Masters of Self
Cultivating Gentleness in an Age of Outrage
ABSTRACT: We live in an age of outrage, an age when anger inflames our public discourse, disrupts our families, and distorts the church’s witness to the world. If the vice of anger is among the severest spiritual afflictions of our age, then the virtue of gentleness is among the most needful spiritual medicines. Far from weakness or mere “niceness,” gentleness is self-mastery flowing from humility and the fear of the Lord. Christians cultivate gentleness in union with Christ, the fountain of all gentleness, who gently invites us to draw freely upon his inexhaustible fullness.
Until recently, the inability to control one’s anger, because it was somewhat rare and exotic, was something we could laugh about. Late-night talk show hosts lampooned road rage. Anger Management was the title of a 2003 comedy film starring Adam Sandler and Jack Nicholson.
Today, lack of impulse control is no rarity and no laughing matter. We live in a world aflame with anger. A recent New York Times documentary tells the story of the online “Outrage Machine” that, with a little misinformation and a viral hashtag, can rally a social-media mob and destroy a person’s life. On college campuses, many have lost the ability to interact reasonably with opposing viewpoints. Students complain of being triggered by “microagressions” and demand the summary dismissal of anyone who would offend them, calling for “safe spaces” where fragile perspectives can rest unchallenged by opposing arguments.1
When it comes to public discourse, we have become a culture that sees red. Our constant state of unhinged political outrage makes us unable to process reality, unable to determine wise courses of action, and unable to carry them through with calmness, deliberation, and justice. In our churches and homes, we also witness the consequences of untamed anger. How many ecclesiastical debates go unresolved because there are no adults in the room to discuss issues with cool heads? How many marriages have been destroyed by wrath, quarreling, and resentment? How many parents have traumatized their children because they cannot control their tongues, “setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:6)?
We have anger issues.2
Antidote to Anger
When the vice of anger is the spiritual diagnosis, Holy Scripture prescribes the virtue of gentleness or meekness as the spiritual medicine. Gentleness is the spiritual virtue that tempers or moderates the desire for vengeance we experience when we suffer or witness injustice. According to Protestant moral theologian Niels Hemmingsen, gentleness is “the virtue by which minds that have been rashly stirred up toward hatred of someone are restrained by kindness.”3
“One of the biggest roadblocks in our gospel witness today is the lack of gentleness that many Christians display.”
Such gentleness is widely commended in Holy Scripture. Psalm 37 counsels us to “fret not” ourselves “because of evildoers” (Psalm 37:1) and declares that “the meek shall inherit the land” (Psalm 37:11). Psalm 45 celebrates a handsome king who rides out victoriously in battle “for the cause of truth and meekness and righteousness” (Psalm 45:4). Zephaniah 3:12 promises that, in the latter days, the Lord will remove the proud and haughty from his holy mountain and leave “a people humble and lowly” who will take “refuge in the name of the Lord.” In similar fashion, Zechariah 9:9 prophesies the day when a king will come into Jerusalem “humble and mounted on a donkey.”
Matthew 5:5 echoes the beatitude of Psalm 37:11, declaring that the meek “shall inherit the earth.” In Matthew 11:29, Jesus presents himself as one who is “gentle and lowly in heart.” And in Matthew 21:5, Jesus enters Jerusalem, in fulfillment of Zechariah’s prophecy, “humble and mounted on a donkey.” In Ephesians 4:2 and Colossians 3:12, Paul encourages us to clothe ourselves with “compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.” Similarly, James 3:13 calls the wise among us to demonstrate by our excellent way of life that our works are performed “in the meekness of wisdom.”
Gentleness has a central role to play in the storyline of scriptural revelation and in the Christian life. The gospel proclaims that divine Wisdom has become incarnate in the gentle and lowly person of Jesus Christ, and that, in and through Jesus Christ, divine Wisdom comes to indwell us by the Spirit of Christ. In Christ, God calls us to be a gentle and lowly people who, forsaking all forms of vicious anger, and boasting in God alone, are prepared to receive the good gifts that God would give us and to share those good gifts with others.
