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August 2, 2020

1 Thessalonians 2:1-12

You yourselves know, brothers and sisters, that our coming to you was not in vain, but though we had already suffered and been shamefully mistreated at Philippi, as you know, we had courage in our God to declare to you the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. For our appeal does not spring from deceit or impure motives or trickery, but just as we have been approved by God to be entrusted with the message of the gospel, even so we speak, not to please mortals, but to please God who tests our hearts. As you know and as God is our witness, we never came with words of flattery or with a pretext for greed; nor did we seek praise from mortals, whether from you or from others, though we might have made demands as apostles of Christ. But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children. So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

You remember our labor and toil, brothers and sisters; we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you while we proclaimed to you the gospel of God. 10 You are witnesses, and God also, how pure, upright, and blameless our conduct was toward you believers. 11 As you know, we dealt with each one of you like a father with his children, 12 urging and encouraging you and pleading that you lead a life worthy of God, who calls you into his own kingdom and glory.

Earlier this week I gave an assignment to one of my neighbors across the street, he’s a guy in his mid 40’s, not a Christian, doesn’t attend a church. And I gave him this assignment where I gave him a list of virtues, specifically the 9 Fruit of the Spirit that we’ve been looking at this summer and I asked him to rank the list of virtues based on which ones he valued most, from greatest to least importance. And I was surprised by some of his rankings, for example, somewhere in the middle was love, which I would think belongs near the top, but hey, it’s his list. And yet despite a few surprises, nevertheless, he confirmed a hunch that I had going in. That is, as to which virtue he valued the least, gentleness, was dead last, sitting firmly in 9thplace.

And while I only gave this assignment to one person, my guess is I could have given this out to 10 or 50 or 100 people and the law of averages would continue to have gentleness near the bottom.

Now why this is might be for a variety of reasons, yet I wonder if it’s mostly because our culture simply doesn’t value or see a need for gentleness. That in a dog eat dog world, where strength and power and speed and assertiveness are often rewarded, gentleness is easily dismissed or left behind.

And for what it’s worth the folks at Merriam Webster aren’t doing gentleness any favors, when they define it as mild, moderate, soft, delicate, inferior. I mean, c’mon now, if that really is what gentleness is, I’m not sure I want it either.

And yet thankfully, the bible’s understanding of gentleness is far more compelling and beautiful than the definition I just shared.

So for this morning, I want to further tease out what gentleness looks like – what it is and what it isn’t – using our passage from 1 Thessalonians and my hope is by the end of it, you’ll want more gentleness in your life too.

So let’s dive in. In the bible, depending on what translation you’re reading, gentleness and meekness are often used interchangibly. And often times when people hear the word meekness, they think of the word weakness. But yet, biblically speaking, meekness isn’t weakness and gentleness isn’t a form or display of weakness. Rather, it’s a sign of an inner strength.

Where back in the 1stcentury, during the time when the bible was written, the word picture surrounding gentleness was that of a horse, a beautiful and majestic animal which had been trained, whose power and strength had been harnessed and rightly channeled, and therefore gentleness in many ways is strength under control or power rightly harnessed. Which is kind of beautiful, right?

You see, gentle people aren’t doormats or push overs or wet blanket or struggle with a lack of ambition. No, they’re Secretariat, Seabiscuit, War Admiral or whatever other weird horse name that comes to mind J

Gentleness is strength under control.

In fact, consider this. What’s a greater display of strength? Someone who has control over their emotions and actions or someone who’s emotions have total control of them, whose anger and rage and impulses dictate their every move? It’s the person who has control over their emotions, right? Gentleness is strength under control.

And we get a glimpse of this in Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians as he and his friends Silas and Timothy write to the church in Thessalonica. Not only are we told that they are gentle, but they also convey a strength under control. We’re told that they have suffered and were mistreated for the sake of the gospel, yet have persevered nonetheless. We’re told they’ve worked tirelessly on their behalf in helping to build their church, as they showed resilience and kept their focus on the mission at hand. And in addition, we’re also told about how pure, and upright and blameless their conduct was at all times and how they had no impure motives or were deceitful in any way. They have strength and power and influence, yet channeled it in all the right ways.

