01 August 2016

Gentleness: Take charge of your emotions!

“Gentle” doesn’t mean “nice.” It means, like a well-trained horse, you don’t spook easily.

When Christians go through Paul’s list of the Spirit’s fruit in Galatians—love, joy, peace, etcetera Ga 5.22-23 —we tend to skip gentleness. ’Cause we figure it’s just a synonym of kindness. Gentle people are kind, right? Gentle Jesus is meek and mild, according to Charles Wesley’s hymn; we assume gentleness is therefore meekness and mildness. Nice, friendly people.

Or gentle people are patient. They handle others softly, not roughly. Like the washing machine on the gentle cycle: Treats your clothes softly and tenderly, kinda like the way Jesus is calling, “Oh sinner, come home” in Will Thompson’s hymn.

What’re the chances I’m gonna tell you both those definitions are incorrect? Better than average.

The word Paul used for gentleness is prahýtis. It describes someone who’s prahýs/“gentle.” In classical Greek literature, it’s used to describe people or animals who were angry, sad, or fearful… but they got control of themselves.

  • In Homer’s Hymn to Hermes, Apollo was enraged, but let music make him gentle. 417
  • In Hesiod’s Works and Days, stubborn mules were made tame, or gentle. 797
  • In Aeschylus’s Persians, Xerxes tried to gentle a team of horses, 190 and Darius advised Atossa to use gentle words to soothe her grieving son. 837
  • In Pindar’s Pythian Odes, Hero was “gentle to his citizens.” 3.71
  • And in the Septuagint, Moses was more gentle than anyone, Nu 12.3 in contrast to his angry brother and sister. Nu 12.1-2

The term refers to someone who’s emotionally stable. You know, like a wild horse that’s been broken, who doesn’t buck every unfamiliar rider, or freak out at every odd thing it encounters. Like a tame animal who’s not passive and quiet one moment, then tearing through your throat the next.

Unlike some humans. And some Christians.

The ancient Greeks highly praised gentility. Gentle rulers weren’t emotion-driven despots, who’d freak out whenever you tweeted something they don’t like. They weren’t easily outraged—which, I remind you, is a work of the flesh. They weren’t thrown into panic, frenzy, depression, or euphoria, at the smallest things. They weren’t quick to sorrow, despair, rejoice, or ecstasy. Like I said, stable.

God’s that way too: Gracious, merciful, slow to anger, quick to forgive. Jl 2.13 Stands to reason it’s a fruit of the Spirit: All those fruits are God’s traits. If we follow his Spirit, we’re gonna take on his attitudes, behaviors, and emotional stability. We’re gonna be gentle like God is. We might feel excitement, rage, sadness, zeal, all sorts of emotions—but we’re never gonna let ’em take over our lives, and lead us to do something sinful. We are in control. Never our emotions.

Get hold of those emotions!

Our culture—often including the larger Christian culture—doesn’t really know what gentleness is. And if you tell ’em, they’ll assume you can’t be right.

I’m a Pentecostal. We have a lot of folks in our churches who pursue the Holy Spirit like crazy, but that’s just ’cause we want his miracles; we suck at his fruit. (As did I for many years.) So a lot of us have no emotional stability. And don’t want it, either. We don’t know the difference between emotions and the Holy Spirit, and assume if it’s wild glee, wild zeal, wild euphoria, wild anything, it’s gotta be a product of the overwhelming, almighty Spirit of God. Ever see Pentecostals who exhibit a whole lot of crazy, manic behavior? We blame it on him.

How do we justify it? Same as Christians usually do: We redefine “gentleness” as something else, and claim we have that. We fake the fruit. We’re nice. Friendly. Patient. Or at least we look that way in public. And claim that’s gentleness. Meanwhile we’re just as angry, fearful, mournful, zealous, or manic as any pagan. Just because we say angry things in a soothing tone, doesn’t mean it’s not an emotion still raging out of control. In fact part of the reason people chase overwhelming happiness so hard, is because they’re often overwhelmingly sad.

True, sometimes there are people who honestly can’t take hold of their emotions. They have psychiatric or medical problems. They need to see a doctor. I’m not gonna naïvely say, as many Christians will, “Just pray really hard, and God’ll cure your depression”—or recite lots of happy memory verses, or surround yourself with friendly people, or other folk cures. If that’s you, you need help. Might need medication; definitely need therapy. Yes, God can supernaturally cure you, same as he can cure someone with a bleeding chest wound. But even so, in both cases, go get help.

Don’t use the excuse of, “That’s just how I am.” Maybe so, but it’s not how God intends you to be. Just as God doesn’t want us to indulge our sin nature, he also doesn’t want us to be emotionally immature. Too many of us are used to letting our emotions push the buttons. Or clamping down on them by turning ’em off altogether. Humans are creatures of extremes; we either want to let ’em run wild, or suppress them entirely and numb them with meds. I’ve known far too many Christians who cry at anything and everything, and say it’s God who gave ’em “such a soft heart.” Conversely I’ve known far too many Christians who mock any sort of emotionalism, as if all emotions are from the devil. Neither is correct. Neither type of Christian is being gentle.

Emotional manipulation.

Of course you realize if we don’t have emotional stability, we’re not just gonna be led by our emotions: Other people will lead us by them too.

Yes, including God. Joy’s a fruit of the Spirit too, remember? He guides us with his love and encouragement. He prefers positivity—but he’s not above using negativity, like when he hardened the heart of the pharaoh of the Exodus. Ex 9.12 But God should never have to resort to negativity when it comes to us Christians, who should be listening to him already. And God’s a trustworthy guide, so he’s not the problem. It’s everybody else who might lead us places we ought not go.

