It’s the opposite of being harsh and overbearing.
Gentleness is a fruit or produce or result of living in the Spirit. It should be growing naturally-supernaturally out of your heart and soul and mind. Here’s what the reality behind the word means in your life.
The key verses and the nine-fold fruit:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control (Gal. 5:22-23, NIV).
“Fruit” is singular, which means each fruit grows together and feeds from the same life-source. They are united, one collective. Yet it is okay to enumerate them one at a time, so nine fruits (plural). Just don’t separate them by highlighting one and ignoring another one in your life. They all grow equally strong together, as a unit, by the indwelling and power of the Spirit.
Now let’s define the term and then see how it looks in the New Covenant Scriptures in context.
The Greek noun praütēs (pronounced prah-oo-tayss, because the two dots above the “u” indicates it is pronounced separately; the noun is used 11 times in the NT).
In the Greek written long before the NT came about, the noun meant “gentleness, mild friendliness” (DNTT). The opposite is “unbridled anger, harshness, brutality, and self-expression.” (“Self-expression” is the picture of someone who struts and shows off.) The DNTT goes on: The word group represents “character traits of the noble-minded, the wise who remain meek in the face of insults, the judge who is lenient in judgment, and the king who is kind in his rule. Hence these words often appear in pictures of the ideal ruler and in eulogies of men in high positions” (p. 487). It can be used of a tame and gentle horse, by making him tame or by training him (Liddell and Scott). A horse is a powerful animal, and when it is tamed, it turns into a work of beauty. \Praütēs (meekness and gentleness) describes a horse under the control of its master rider.
BDAG is the authoritative Greek lexicon of the NT, and it defines the term thus: “the quality of not being overly impressed by a sense of self-importance, gentleness, humility, courtesy, considerateness, meekness.”
A cognate is the noun praüpathia (pronounced prah-oo-pah-thee-ah and used only once). It means “gentleness.” It appears in 1 Tim. 6:11 in a virtue list. “But you, man of God, flee from all of this, and pursue righteousness, godliness, faith, love, endurance, and gentleness” (NIV). The opposite is an overbearing spirit or attitude. Men of God should not be overbearing, but must exhibit those other qualities, instead, particularly gentleness.
Another cognate is the adjective praüs (praeia [feminine and pronounced prah-ay-ah], and praü [neuter and pronounced prah-oo]). It means the same as the noun praütēs. It appears four times, as follows.
In Matt. 5:5 it is in the beatitudes, “Blessed are the meek.” The idea here is that the poor in finances and the poor in spirit shall inherit the earth. God will ensure that in his kingdom they will cease being poor in spirit, and they will have new friends and all the possessions that the kingdom community has. They shall possess the new promised land, God’s new rulership on earth.
In Matt. 11:29, Jesus said, “Come unto me, all 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” (Matt. 11:28-30, NIV). The context is the heavy burdens of the law and the traditions that the Pharisees and teachers of the law imposed on the people. Apparently these religious leaders were overbearing perfectionists. Jesus is not like that. His burdens are light, but note that he does indeed have burdens—walking in the kingdom and the light and the salvation he offers.
The next verse where praüs appears is a quotation from Zech. 9:9, which shows that the Messiah-King is gentle and riding on a donkey into Jerusalem, which indicates his humility (Matt. 21:5). He is not filled with self-importance, nor does he strut into Jerusalem like an overbearing king.
The final use of praüs is seen in 1 Pet. 3:4 and Peter’s counsel about external v. inner beauty for womankind. Beauty comes from “your inner self, the unfading beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is of great worth in God’s sight” (1 Pet. 3:4, NIV).
What the New Testament Says
Let’s get back to the noun praütēs, for it is used in Gal. 5:23. It is used exclusively in the epistles, which are about church life.
In 1 Cor. 4:21, Paul is challenging the Corinthians about the kingdom. It is not a matter of talking, but of power. He was using his apostolic authority to tame them. Shall he come with a rod of discipline or shall he come with gentleness? He didn’t want to be overbearing, but the Corinthians were driving him in that direction. It is amazing that he would say the rod. Imagine an American pastor threatening his flock like that! Paul had apostolic authority. No doubt he would have worked a few miracles or saw the Holy Spirit flow through him in some other way. That’s apostolic authority.