If the vice of anger is indeed among the severest spiritual afflictions of our age, then the virtue of gentleness is among the most needful spiritual medicines. In what follows, we will consider the spiritual virtue of gentleness, addressing three questions: What is gentleness? Where does gentleness come from? How can gentleness be cultivated?
What Is Gentleness?
In order to appreciate what gentleness is, we must first understand what it is not.
Gentleness is not a personality type. Both big personalities and quiet personalities are called to exhibit gentleness.
Gentleness is not Stoic lack of emotion. Gentleness is the moderation of emotion, not its absence.
Gentleness is not weakness. Nor is it timid lack of agency. Gentleness is a form of strength that enables a distinctive kind of agency that, in the long run, is the most productive kind of agency, for it bears “a harvest of righteousness” (James 3:18).
Finally, gentleness is not mere “niceness.” The gentle person is not someone who is never disagreeable, someone who never upsets the status quo. In fact, there is a kind of niceness that is the counterfeit form of true and godly gentleness.
Habits and Virtues
We can better appreciate what gentleness is by locating it among the virtues.
Habits are settled dispositions that predispose us to think, feel, and act in specific ways. One can have good habits and one can have bad habits. Virtues are habits of intellectual and moral excellence, whereas vices are habits of intellectual and moral decadence.
Titus 2:11–12 teaches that the grace that saves us is also a grace that trains us in virtue: “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people, training us to renounce ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live temperate, righteous, and godly lives in the present age” (ESV, altered). Included among the list of virtues mentioned in Titus 2:11–12 is the virtue of temperance or moderation. If godliness is the virtue concerned with our relation to God, and righteousness is the virtue concerned with our relation to neighbor, temperance is the virtue concerned with our relation to self. Temperance is the virtue that moderates our appetites in accordance with divine wisdom.
God created us with various appetites for food, drink, sex, honor, justice, and so forth. Because these appetites are created by God, they are fundamentally good.
However, sin disorders our appetites. Due to the blindness of sin, wisdom no longer governs our desires (Ephesians 4:22). Our appetites thus either rule us in wild excess (2 Peter 2; James 4:1), or else we try to suppress our appetites through expressions of false virtue, following the dictates of false religion: “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (Colossians 2:21).
God’s grace in Christ renews and reorders our appetites. Far from destroying our appetites, grace trains us to renounce our sinful appetites and, by means of the virtues, to moderate our appetites so that they can function in accordance with divine wisdom for God’s glory and the common good.
Gentleness and Anger
Gentleness, then, is a form of temperance or moderation. Gentleness is the virtue that tempers our anger, wrath, and desire for vengeance when we suffer or witness injustice.
“The meekness that comes from above comes not only in Jesus Christ but also through Jesus Christ.”
Because it is a form of temperance, gentleness is distinct from self-control. With self-control, our anger is held in check by bit and bridle. Like a Doberman pinscher that, only when muzzled, is able to be in the presence of humans, self-control restrains our passions. With gentleness, our anger is tamed and trained by wisdom. Like a Doberman pinscher that is able to walk peacefully on the neighborhood sidewalk, held only by a leash, gentleness is more than self-restraint; it is self-mastery.
Gentleness is the moderation, not the absence, of anger. Gentleness is the virtuous middle road (the “mean”) between prideful anger (anger in excess) and lazy apathy (anger in defect). Gentleness is opposed to all forms of prideful anger: “quarreling, jealousy, anger, hostility” (2 Corinthians 12:20). But gentleness is also opposed to lazy apathy and insensitivity. The person who is “cool with everything,” who is never disagreeable, who always compliments and never criticizes, is not necessarily gentle. There are some things we should not put up with for the sake of “keeping the peace.” There are some cases where a failure to be angry is a failure with respect to virtue.
