It was one of the goriest things I’ve seen on television. There was blood everywhere and visible agony. It wasn’t Game of Thrones, but a BBC natural history program, and the protagonist was a crocodile. Its victim was a wildebeest.
“If you think of all the things he could break, you will begin to see the wonder of what he won’t break.”
During their annual migration — a movement of an astonishing number of animals — wildebeests cross a river while the crocs lie in wait. It is the biggest feast of the year for them. It’s not as if wildebeests are easy to take down. They weigh up to 600 pounds and have considerable strength. But that’s where the jaws of a crocodile come into play. Watching crocodiles fell, drown, and tear apart such huge animals with their mouths was horrifying and awesome.
At another point in the show, we saw the same jaws caring for their eggs. The jaws that were strong enough to fell and crush an enormous wildebeest were also gentle enough to hold a delicate egg between their teeth without breaking it. This gets us close to what the Bible means by gentleness. It is not the absence of strength, but the application of strength to a tender situation.
Meekness Is Not Weakness
Only Jesus can demonstrate ultimate strength and then apply that same unique strength in the most tender ways. The same Jesus who has the power not only to throw down tables in the temple courtyard, or to expel demons from the possessed, or even to call a dead man out of a grave — this Jesus also has the capacity to show tenderness to those who are most delicate and fragile. We’re told in Matthew’s Gospel:
“He will not quarrel or cry aloud,
nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets;
a bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not quench,
until he brings justice to victory;
and in his name the Gentiles will hope.” (Matthew 12:19–21)
There was none stronger than Jesus. He was fearless before those who opposed him. He never once hesitated to say what needed to be said, even when he knew it would provoke violent opposition. He confronted those who needed to be called out. And he claimed victory over sin and death. This was no weak man.
The Almighty Arm Carries
“Gentleness is not the absence of strength, but the application of strength to a tender situation.”
And yet, in Jesus, enormous strength does not lead to insensitivity. The capacity to challenge and confront doesn’t lead to unnecessary conflict. He doesn’t stomp over people. He can crush a serpent, but he can also hold the most delicate in his care. We are reminded of what Isaiah said about the God who would be coming for his people:
Behold, the Lord God comes with might,
and his arm rules for him;
behold, his reward is with him,
and his recompense before him.
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. (Isaiah 40:10–11)
The arm with which this God effects his mighty rule is the same arm which gathers up the lambs. The God who can level mountain ranges and topple superpowers is the same God who carries the weakest and most tender close to his heart.
For Bruised Reeds
Isaiah’s prophecy looks forward to one who will not break a bruised reed (Isaiah 42:3). That is not because Jesus is a pushover. He is not soft. He knows how to apply strength to vulnerability. Think of all the things he could break and you begin to see the wonder of what he won’t break.
Or think of the smoldering wick. Barely a flicker left in it, a mere speck of orange light, the tiniest disturbance of which would certainly snuff it out. And yet Jesus is able to deploy his care with such surgical, forensic precision that the most delicate and fragile of things can be taken and nurtured with utter care and protection.
Part of the wonder is that Jesus is able to combine what we so easily separate. In our experience those who are gentlest tend to lack strength and force when it is called for, while those who are strongest tend to lack the capacity for gentleness and restraint. But Jesus exemplifies perfect gentleness and awesome strength. No one is crushed by mistake. There is never any friendly fire or collateral damage.
He Loves You More
This combination is why he is such a good Savior to turn to. He is strong and mighty to save: he can take on the strongest of our foes and always be certain to prevail. No spiritual force arrayed against us stands a chance of surviving. And yet he is unspeakably delicate and careful with us. There is no wound or vulnerability he doesn’t understand or handle with the utmost care. He is someone we can trust with our most tender bruises and fragility. He will not be clumsy with us. He won’t steamroll us. He can apply his unimaginable strength to us with affection and sensitivity.
“Jesus is even more committed to our ultimate joy than we are.”
In a fallen world like this, all of us are people who have both sinned and been sinned against. Some of this will have left us with deep wounds that seem unfathomable even to us, let alone others. But Jesus knows us fully and understands us entirely. He loves us more than we love ourselves. He is even more committed to our ultimate joy than we are.
In our pain and confusion, in our weakness and mess, we come to him assured that he alone is trustworthy. He has the power and capacity to help us, and the tenderness and care to want to. We can trust him with our deepest pains and bruises. There is none more fearsome, but none gentler.