In 2 Cor. 10:1, Paul takes on a different demeanor. He appeals to the Corinthians by the humility and gentleness of Christ. But his detractors told the Corinthians that Paul was “timid” face to face, but “bold” by his letters away from them. He was not to be heeded. However, Paul then talks about how he wages war—by divine power, not with weapons that the world uses. “And we will be ready to punish every act of disobedience, once your obedience is complete” (v. 6, NIV). Paul fluctuates between a stern disciplinarian, which he prefers not to be, and a gentle and humble leader. So it looks as though sometimes a church leader must use discipline—let’s hope rarely.
In Gal. 6:1, if someone is caught in sin, then those who live by the Spirit should restore that person with gentleness. Two requirements for the restorers: life in the Spirit (mature believers) and gentleness. And then the restorers must watch themselves, in case they too may be tempted (v. 2).
In Eph. 4:2, Paul tells the Ephesians (and others) about the right attitude to have in community life. They are to be completely humble and gentle and be patient, bearing with one another in love. Paul really, really likes to cluster together virtues like that.
Speaking of clustering, Paul again compiles a virtue list. Call it another “fruit list.” Col. 3:12 says that we are God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved. That is now our new identity, so how are we to act? We are to “clothe ourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.” We are holy and dearly loved. Only when we understand our new identity can we let those virtues grow by the indwelling and power of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22-23).
In 2 Tim. 2:25 Paul instructs Timothy to stay away from stupid discussions, because they lead to quarrels, and the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome, but kind to everyone and able to teach, not resentful. Here it is: “opponents must be gently instructed, in the hope that God will grant them repentance, leading to the knowledge of truth” (v. 25, NIV). Arguments and much talk can lead to quarrels, but the church leader must avoid them.
Paul tells Titus to tell the Cretans to be subject to rulers and authorities, to be ready to do whatever is good, not slander no one, to be peaceable and considerate, and always to be gentle toward everyone (Tit. 3:1-2).
James uses praütēs twice. We should humbly accept the Word planted in you, which can save you (1:21). “Who is wise and understanding among you? Out of his fine conduct let him show his works in the gentleness of wisdom” (Jas. 3:13, my translation). Or it could read “gentleness that comes from wisdom.” So wisdom and gentleness go together, and so does right conduct or the right way of life.
Finally Peter exhorts his readers in the Christian communities to always be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks about the reason we have hope. We are to do this with gentleness and respect (1 Pet. 3:15). Are we ready to explain the gospel to anyone who asks, “Why do you have so much hope?” If so, let’s explain it with gentleness and respect.
So how does this post help me grow in Christ?
Sometimes I get the impression that Paul or Peter showed much gentleness. When Paul had to discipline the church, gentleness sometimes seemed to have vanished. Is that true? Just because gentleness had to be placed in the back seat does not mean he was harsh or overbearing. He exercised his apostolic authority with stern discipline. He was a tame yet rambunctious horse under the control of his Master. Remember when Jesus overturned the money tables (Matt. 21:12-13)? When Peter stood before the Sanhedrin, he had to present the gospel and fulfilled Messianic prophecy (Acts 4:1-22). He was bold, but gentleness and boldness are not opposites. They are complementary and go together.
Finally, as noted in the other posts in this series, the fruit of the Spirit should flow out of you, like grapes grow from the branches that are connected to the vine (John 15:1-8). Some teachers say that fruit comes from the vine without effort, and that’s true, but Jesus also said that every branch that does not bear fruit gets pruned, so that it may bear more (and better) fruit. The Father must prune you, or else your fruit will be substandard, sour maybe. Pruning can be painful, but it has to be done. The fruit of the Spirit needs his tending and divine management. Accept it from your loving Father; he knows what you need.
Only God can work in us the fruit of gentleness. And remember, gentleness is the picture of a horse under the control of his master. The horse can exhibit boldness and discipline and even ferocity as he goes into battle, as the circumstances call for, while having a gentle inner spirit.