of saving a friendship or to avoid hurting feelings isn’t a gentle response, any more than a strong response for the purpose of being right. Neither ultimately accomplishes God’s purposes.

It is interesting to me how many times gentleness appears in connection to us teaching others or interacting with others on matters of truth. We quote 1 Peter 3.15, to sanctify Christ as Lord and be ready to give an answer to the hope within us, but we don’t always get the last five words of that verse: “yet with gentleness and reverence.” We are to be gentle in giving an answer for the hope within us. This doesn’t mean that we beat around the bush; the disciples in Acts 4 prayed for boldness in spreading the gospel. What it does mean is that when we tell others about the hope within us (Christ sanctified as Lord in our hearts), we do so not to win an argument, to shut someone down, or to be right about something, but to glorify God. We are to correct those in opposition, but “with gentleness” (2 Tim 2.25); gentleness here is not about avoiding confrontation, but about correcting with the goal of reconciliation to God.

Be gentle, but be prepared to be bold in your gentleness, if that’s what the Lord requires of us in the situation. Act for the Lord’s glory, not your own.