The Fruits of the Spirit: Gentleness
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When we decided on the Fruits of the Spirit as our Lenten theme, there was part of me, a small voice inside of me that said, ‘oof’. After some reflection I realized that my experience of the fruits of the spirit is very much intertwined with my experience as a woman. Humility, Gentleness, Patience, Generosity…these are indeed very counter-cultural values, I know, but that small voice inside of me keeps piping up… “for men. They’re counter-cultural for men”. I’m speaking very generally here and using a very very wide brush, but our society in many ways expects women to be humble, and men to seek status. Studies have shown that women only apply to jobs when the meet 100% of the qualifications, while men apply if they meet at least 60% of them. Women are told that they need to own and talk up their accomplishments if they want to succeed, but are more likely to be criticized for boasting. If a teacher said, “Taylor is a great student, but can be a little bossy at playtime,” what gender student are you picturing?
Why is it that our culture encourages people to draw on their strength by saying “man up” and taunts a boy’s weak pitching arm by saying “he throws like a girl”? And at the same time, heaven forbid a teenage girl show too much strength in her sport, lest she be subjected to chromosome and hormone tests to prove she’s “really a girl”. I would need more than two hands to count the number of times I’ve been called a ‘feminine’ slur for calmly, but firmly asserting a boundary, and yet when men don’t stand up for themselves, they’re called a different ‘feminine’ slur.
As a woman I'm acutely aware of the ways that society both expects me to be gentle, and mocks me for being so. I wouldn't be surprised if many of my female and femme-presenting siblings have a similar awareness and feel a similar sense of 'what gives?'.
A sermon is too short a format for a full on exploration of gender roles and expectations, but I do want to offer this: for better or for worse, gentleness is a gendered trait in our society. I don’t mean that some genders are inherently gentle, rather, that we associate gentleness with a particular gender/gender expression, specifically femininity. We associate gentleness with femininity in a world that still sees femininity as inferior. Gay or bisexual men who use dating apps are likely familiar with the disclaimer ‘no femmes’ on some men’s profiles. We affectionately call little girls “tomboys” when they eschew traditionally feminine attire and activities, but little boys who are interested in traditionally ‘feminine’ stylings and activities are still often bullied. We are inundated with media depictions of parents encouraging their daughter’s little league prospects, but rarely their son’s dance recital practice. Have we ever even had a storyline of a nonbinary child? Women are held to certain standards, like gentleness, in a culture that values anything but. If you asked an international visitor to describe American culture or values, do you think gentleness would be in their top 5 or even 10?
That’s why it’s all the more poignant to me that Jesus, a cisgender man, embodied values that run counter to what our culture says is the masculine ideal. Jesus shows us how to live a life of gentleness, how to embrace who we are and who we are called to be, regardless of societal forces or values.
To be gentle, we need to be in tune with who we are, with where we are; we need to be able to self-regulate. This doesn’t mean holding it all in, that’s not effective or healthy self-regulation. Jesus was no stranger to expressing his own emotions, and he even encouraged others to do the same. He wept openly, in grief and frustration, he told his friends how much it hurt his feelings that they didn’t stay awake to keep him company while he prayed, in the garden on the morning of the resurrection he encouraged Mary to talk about her feelings, asking her, “why are you weeping?”
Our culture values holding-it-in, bottling it up, keeping a stiff-upper-lip, and in my experience, that almost always leads to an explosion- sometimes an outward explosion, lashing out at others, sometimes an inward explosion, lashing out at ourselves…if we are called to cultivate gentleness, we are called to develop fluency with our emotions, expressing them honestly, openly, and healthily.
Gentleness is often paired with humility in biblical writings: Paul calls us to walk with all humility and gentleness, Jesus says “I am gentle and humble”, and so on and so on. We heard last week how Jesus rejected satan’s temptations of status and power, knowing their danger. When we are swept up in status, in proving ourselves to the world, we are prioritizing the world’s values over God’s values. When we ruminate over how we measure up, we can easily fall into a mentality where the ends justify the means, doing whatever it takes to get a leg up on the competition, hurting others and ourselves in the process. I’m reminded also of the sometimes baffling habit Jesus had of urging his disciples to keep mum about his ministry, to not tell anyone who he was or what miracles he had performed. Perhaps this freed him to stay longer in each town, to interact more authentically with communities, to minister more deeply. When we center our aspirations and goals in the knowledge that no matter what, God knows who we truly are, and no matter what God says we are enough, it frees our spirit to dwell in a place of curiosity and generosity.
One of the helpful ways I’ve thought about gentleness is that it is marked by intentionality. Gentleness is like the slow pace of a well-constructed childrens show like MR Rogers neighborhood. There is a lot of slow, silent space, but there is no wasted space.
Lastly, a major facet of gentleness is indeed withholding of force, abstention from violence be it physical, verbal, emotional, or spiritual. That isn’t to say that there is no place for righteous or prophetic anger in our lives. After all, even Jesus flipped over tables in the Temple courtyard. It’s important to recall, however, that the day before, Jesus went into the Temple and looked around, taking it all in, reflecting overnight and returning the next day to drive out the money changers. As one article by theologian Shiao Chong reflects, “it was not, as often imagined, a spur-of-the-moment violent rage. Rather, it was a calculated public protest”.
Our culture normalizes violence as ‘losing your temper’, we live in a punishment culture that is evident in everything from our criminal justice system, to many dog trainers’ use of aversive tools that are illegal in other countries. Our culture values being the “alpha” (and just a reminder that that whole concept of “alpha”, “beta” and “dominance” was based on a flawed, now-debunked study on captive wolves that were not from the same pack), and that means using force to establish and defend your position. We normalize losing one’s temper, through depictions of schoolchildren chanting “fight! Fight! fight!” in the cafeteria, to politicians setting their supporters on hecklers, to the common, joking refrain “you should see the other guy” when we have a visible injury.
And yet again, there is Jesus, the king of kings and prince of peace, able to curse a fig tree to wither and die, instantly healing the wounded ear of a roman soldier even as he is arrested and led to his death, reminding his rightfully angry disciple that violence isn’t the way God calls us to be in this world.
This kind of gentleness, Jesus’ kind of gentleness, is that “gentleness born of wisdom” that James talks about in his letter. It isn’t a gentleness that is weaponized to oppress, a tool of the patriarchy. It is a gentleness, like James says, “from above”, full of mercy and good fruits. It isn’t a gentleness adopted to survive in a culture that polices gender norms, it’s a gentleness donned with intentionality, through relationship with self, neighbor, and God. It’s a gentleness that is intertwined with humility, self-acceptance, and curiosity. So my charge to all of us today, to my male siblings caught between measuring up to macho ideals and the gentleness of the lamb of god, to my nonbinary siblings caught in a world that isnt always willing to let you define yourself, and to my female siblings trying to figure out how to get by without buying in to their own oppression, is to remember the life and love of the one who we are called to emulate…the one who says to ALL of us: “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. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”
Further Questions for Consideration:
What is Gentleness to you?
Who in your life has embodied humility, either someone you’ve known personally or observed in the public eye?
How did it show in their words and actions?
What are ways that you see gentleness valued, or devalued, in the world around you?
Are there times it is easier or more difficult to be gentle? What do those instances have in common, or what distinguishes them?
Have you ever been expected to be gentle and found it difficult or frustrating?
Have you ever been mocked for being gentle?
How does your present day understanding of gentleness compare with what you were taught growing up?