Meekness is not opposed to all forms of anger. The meek person does not forsake all desire for vengeance when wronged. That is an impossible ideal, not biblical meekness. The meek person entrusts vengeance to the Lord and, out of love for the offender, hopes and prays for the conversion and reconciliation of the offender (Romans 12:19–21).4
Moreover, in circumstances where God’s honor or our neighbor’s good is at stake, holding back our anger is sinful. There is such a thing as righteous anger. Consider the example of Moses and the stone tablets at Sinai (Exodus 32:19) or of Jesus and the moneychangers in the temple. John 2:17 describes Jesus’s example of righteous anger in language drawn from Psalm 69:9: “Zeal for your house will consume me.”
Little Sister of Humility, Daughter of Fearing the Lord
Gentleness is the little sister of humility. Gentleness and humility are often paired together in Scripture (Zephaniah 3:12; Matthew 11:29; 2 Corinthians 10:1; Ephesians 4:2; Colossians 3:12). Whereas humility is moderate or proper self-regard, gentleness, which follows from humility, is moderate or proper self-restraint.
The connection between pride and sinful anger is evident, as is the connection between humility and meekness. People who think too much of themselves are easily angered. Conversely, those who don’t think too much of themselves are not.
Along with humility, gentleness is a daughter of the fear of the Lord. Whereas gentleness (proper self-restraint) follows humility (proper self-regard), both are rooted in the fear of the Lord (proper God-regard).
“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom” (Proverbs 9:10). True humility reverently and joyfully acknowledges that the Lord alone is God and that nothing else is God but God. The acknowledgment of God’s sovereign supremacy, however, does not entail human debasement. Humility acknowledges that the Lord alone is God and that the Lord will not give his glory to another (Isaiah 48:11). Humility also acknowledges that God’s glory does not shine at the expense of the creature. Far from it: true humility acknowledges and rejoices in the fact that the God of glory delights in glorifying and dignifying his creatures.
In creation, God made us “a little lower than the heavenly beings” and “crowned” us “with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:5). In redemption, God graciously takes image-bearers ruined by sin and, through union with Jesus Christ, makes them sons and daughters of the living God, joint-heirs with Christ (Galatians 3:27–29; Romans 8:17). The Lord of glory “bestows favor and honor” (Psalm 84:11).
This is why gentleness flourishes in the company of humility and the fear of the Lord. Proud, self-important people are easily angered, easily offended. When they do not receive the respect they deserve (or think they deserve, like Haman!), when their opinions are not validated, when their advice is not heeded, they rage, they resent, they seek revenge.
The humble, however, are not easily angered or easily offended. Because they recognize that their true dignity is both given and guarded by God, when they are wronged, they entrust vengeance to God and pursue the path of forgiveness and reconciliation with their neighbors. Because they know that God will maintain their cause, they are free from having to maintain their own cause, and they are free to devote themselves to God’s cause and to the cause of their neighbors. Indeed, only the meek are truly qualified to pursue the cause of truth and righteousness (Psalm 45:4).
In Praise of Gentleness
The virtue of gentleness or meekness is of inestimable value.
Meekness enables us to rightly receive divine wisdom. James exhorts us to “put away all filthiness and rampant wickedness and receive with meekness the implanted word, which is able to save your souls” (James 1:21). According to Augustine, after the fear of the Lord, meekness is the second most essential virtue when it comes to biblical interpretation. This is because meekness enables us to receive divine wisdom in Holy Scripture without becoming angry when divine wisdom challenges our sin or when divine wisdom transcends the limitations of our own wisdom (Psalm 141:5).5
The virtue of meekness, moreover, enables us to share divine wisdom with others. Paul instructs Timothy, “The Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth” (2 Timothy 2:24–25). Both parents and pastors understand the apostle’s point well: harshness hinders the transmission and reception of truth, while gentleness assists it. Sadly, one of the biggest roadblocks in our gospel witness today is the lack of gentleness that many Christians display in their public interactions with others both inside and outside the church.