Through Paul and his friends we see that gentleness is not weakness, rather it’s strength under control.

Now, that’s one aspect of gentleness. Here’s another part of it. And that is, gentleness is not the absence of courage and conviction, but rather courage and conviction in the right things in the right ways.

I don’t know about you but to me gentleness sometimes has this connotation to it that says that you’ve got to be neutral, indifferent and maybe even passive about all things at all times. But that simply can’t be the case.

After all, Paul we’re told was gentle, and yet we’re also told that he had courage in our God to declare to the Thessalonians the gospel of God in spite of great opposition. And even more, consider Jesus. Jesus we’re told was gentle, and yet in the gospels we see him turning over the tables in the temple courts and calling the Pharisees hypocrites and snakes right to their face.

Truth is, you can be gentle and still have steel in your spine. You can be gentle and still have things that you stand for and lines you won’t cross.

For example, consider Abraham Lincoln, who many historians believe was our greatest president. Honest Abe, as he was known, was gentle, yet strong and resolute in the face of injustice. Fighting a civil war and fighting to see slavery come to an end.

Or think about leadership in general. There are times as a leader where you have to make unpopular decisions that some people may not like, which requires courage in many ways, and yet we can still do so in a way that is gentle.

You see, gentleness is not the absence of courage and conviction, but rather courage and conviction in the right things in the right ways at the right times.

So those are a couple things that gentleness is and isn’t.

Now, I fear that all of this may at this point be a little abstract, so maybe a story would help:

I recently heard a story about a man by the name of Elton Simmons, he’s a traffic cop who works in Southern California. Simmons has been in the job for over 20 years, he’s made over 25,000 traffic stops, and somehow he’s done the unthinkable, the seemingly impossible – he’s never, ever received a single complaint from the general public. Lots and lots of commendations, yet not a single complaint. Not one. Zero.

His captain wanted to figure out how this was even possible, so he and a crew from the evening news followed him around for a day. They noticed that Simmons had a pitch perfect mix of authority and diplomacy with no trace of arrogance or self righteousness. No guilt trip, no looking down at people. He speaks calmly, saying, with a broken taillight, “I need you to take care of that” or when speeding, “Just be careful all right?” And here’s what’s even crazier, Simmons often still gives them a ticket. But nevertheless, he does it in an honorable, respectful, gentle way. Where after getting a ticket, drivers are commenting on his nice smile, or saying “He’s so kind,” or that they’ve never been so happy to get a ticket in their life.” Now, I can’t imagine saying that myself, but nevertheless, it’s pretty great, right?

Here’s why I love that story so much.

On one hand, it’s strength under control, it’s power rightly channeled. And in addition, it’s a reminder that gentleness is for leaders, not just followers. Gentleness is possible and so badly needed for those who have power and authority and influence, whether you’re a mid level manager, sports coach, choir director or police officer.

And even more, it’s a beautiful reminder that gentleness is for men too. That it’s not some kind of quality for women only, but for men as well. And that the middle linebacker of the football team needs gentleness just as much as the elderly widow down the street.

We even see this in how Paul describes himself, Silas and Timothy, saying “But we were gentle among you, like a nurse tenderly caring for her own children.”

Other translations here instead of nurse, say “nursing mother.” It’s a powerful image, because think about the image of a nursing mother. With her you have a remarkable display of care and compassion, tenderness and gentleness and yet also, a picture of strength, sacrifice, provision and protection. And Paul, as a man is saying, with you, I was like that.

Gentleness is strength under control, it’s courage and conviction in the right things in the right ways. And it’s for followers and leaders, men and women, young and old, and even the shyest introverts and the most outgoing extroverts.

So with all this said, how do we grow in gentleness? Or, at the very least, how do we know we have it? How do we even identify whether or not our lives are filled with gentleness in the first place? I want to share with you 2 diagnostic questions that I’ve been thinking about throughout the week myself. And here’s the first.

