The pervasive lack of pervasiveness in Christian culture is a source of perennial embarrassment to the Church. When unbelieving accuse Christians of being “unloving,” the usual response on the part of Christians is that the Church is merely standing up for the truth of the scripture and that their conviction requires a certain stalwart posture that can only come off to others as unreasonably harsh and unloving. Instead, the Christian in question argues, love of God and his commandments is antecedent to love of one’s neighbor, and that rebuking the sinful behavior of unbelievers takes priority over a mild demeanor. Thus, it is typically reasoned that the unbeliever misunderstands the nature of love, mistakenly understanding it as a kind of milquetoast sentimentality that is radically contrary to the unflinching truth of scripture and call to repentance, which has the unbeliever’s eternal soul in mind.
To be sure, there is something to this critique of the non-Christian understanding of love vis-a-vis the Christian understanding. Sacrifice of conviction for the sake of the feelings of the unbeliever is never acceptable. However, this truth is all-too-often used as an excuse to vent sinful anger and beat the unbeliever over the head emotionally. One wonders if perhaps this is the result of a certain militarization of the Christian spirit by the religion’s appropriation by the Romans. Whatever the occasion of its cultural and historical roots, however, it is clear that this truth has become an excuse to express contempt for the individual person of the unbeliever, a kind of self-righteous annoyance that has no regard for their well-being, and whose intention is instead to emotionally browbeat the unbeliever into submission because the Christian’s ego is threatened. This is as radically an anti-Christian attitude as possible.
Once again, it is true that the Christian is called to be loving and that is in keeping with stalwart regard for the truth of scripture, and unflinching criticism of anti-Christian behavior where appropriate. But the scriptures do not only command us to be loving in a way compatible with this tendency, but also to be gentle. There is therefore all too often some truth to the unbeliever’s criticism of the tone many Christians to take.
But what does it mean to be gentle? The Christian is commanded to be ἐπιεικής.
“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle [ἐπιεικής], reasonable, full of mercy and good fruits, unwavering, without hypocrisy”(Jas. 3:17).
“to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle [ἐπιεικεῖς], showing every consideration for all men”(Titus 3:2).
“not addicted to wine or pugnacious, but gentle[ἐπιεικῆ], peaceable, free from the love of money”(1 Tim. 3:3).
“Let your gentle[ἐπιεικὲς] spirit be known to all men”(Phil. 4:5).
These commandments are some of the most difficult commandments in the whole Bible. The attitude of this writer so often contradicts the injunction towards gentleness that it is worse than what is observed in non-Christians. This is admittedly quite embarrassing, and fellow professing Christians who struggle with this must join in prayer for such a spirit of gentleness. The context in which James utters this injunction is particularly important:
“13 Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. 14 But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. 15 This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. 16 For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. 17 But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. 18 And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace”(Jas. 3:13-17).
This “wisdom from above” is described in v. 13 as characterized by “meekness”[πραΰτητι]. It is further described in v. 17 as “pure,” “peace,” and “gentle.”
The word hpioß, translated “gentle,” is used by extra-biblical Greek writers of a nurse towards troublesome children, as well as with parents towards their children. It is also used of teachers towards stubborn scholars. The word thus has a distinctly horizontal significance. The Christian is to be gentle even towards those who are trying our patience. It also has the connotation of a kind of tenderness. This is particularly evident in the context of its usage in 2 Timothy 2:24, 25.
24 And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind[ἤπιον] to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, 25 correcting his opponents with gentleness[πραΰτητι]”(2 Tim. 2:24-25).
Thus, ἤπιον is paired with πραΰτητι, making Paul’s injunction particularly strong. Furthermore, while πραΰτητι appears at the end of the sentence in this ESV translation, the Greek text places the word in the emphatic position, at the beginning of the sentence, making the emphasis that much stronger. Paul therefore takes very seriously the spirit of gentleness which he expects of the Christian. He furthermore says that it is important to exhibit such a spirit even in arguing with an “opponent” of Christianity..Paul likewise uses the verb of his own conduct (1 Thess. 2:7) and his fellow missionaries (2 Cor. 11:13,20).
The theological ground of the injunction towards gentleness is straightforward revealed in the scripture. Jesus, whom as Christians we are to imitate, describes himself as πραΰς, a word meaning roughly “gentle,” of a “mild” disposition, meek, and says that it is the πραεῖς who will inherit the Earth. Jesus is further described as ἐπιεικίας in (2 Cor. 10:1). The word has the connotation of a kind of sweet reasonableness and gentleness.
Christians are called in Galatians 5:22 to be χρηστότης. This is one of the “fruits of the Spirit” (v. 22), and thus, is what ought to be expected of a Christian indwelt by the Holy Spirit. The word roughly means “kind” and “easy.” Once again, the theological ground of this injunction is the attitude of Jesus as per Hebrews 5:2, who is said to μετριοπαθεῖν, or “bear gently,” with those who are “wayward” and “ignorant.” The word has the connotation of refusing to be bothered by the faults of others, and instead responding to their faults with mildness.
Since our sins are ultimately against God, Jesus is the ultimate example of meekness and gentleness, as he died on the cross for our sins, bearing the guilt whose punishment could have justly been discharged upon us. Since we have been forgiven of sins against God, it follows that we ought to be gentle and forgiving towards others, Christian and non-Christian alike, since our own sins against a perfectly good God are surely much more serious than the faults of our fellow sinners, who are no worse than we ourselves are in the eyes of God.
21 Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” 22 Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times.
23 “Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants.[g] 24 When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents.[h] 25 And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. 26 So the servant[i] fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ 27 And out of pity for him, the master of that servant released him and forgave him the debt. 28 But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii,[j] and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ 29 So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you.’ 30 He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt. 31 When his fellow servants saw what had taken place, they were greatly distressed, and they went and reported to their master all that had taken place. 32 Then his master summoned him and said to him, ‘You wicked servant! I forgave you all that debt because you pleaded with me. 33 And should not you have had mercy on your fellow servant, as I had mercy on you?’ 34 And in anger his master delivered him to the jailers, until he should pay all his debt”(Matt. 18:21-34).
It is clear from Jesus’ parable that our sin against God is much weightier than the sin of others against us. The wicked servant owed the king ten thousand talents (v. 24), and was forgiven this, whereas another servant owed him a comparatively trifling 100 denarii, and responded by attacking and choking this servant, demanding immediate payment of the debt (v. 28).
Why are Christians so often so hypocritical in this regard? Because it is difficult and because, much of the time, we are simply not interested in imitating Jesus. It is furthermore a reflection of how shallow an understanding we have of the seriousness of our own sinfulness and of both the justice of God, who would be perfectly within his right to punish us for our sin, no less non-Christians, and furthermore, of his gentleness and love in choosing of his own will to forgive us, due to nothing in ourselves, but only on the ground of his own mercy. Our attitude reveals not only an unreflective and culpable ignorance of these realities, but reveals a lack of humility that is characteristic of individuals who are simply too cowardly to look at themselves in the mirror and confess that they are no better than the non-Christians whom they harshly condemn.