“Gentleness is more than self-restraint; it is self-mastery.”
The virtue of meekness is necessary, furthermore, to the flourishing of Christian community. According to Paul, the key to maintaining “the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace” (Ephesians 4:3) lies in adorning ourselves “with all humility and gentleness” toward one another, “with patience, bearing with one another in love” (Ephesians 4:2). Conversely, according to James, where a spirit of humility and meekness is absent, jealousy (James 3:14; 4:2) and judgmentalism (James 4:11) will reign in their places.
Jealousy is a form of pride (James 3:16) that says, “I deserve that.” Judgmentalism is a form of pride (James 4:11–12) that says, “They don’t deserve that.” Both jealousy and judgmentalism are accelerants for the flames of anger, envy, quarreling, and resentment that, like a match dropped in a dry forest, threaten to burn our communities to the ground (James 3:16; 4:1). How contrary are such things to the “harvest of righteousness” that is “sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:18)!
Where Does Gentleness Come From?
If gentleness is so essential, so praiseworthy, then we must ask, Where can we get it? Where does gentleness come from?
Gentleness, along with the wisdom of which it is a fruit, comes “from above” (James 3:17), from “the Father of lights,” the unchangeable source of every good and perfect gift (James 1:17). Gentleness is a divine gift to unworthy sinners. And, as is the case regarding all we have in Christ — our identity, our gifts, our virtues — gentleness is a gift that is “received, not achieved.”6
Jesus Christ is the supreme embodiment of the gentleness that comes from above because he is divine Wisdom incarnate (Psalm 45:4; Matthew 11:29). During his earthly ministry, Jesus displayed supreme gentleness in that, “when he was reviled, he did not revile in return” (1 Peter 2:23), but instead suffered the consequences of our sinful anger “in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24). As “everything the Lord did is a lesson in humility,”7 so everything the Lord did is a lesson in gentleness.
Having sown his body in the ground through humility and gentleness, Jesus reaped a harvest of righteousness for us in his resurrection, ascension, and enthronement at the Father’s right hand (John 12:24; James 3:18), the fruits of which he has poured out upon us in the person of the Holy Spirit (Galatians 5:22–23; Philippians 1:9–11). Accordingly, the meekness that comes from above comes not only in Jesus Christ but also through Jesus Christ, who anoints and endows us with “a spirit of gentleness” (1 Corinthians 4:21; Galatians 6:1).
The divine Wisdom that is incarnate in Jesus Christ now indwells us by means of his anointing, flowing from the head to the body, which is “the fullness of him who fills all” and is in all (Psalm 133:2; Ephesians 1:23). And so, by virtue of his death and resurrection, and by the outpouring of his Spirit, the promise of Zephaniah 3:12 is fulfilled. The Lord Jesus Christ has established a people humble and lowly who make their boast, not in themselves, but in the Lord their God (1 Corinthians 1:30–31).
How May We Cultivate Gentleness?
Gentleness is a gift of the triune God that enables us to glory in him, and in the life we enjoy together in him. Though gentleness is a gift, something that is “received, not achieved,” gentleness can nevertheless be cultivated.
Here two errors must be avoided. On the one hand, we must not think that gentleness can be achieved by pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Because of sin, gentleness cannot be rightly cultivated in the strength of the natural man. Gentleness is a “fruit of the Spirit,” not a work of the flesh (Galatians 5:22–23). On the other hand, we must not think that gentleness can be achieved through passivity. The dictum “let go and let God” reflects a popular but false spirituality.
The grace that saves us from sin trains us to cooperate with grace in the cultivation of virtue (Philippians 2:12–13). Gentleness, like all graces which are ours through union with Jesus Christ, is a gift that is to be actively received and appropriated through faith, hope, and love.
Gentleness is cultivated through union and communion with Jesus Christ. The dynamics of union and communion with Christ are well illustrated through the biblical metaphor of being clothed with Christ in baptism.
