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Keeping in Step with the Spirit Part 17: Clarity about the Fruit: Gentleness

I listened as my friend Pete gave counsel to Mark who was desperate about his life. Mark had made some pretty bad decisions and was franticly seeking to turn things around for himself and his family. He had driven for over two hours to meet with Pete about a position he was not really qualified to fill. Between the 10 minutes Mark arrived until his screeching departure from the parking lot, my friend Pete heckled him about his lack of credentials, the wasting of his time and why he even wanted to be in ministry at all. Their voices got loud enough for me to follow the conversation from the next room.

Uncomfortable about the way Mark was treated, I challenged Pete about how he had handled him. His response—Mark needed to hear the truth about himself. As I reflected on my Pete’s words, I realized, as vital as his message of truth might have been, how truth is delivered as just as important. What was lacking was the fruit of the Spirit called Gentleness.

You might think my friend Pete was unkind. I don’t. I think he was kind to tell this man he was unqualified and not string him along. But he was not gentle in how he did it. Perhaps you are unclear about the difference between kindness and gentleness. Kindness is the inner spiritual motivation that leads you to show concern for people. Gentleness is the manner in which you show concern for people.

The idea of ‘gentle’ was the same in Paul’s day as it is today. If comes from turning wild horses into domestic animals. This is called gentling—getting their huge physical strength under control. This process allows the child in the above picture to lead a horse that has a great deal more power than she will ever have. But the horse is gentle. It will control its power. It cooperates. It follows. The child is safe with the horse.

People felt safe with Jesus, too. Messed-up people found themselves being treated with dignity. Were they outcasts like Zacchaeus? Jesus took them in. Did they have physical ailments like the man by the pool of Bethesda? Jesus did not turn away from them. Instead, he healed them according to their faith. When Nicodemus came to see him after hours, Jesus engaged him with insights he should have known.

It is interesting that Paul follows this teaching about the fruit and keeping in step with the Spirit with “Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who live by the Spirit should restore that person gently.” (Galatians 6:1 NIV) Why restore gently?

People will mess up in the most despicable ways. Their choices are embarrassing to the rest of the church. Their lack of repentance is worrying. In their wake they leave damaged people, perhaps their children or their spouse. Certainly they deserve no pity from us who have noticed their rebellion against the love and holiness of our God. My years of being in the faith have exposed me to the normal response to ‘sin in the camp.’ It is to cast stones, turn our backs, and finally grab the culprit by the scruff of the neck and goosestep him or her out the door.

Except…that is not how Paul teaches the Galatians that the people of God should react. He counsels them to get their strength under God’s control. To be concerned about anyone who deliberately dives back into sin. Gentleness makes the way back for offenders possible. It says, “No, what you are doing is destructive.” while at the same time proclaiming, “We cannot just let you go. We will do all we can to bring you back into intimacy with God, with your family and with your church.” It means we will not use offensive means that humans are prone to—shaming, anger, disgust and threats. Instead, we will remember that, “There but for the grace of God go I!” and treat the person as we would want to be treated if we stood in his or her place.

Looping back to the opening story—it was kind that my friend Pete told Mark the truth, but it missed being a teachable, restorative moment for a guy who needed spiritual guidance…because there was no gentleness. Sadly, I am afraid that it did not bother Pete that he had added more hurt to a brother who was already desperate. This is precisely why we need to keep in step with the Spirit. Otherwise, we are merely letting the flesh run the show in our lives. So, “walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh.” (Galatians 5:16)

Since we live by the Spirit, let us keep in step with the Spirit. Galatians 5:25 (NIV)

-Steve Smith