Most often it’s fellow humans who manipulate our emotions. (The devil too, but humans do it far more often.) Rarely for good. When we let ourselves get worked this way—blown and tossed by the wind like waves of the sea Jm 1.6 —we can be turned in any direction they want. We’ll be entirely unstable, not just in our emotions, but in our actions and Christianity. Preachers will make us so fearful of hell, we’ll never question them. Politicians will make us so fearful of criminals, we’ll let ’em pass any laws they wish. Salesmen will make us so fearful of not keeping up with the Joneses, we’ll never even notice the Joneses don’t actually have that much.

Ever hear of codependence? It’s a term psychologists invented in 1976 to describe people who are under the emotional control of someone else. Usually ’cause they’ve been bullied into thinking they’re only worthwhile when they’re of use, or help, to others. So when your alcoholic mom gets you to cover for her when she’s too drunk to function, or when your husband cheats on you with pornography and blames you for not being subservient enough, or when your Vicodin-addicted wife beats you and blames her meds—and when all of ’em say, “You’re a Christian and you’re supposed to forgive me”—yep, it’s emotional manipulation. A real common form of it. True, you need to forgive them. But since they’re not repentant, you need to cut ties with them too. Or they’ll just keep abusing you.

So here’s what we gotta do: Resolve to never make decisions when you’re emotional. Never. Not even if you’re happy. Especially not when you’re angry, fearful, amorous, or anxious. I know; anxiety’s gonna be especially difficult. Still, at such times we gotta place a moratorium on saying “Yes” or “No” to anything. If you already made a decision, don’t change it, no matter how you feel: Stick with your original decision until you can calm down and rationally rethink it. And if you haven’t made a decision yet, wait. Cool down first.

No, it’s not easy. Especially when people are pressuring you to act now. Especially when you have second thoughts, or get cold feet, or are so horny you don’t care about your convictions, or are so vengeful you want satisfaction immediately.

But that’s how people get us. In order to control us, they’ve gotta get us to stop thinking. Stop asking what God would want us to do. Stop questioning or challenging them. Give in to our emotions. Do as they’ve bent us. And once they realize we’re gonna sit on it till our higher brain functions are no longer clouded, they’re gonna try all the harder to make us emotional. So resist.

It does get easier with practice. But don’t base your success or growth, on whether you have less extreme emotions and calmer feelings. God isn’t looking for that. Sometimes we should be upset, or sad. Regardless, God wants us to practice self-control. When we’re put in a situation where, say, we’re afraid—and have every reason to be afraid, and are rightly afraid instead of irrationally afraid—God wants us to follow him rather than fear, and do the right thing instead of the fearful thing.

No, it’s not weakness.

As I said, emotion-ridden people like to justify their out-of-control behavior. They claim God made ’em that way, or claim it’s righteous anger or zeal, or holy fear. Of course if it’s truly righteous and holy, we’d see other fruit of the Spirit in it: Love, kindness, patience, grace, compassion. Since we don’t, it’s not.

And since it’s not, such people also won’t recognize the real thing when they see it. When they see our emotional stability, it’ll actually frustrate them. “Why doesn’t this excite you? You should be excited!” Or “Why aren’t you outraged?” Or “Aren’t you worried about that? You act like it’s nothing. It’s not nothing.” They’re not necessarily trying to manipulate you—but they wanna justify their own behavior, and it’s not easy to do that when they’re the only ones getting swept away.

So out come the accusations. “This should make you angry. Why doesn’t it? Because you don’t care. You secretly approve of it, don’t you?” Back in my political days I used to complain all the time about apathetic people, who should care and don’t, who don’t really follow Jesus and likely sold out to Satan. To be fair, some folks have. But I was convinced most folks had; I confused their patience and compassion with compromise. A lack of grace will do that.

That’s what I did when I was trying to get people to act. But when I was trying to pick a fight, I switched tactics: “Why don’t you act? ’Cause you’re afraid. You don’t have the balls. You’re gutless. You’re a doormat.” People don’t respond well when you accuse them of lacking courage. And gentle people are accused of this all the time. Why doesn’t the clerk just punch that obnoxious customer, who so richly deserves it? Not because she’s patient, or kind, or hoping she’ll make a sale regardless; not because she’s gentle. We just figure she lacks the spine. We assume she’s weak.

As bullies will. That’s why bullies never talk about responding to their opponents by being the bigger person, or turning the other cheek like Jesus instructed. Mt 5.39 They intend to crush them. Either figuratively, as in the business world—and hey folks, don’t take it personally; business is war—or literally, especially when you give ’em political power.

Back to the ancients. They didn’t elect their leaders, y’know; they prized gentleness in their rulers because it was really their only hope. When they went to their kings and nobles for a favor, they’d butter them up by calling them, “Gentle lord”—a subtle request that the ruler be gentle with them, and not fly into a rage. Of course not every ruler was gentle, but they liked to think of themselves that way; as benevolent, thoughtful rulers. It’s why the upper classes became known as gentlemen or gentry. It’s also why they invented all sorts of rules of protocol and decorum, so they could fake gentleness.

Our culture tends to recognize decorum as “political correctness”—as fake gentility, fake kindness, fake appropriateness. Much better for people to be themselves, so we know what we’re getting. I agree; if people drop the pretense, it’s much easier and more useful to see the racists and sexists coming. But rather than glory in their awful behavior, we Christians need to challenge them to be kind and gentle, as fruitful Christians ought to be. When it’s true kindness and gentleness, it’s not weakness; it’s being strong in the LORD. It’s loving others; it’s using our heads. It’s being like Christ. Isn’t that the goal?