The Hidden Value of Pastoral Gentleness

What Colors Your Ministry?

As leaders of God’s people, we all long to make a difference for Christ. We don’t want to be unfruitful. We want our lives to matter. We see the clock ticking and know that we’ll be dead soon, our one opportunity to make an impact gone forever.

And so it is easy to let zeal and ardor and intensity and hurry to color our ministry—our preaching, our counseling, our staff reviews, our newsletters, our emails.

Gentle and Lowly

Dane Ortlund

How does Jesus feel about his people amid all their sins and failures? This book takes readers into the depths of Christ’s very heart—a heart of tender love drawn to sinners and sufferers.

We remember magnificent men of faith such as Martin Luther or Jonathan Edwards and wish to follow in their footsteps, knowing of the urgency with which they discharged their ministries.

History and Scripture: Lessons in Gentleness

What we may not know is what men such as these themselves said about a gentle spirit. Luther wrote to a fellow leader in 1528, “God has promised great mercy to those who seek peace and endure guile. . . . War does not gain much, but loses much and risks everything. Gentleness, however, loses nothing, risks little, and gains everything.” Edwards said, “A virtue, which I need in a higher degree, to give a beauty and luster to my behavior, is gentleness. If I had more of an air of gentleness, I should be much mended.”

But the main reason to nurture gentleness is neither pragmatic nor historical, but biblical.

“A gentle tongue is a tree of life . . . ” (Prov. 15:4).

“Blessed are the meek . . . ” (Matt. 5:5).

“But the fruit of the Spirit is . . . gentleness . . . ” (Gal. 5:22–23).

“With all humility and gentleness . . . ” (Eph. 4:2).

“Pursue . . . gentleness.” (1 Tim. 6:11).

“The wisdom from above is . . . gentle . . . ” (James 3:17).

In this short article, I’d like to ask pastors to consider cultivating gentleness in their leadership. Let me give you four reasons why, and then propose a road to get there.

4 Reasons to Be Gentle

1. Gentleness surprises people.

In this angry, irritated world, gentleness sticks out. It catches us off guard. Amid the clamor, above the din, a gentle voice arrests us.

Gentleness may, then, be considered a powerful apologetic. Not that we wish to be gentle in order to get attention, but as we follow Scripture’s call to gentleness, we can be calmed by the knowledge that this will surprise others. It may feel counterproductive, but that is only because we live in a culture (sometimes even a church culture) of loudness and aggression.

2. Gentleness woos people.

Like a sea anemone slowly being coaxed to open up again, gentleness coaxes people to open up. Gentleness makes people feel safe.

When we are harsh or needlessly assertive toward others, they may not show it, but they are putting up defenses. They are on their guard. We may win the argument, but we have not won the person. Gentleness wins the person, whatever happens at the level of rational argumentation.

3. Gentleness dignifies people.

The subtext of hasty aggressiveness is superiority. We get impatient and harsh and raise our voices because, deep down, we think we are superior.

The subtext of gentleness, on the other hand, is: You matter. You have significance, and I dare not neglect that. God made you in his own image.

Not only is everyone made in God’s image, everyone is a sufferer. Every human being is walking around loaded down with a heavy backpack of disappointments, rejections, and anxieties. Gentleness treats people according to their inherent glory, however, not according to the adversities of life that may cause them to be difficult people.

Trust God enough to soak your ministry in gentleness. Let the Spirit do the work that our aggressiveness cannot.

4. Gentleness gives people a living picture of Jesus himself.

Outside of word and sacrament, the closest thing to Jesus himself that people will get in this fallen world is you. Christians are walking vessels of the gentle love of Christ. Your treatment of others tells them what you really think Jesus is like, whatever you may say you believe Jesus is like.

The Source of Gentleness

But where will we find this elusive gentleness?

It does not come naturally. But the call in Scripture to be gentle is a call toward godlikeness. We may conclude from the tsunami and the elephant that God is anything but gentle, but the Bible says:

He will tend his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms;
he will carry them in his bosom,
and gently lead those that are with young. (Isa. 40:11)

This is who God is.

And gentleness is not only godlike in general, but Christlike in specific. The one place in all four Gospels where Jesus tells us what his heart is, he says it is “gentle and lowly” (Matt. 11:29). This does not contradict Jesus’ wrath or righteous anger—as C. S. Lewis put it in a letter late in life,

“Gentle Jesus”, my elbow! The most striking thing about our Lord is the union of great ferocity with extreme tenderness. . . . Add to this that he is also a supreme ironist, dialectician, and (occasionally) humorist. So go on! You are on the right track now: getting to the real man behind all the plaster dolls that have been substituted for him. This is the appearance in human form of the God who made the tiger and the lamb, the avalanche and the rose. He'll frighten and puzzle you: but the real Christ can be loved and admired as the doll can't.

But we tend to imitate Christ’s zeal out ahead of our imitation of his tender gentleness. I am asking you to consider stepping into a gentleness your life and ministry have, perhaps, never known.

And I am suggesting that you will only do that as you ponder Christ’s gentle ways toward you. How many sins does he alone know? How many times have you failed him, sidelined him, taken him for granted? And in how many of those instances has he come to you in harshness? Does he not deal with you tenderly, gently? Have you not found in your own case that “a bruised reed he will not break” (Matt. 12:20)?

Trust God enough to soak your ministry in gentleness. Let the Spirit do the work that our aggressiveness cannot. Pass on through your own gentle and lowly heart the gentle and lowly heart of Jesus himself.

Dane C. Ortlund is the author of Gentle and Lowly: The Heart of Christ for Sinners and Sufferers..

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