“Spirit of Gentleness” on Galatians 6:1-5 by Michelle Ellis – July 24, 2022
I want to start by orienting us again to what Paul is describing in the list of the fruit of the Spirit found in Galatians 5:22-23. They are love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. These fruit are tangible attitudes and behaviours that will come to characterize a person more and more as they grow in God, as they abide in Jesus, as they grow more into the image of Jesus, and also as they grow more into their own unique true human selves. Jesus says, you will know them by their fruit (‘them’ meaning Spirit-filled people), and this list gives a picture of the kind of fruit that we can expect to see in ourselves, in our community as we grow more and more in closeness to Jesus, as we abide in him more and more.
We’ve been looking together at these fruit of the Spirit mostly one by one over these past number of weeks and today we’re going to be looking at gentleness. As I was exploring this passage this week, I was looking at when and where else this word gentleness comes up in Paul’s writings. It comes up eight times in Paul’s writings and of those times when gentleness comes up, five are in the context of conflict. Those five times are in the context of Paul urging people to be gentle with one another when they are navigating through some kind of conflict or keeping one another accountable. One of those instances is in the text in Galatians 6 we read today, which comes right after Paul talks about the fruit of the Spirit in Galatians 5. For Paul, these fruit of the Spirit have very practical import for life in community and for navigating through the messiness of life with one another.
It’s worth noticing that much of the content of Paul’s letters have to do with navigating through disagreements and conflict, with coaching communities and individuals how to journey through conflict together as people guided by the Holy Spirit, as Spirit people.
Just a word here, that Spirit people are not perfect people. But we are a people on a journey to grow more and more into what we already are in Christ. But it’s worth looking at ourselves, looking at our expression of who we are in the body of Christ here in Telkwa, and wondering together do we see these fruit here? Do we see these things growing among us? Do we see buds, flowers that show a promise?
Disagreement and conflict happen in community. They happen in relationship. They happen in Christian relationship, even in the very healthiest and best of Christian relationships, even in the healthiest and best of Christian friendships, even in the healthiest and best of Christian marriages and families, even in the healthiest and best of Christian churches. They were happening all the time in the early churches. No community was immune. That’s also true today. Faithful followers of Jesus will have conflict. Holy Spirit churches will have disagreement and conflict.
Conflict itself isn’t necessarily a bad thing or a sign of unfaithfulness. Conflict can simply be a reality of working out in community how to live faithfully together in a complex world. However, how we engage in conflict together is not neutral. How we engage in conflict will be the test of faithfulness. Will we avoid it and distance ourselves from those we disagree with? Will we enter in like a bull in a china shop, name-calling, being sarcastic, trampling others? How communities and people in relationship navigate through conflict together is what will be the telling factor in how faithful we are to the work of the Spirit in us. Conflict will happen. How we navigate through that conflict matters deeply and will be one of the places where the rubber hits the road in living out the fruit of the Spirit.
Paul spends so much time coaching people in how to navigate through conflict with each other and with him. In Paul’s writings you can hear what is relationally at stake for him as he works out with others how to live out their faith and how to navigate major disagreements they have with one another. You can also hear the cost of this work to Paul personally, especially in 1 and 2 Corinthians. You can hear how difficult it is for Paul to do this work, the work of being faithful in conflict. Being faithful and gentle in conflict is really hard! But Paul’s writings can give us a picture of what it can look like to be in conflict faithfully—with integrity and passion, yet also with gentleness, with affection for the other person, with longing for things to be made right, not just on a surface level, but all the way through.
It’s my conviction that this is an area where we, as the body of Christ, could be such a powerful witness and sign of hope in our world. Not to avoid conflict, not to disassociate from others when we disagree, not to treat each other like opponents in a war over truth and to battle to the death, but instead, to model to one another how to love and be gentle in the midst of disagreement, how to name truths in love and gentleness, how to work towards real restoration with one another, how to honour each other in difference, how to speak a hard word in real love that people can know and feel with a heart towards the other’s flourishing. I’m also aware that this will take real work and commitment on our part because I wonder if this is something that few of us have seen modelled well.
