Let’s suppose someone filled your gas tank with water instead of gasoline. How would you know? Most obviously your car wouldn’t start. Over time the engine would corrode itself tight.
Every human being burns with a spiritual gasoline. Either it is the Third Person of the Trinity or it is the untamed passion of our fallen human nature. Which one propels you down the highway of life? Does the Holy Spirit dwell in the belly of your soul? Or is your spiritual tank filled with you—your personal preferences, your ambitions and your passions? How would you know?
That’s what Galatians 5:19–23 force us to examine: “the works of the flesh … are: adultery, fornication, uncleanness, lewdness. . .” These all describe immorality—especially sexual immorality. Further works of the flesh are idolatry and sorcery which are blatant rejections of God and His Word. The Flesh-Tree also bears the fruit of hatred [the seed], contentions [the ‘skin’ or appearance], jealousies [the core], outbursts of wrath [the fully ripened fruit]. On other branches of the Flesh-Tree grow “selfish ambitions, dissensions, heresies , envy, murders, drunkenness, revelries, and the like . . .” That’s the picture of a life fueled by the untamed passions of human nature.
In previous issues of this publication the meditations have been focusing on the person’s life as it is fueled by the Holy Spirit of the living God. Now we come to the first word in Galatians 5:23—gentleness.
What Is Gentleness?
In the Bible the New Testament often translates the word for gentleness as ‘meek’ or ‘meekness’ (cf. NKJV 2 Cor. 10:1, Col. 3:12). Another form of the word for gentle can be found in the well-known Beatitude: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.” In his letter to Titus, the apostle Paul associates gentleness with being “peaceable…showing all humility to all men” (Tit. 3:2). What, then, is gentleness? It is an attitude of the heart which directly affects the way I see myself in relationship to others. From the “gentle” perspective the interests of others begin to become as important as my own and my own reputation increasingly fades to the background.
What Rivals Gentleness?
At this point the context of Galatians 5 forces us to pause and to ask a very pressing question: “What competes against gentleness?” Verse 17 explains that “…the flesh lusts against the Spirit, and the Spirit against the flesh; and these are contrary to one another, so that you do not do the things that you wish.”
Notice how most of the fruit of the flesh given in Galatians 5:19–21 are just the opposite of putting God and others before ourselves. The sexual immorality of verse nineteen is the kind that insists that my pleasures can contradict God’s law and that it can be done at the expense of other people. Sexual immorality defrauds your present spouse (if you are married) or your future spouse for when you do marry. The idolatry and sorcery of verse twenty put your own ideas and loves above God. All the other vices and sins mentioned in vv.20–21 demonstrate an attitude that says, “I must be first and I will put myself first at the expense of all other people and God.”
Therefore, the great rival that competes against gentleness is selfish pride! The proud person gets defensive and must argue every petty case until he proves himself to be right. The gentle person, on the other hand, takes no pleasure in saying (or thinking), “See! I told you so!” The proud person grumbles and complains as if he really deserves better. But one who is gentle does not feel entitled to hold pity-parties in his own honor.
How To Cultivate Gentleness?
The first thing we must do is pray. Galatians 5:22–23 can be used as a prayer list. Do you ever get stuck wondering what to pray for? More than a new car, more than new clothes, more than anything this world can offer, God would have you pray that the fruit of the Spirit be present in your life (see Ep.3:16–17 and Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 116). That is what Jesus taught His disciples about prayer in Luke 11:13, “If you then, being evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to those who ask Him!”
We would do well to memorize Psalm 131 and meditate on it as a sample prayer for gentleness.
1 LORD, my heart is not haughty, Nor my eyes lofty. Neither do I concern myself with great matters, Nor with things too profound for me.
2 Surely I have calmed and quieted my soul, Like a weaned child with his mother; Like a weaned child is my soul within me.
3 O Israel, hope in the LORD From this time forth and forever.
Second, God commands us to “Walk in the Spirit” (Gal. 5:16, 25). This begins with a reliance upon the power of the Holy Spirit to produce His fruit in us. That is why prayer was mentioned first. However, walking in the Spirit also involves the pursuit of His fruit, in this case, gentleness (see 1 Tim. 6:11).
Try to imagine stepping in the footprints of the Spirit. When I was in high-school, training for track and cross-country, I would find foot prints of other runners on my path. Some times I would adjust my stride to see if I could keep up with the steps left imprinted in the sand along side the paved roadway. In a similar way we must adjust the stride of our lives to match the pace set by the Holy Spirit. The context of Galatians 5 gives us a practical example of what that might look like. Notice the way the Holy Spirit addresses the believer in Galatians 6:1. Through the apostle Paul He writes, “Brethren. . .you who are spiritual. . .” as if to say, ‘you, who adjust your stride according to the footprints of the Holy Spirit.’ According to verse 1 the footsteps of the Holy Spirit will walk us toward a concern for those “overtaken in any trespass” and our goal will be to “restore such a one.”
The key to this whole process is the demeanor in which it is accomplished. Verse 1 cautions that it must be done “in a spirit of gentleness.” That means we must conduct ourselves in a spirit of esteeming others (even those who have fallen into sin!) as more important than ourselves. Why? Verse 1 explains, “considering yourself lest you also be tempted.” You see, the genuinely “gentle” person does not just pretend that others are better than he is. He acts on that conviction.
In our case, to be gentle is to realize that by nature you and I have just as great an appetite for evil as the one trapped in sin. Listen to the echoes of the apostle Paul, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief” (1 Tim. 1:15). “I am the least of all the apostles, who am not worthy to be called an apostle…” (1 Cor. 15:9).
If that’s what gentleness looks like doesn’t it shock you to embarrassment to hear Jesus preach the gospel in Matthew 11:29, “Take My yoke upon you and learn from Me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart. . .”? In His high esteem for His Father’s will and in His high regard for the well-being of the elect, Jesus fully identified Himself with those under God’s curse of damnation. He carried our iniquities (Isa. 53:4). He became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13). Jesus’ gentleness is the secret to our being set-free from selfish pride in order to bear a gentle fruit.
Make It Personal
What fuels your ambitions? What propels you down the road of life? Do you have the Spirit of God in the belly of your soul? Or are you governed by your fleshly, selfish desires? Look to Jesus! Submit yourself to Him in obedience and adjust your stride to the fruitful pace of a Spirit-filled life.
Rev. Ken Anema is the pastor of The Messiah’s Independent Reformed Church in Holland, Michigan.