Are people comfortable disagreeing with me, whether a 1 on 1 situation or in a group setting?

That is, based on how I’ve responded in the past, have I create a safe space for healthy disagreement or do I respond to contrary opinions harshly in a way that has made others reluctant to share their thoughts and potentially disagree?

If it’s the latter, then the problem is not simply in creating a toxic and unhealthy environment, but in addition, let’s be honest, people are rarely persuaded and opinions are rarely changed when we use harshness.

Pastor Rick Warren says it well, when he says, “I am never persuasive when I am abrasive.” And anytime you can coin a phrase that’s true, practical and that rhymes, that’s pure gold right there.

Friends, if you have any doubt on whether people feel comfortable disagreeing with you, maybe ask your spouse or your kids, or your team at work, or others that you regularly interact with.

I remember years ago when I was in college and I was leading a small group along with a trusted older mentor and we were talking about how the group was going and my effectiveness in facilitating the group and I remember at some point him gently telling me that sometimes it seemed like I needed to have the last word. And the more about it, he was right. And my sense is gentleness doesn’t need to have the last word. And where there is gentleness, friendly, healthy disagreement can take place.

That’s the first – Are people comfortable disagreeing with you and me?

Now, here’s the second - are others able to share hard things, confess things they’re struggling with without feeling judgment or condemnation?

This is another diagnostic test for me when it comes to gentleness. If people are unwilling to share hard and deep things with me, then it begs me to ask the question, what might I be doing or not doing that’s made that so?

And this is where I think gentleness and vulnerability are so inextricably linked. To be gentle is to be vulnerable, to let people in and allow them to see your faults, your struggles, your warts and all. And when we do that, in my experience, we create a space for others to do the same.

Last week, I shared a story about my son and how we had the Tipton family over and let’s just say Noah wasn’t on his best behavior that night. He whiny and fussy and unwilling to share his toys and things, which as I should have said last week, is totally normal developmentally for 1.5 year old. Looking back on that story I told, I wish I would have been a little gentler in my telling of it. But even more, as I reflected on that moment again over this past week, I’m beginning to realize just how sobering and revealing parenting can be and how my son is like a mirror and in so many ways, through his own behavior, he is reflecting back to me what I myself am so often like. That I too am selfish, I too am fussy, I too don’t always want to share, maybe not with toy blocks, but something else, I’m sure.

And I am convinced the more often we openly acknowledge these kinds of things within ourselves, the gentler we will be. Friends, I hope that as your pastor, that you get to see my successes and failures as a parent, the moments where I miss the mark as a husband and the occasional home run, my wins and losses, my ups and downs, my highs and lows.

I love what Paul says in verse 8, So deeply do we care for you that we are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves, because you have become very dear to us.

You all I hope you know, that’s how I feel about you and that’s my hope for us. That we would share not only the gospel with each other, but our selves as well.

I’ll finish with this. Friends, like my neighbor, you may have arrived this morning with gentleness at the bottom of your list. And maybe it still is, that’s okay. After all, the Fruit of the Spirit is one heck of a list. But even still, I guess when it really comes down to it, if gentleness is good enough for Jesus, then my goodness, may it be good enough for us too.

Few, if any, expected the King of Kings and Lord of Lords to be gentle. Powerful, sure. Wise, absolutely. Courageous, of course. But gentle? They weren’t expecting that, but yet gentle is exactly who he was.

He invited the little children to come to him, saying the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to little ones like these. He let a scandalous woman wash his feet with her tears and dry them with her hair. He wept deeply when he heard of his friend’s Lazarus death. He spoke softly and kindly to Martha when she was out of line and frustrated with her sister Mary. And as the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, he didn’t come to beat us into submission, rather he was beaten and battered and bruised for us. Jesus was the ultimate example of strength under control. Power rightly channeled for our good.

And if gentleness was good enough for Jesus, may it be good enough for you and me too.

Jesus says, 29 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. 

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