Let’s look together at the text we read here in Galatians 6. Paul is giving guidance for how to journey with someone who is stuck in some kind of unfaithfulness. Maybe it’s greed or a consistent posture of selfishness. Whatever it is, Paul says that Spirit people should work to restore the person in a spirit of gentleness. The word used for restore is the same word that a person would use in resetting a broken bone. You get a picture of caring hands doing the gentle work of restoration for the sake of the health and the flourishing of the other person. Not to shame the other person, not to blame the other person, but to restore and bring life and health.
The word that is translated as ‘gentleness’ is actually a pretty tricky word to capture in English. It’s sometimes translated ‘meek’, sometimes ‘humble’, sometimes ‘gentle’. I want to note particularly the close tie in being gentle and in being humble. Paul warns about having a strong awareness of your own vulnerability, your own humanity when holding another person accountable in this passage. And that’s part of what humility is, isn’t it? Being aware of your humanity, your own vulnerabilities? It is a strong awareness of our own vulnerability as humans that invites a posture of gentleness with each other.
With little people, you can see how vulnerable they are, and so they can often bring out gentleness in us almost automatically and that is a good thing. But we never really stop being vulnerable as human beings, do we? Even when we’re big, we remain so vulnerable to being hurt, and vulnerable to the impacts of trauma or low self-esteem or grief. Paul’s call to gentleness, to humility especially in conflict, especially in the work of holding each other accountable honours the fact that we are all vulnerable human beings, hurting and easily wounded. We all need gentleness, especially when we are stuck in places of weakness, stuck in sin, or whatever it may be. We need gentle hands to do the careful work of restoration, the work of helping us heal. There is nothing worse than a person who has a lot of pride about their own strength reprimanding another person for their sin. However, a person in humility and gentleness, very aware of their own vulnerable humanity and the vulnerable humanity of another, who speaks a gentle word with the true aim of restoring the other, is a powerful, much needed and beautiful act that models the character of Jesus himself.
I’d like to share with you an example from the secular world that emphasizes the importance of gentleness, especially in conflict. Some of you may be familiar with John Gottman. He’s a psychologist who’s life’s work has been studying marriage. His particular interest is seeing marriages thrive and flourish and he gives practical ways couples can foster that. In one of his books he talks about navigating through conflict in relationship. Though this book is for married couples, I think he has a wealth of knowledge for anyone who wants to learn how to navigate through conflict in any kind of relationship. He reflects on the difference between a ‘harsh startup’ in navigating a difficult conversation and a ‘soft start-up.’ A harsh start-up would be beginning a difficult conversation saying something like, ‘You’re such a pig. I can’t believe you left your socks on the floor again, just expecting me to pick them up. You’re always doing this.’ A soft start-up would be something like, ‘I noticed you left your socks on the floor. I’m wondering if you could pick them up. Sometimes I feel kind of like a house cleaner around here and I’d like to know we’re working on keeping the house neat together’.
Now that might sound a bit contrived, and yes, it is a bit. There is always a bit of an awkwardness when growing into something new. The big thing to note is that Gottman says that conversations that begin with a harsh start-up it will inevitably end on a negative note. He notes that 96% of the time you can predict the outcome of a conversation based on the first three minutes. If there is resentment, criticism, harshness or sarcasm in the way a conversation begins, it will most likely end that way as well, with resentment, criticism and harshness. However, if a conversation begins with direct gentleness, it is much more likely to move somewhere that leads to making progress in sorting through the matter at hand.
Gottman isn’t a believer and he’s not directly talking about the fruit of the Spirit. However, I mention this because it’s a very practical example of what it looks like to be living out the fruit of the Spirit in real life when dealing with annoyance about how to share the housework, to more weighty and difficult matters that come up in relationship. Gentleness is so important when figuring out how to faithfully be in relationship with another person when there are things to work out! To work things out not in competition, not with a spirit of defensiveness or harshness, but in true gentleness that comes from the Holy Spirit, in affection for the other person.
As followers of Jesus we are not to shy away from or avoid conflict for fear of doing it poorly. I wonder how many of us avoid saying a difficult word or facing a difficult truth with another person for fear that we will mess it up or hurt the other person. We should surely enter into conversations after praying for help from the Holy Spirit, with humility, in gentleness, and with supports when needed. It can be okay to go slow into conflict, to take breaks. But the Christian witness is to journey through conflict in gentleness, in humility, and in reliance on the Holy Spirit to guide.