Being clothed with Christ in baptism is something God does to us — something God bestows upon us (Galatians 3:27). Therefore, it is something we receive. However, as a consequence of what God has done, being clothed with Christ in baptism is also something we are called to actively appropriate — something we are called to “put on” (Romans 6:1–14; 13:14; Ephesians 4:24): “Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience” (Colossians 3:12).8 More specifically, we are called to “put on” gentleness by cultivating the virtues of faith, hope, and love.
Consider Psalm 37’s instruction on gentleness. Psalm 37 not only counsels us against fretful anger (Psalm 37:1, 7–9). It also counsels us to cultivate faith: “Trust in the Lord, and do good; dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness” (Psalm 37:3). Anger arises when injustice threatens to deprive us or others of genuine goods. Trust in the Lord enables us to continue on the path of doing what is good, even in the face of injustice, because we are confident that, whatever goods we may lose through the injustice of others, we cannot lose the good God and, more importantly, he cannot lose us (John 10:28–29; 1 Peter 4:19).
Psalm 37, moreover, counsels us to cultivate hope: “Commit your way to the Lord; trust in him, and he will act. He will bring forth your righteousness as the light, and your justice as the noonday. Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him” (Psalm 37:5–7). Hope in the Lord enables us to maintain a gentle posture in the face of injustice because we know that, whatever injustice now prevails, the Lord’s justice will finally prevail: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord’” (Romans 12:19).
Psalm 37, finally, counsels us to cultivate love: “Delight yourself in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart” (Psalm 37:4). Whereas “desire” names the lover’s unquenched thirst for her beloved, “delight” names the state of satisfied repose that comes with the lover’s possession of her beloved. To delight ourselves in the Lord is therefore to find our satisfaction in God as our supreme good and as the one who withholds no good thing from those who delight in him (Psalm 84:11). According to the psalmist, cultivating satisfaction in God produces in us a “stillness” of spirit (Psalm 37:7) amid the winds of injustice that threaten to destabilize us. Such stillness of spirit, in turn, enables us to maintain lips that utter wisdom and speak justice (Psalm 37:30), hands that are generous in giving (Psalm 37:21), and feet that do not slip on treacherous paths (Psalm 37:31), each the anatomical traits of those who, by God’s goodness, “shall inherit the land” (Psalm 37:11).
Fountain of Gentleness
If the vice of anger is among the severest spiritual afflictions of our age, then the virtue of gentleness is among the most needful spiritual medicines. While there exist many helpful protocols regarding how we might manage our participation in the “outrage machine” of contemporary (especially social-media) culture, the deep cure for our ills will not come merely through adopting such protocols for self-control, but through cultivating the virtue of gentleness.
Of course, acknowledging this fact can lead to discouragement when we consider the degree to which our own anger has contributed to the dissolution of familial, ecclesiastical, and broader social bonds. And yet, however necessary it may be that lament have the first word when confronted with the disastrous consequences of our own anger (James 4:9), it need not have the final word.
“We are called to ‘put on’ gentleness by cultivating the virtues of faith, hope, and love.”
Though we fall short in many ways when it comes to the virtue of gentleness, it is important to remember that Jesus Christ is an inexhaustible fountain of gentleness, and that he gently invites us to draw freely upon his inexhaustible fullness: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:28–30).
When it comes to the virtue of gentleness, he is the vine, and we are the branches (John 15:1–5). The strength of our virtue, and of our growth in virtue, lies not in ourselves, but in him whose presence we find “quietness and trust forever” (Isaiah 32:17).
Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, The Coddling of the American Mind: How Good Intentions and Bad Ideas are Setting Up a Generation for Failure (New York: Penguin, 2018). ↩
Here my focus is interpersonal conflict, leaving aside the vital functions of church discipline and criminal punishment, which belong to church and state, respectively. As is commonly emphasized throughout the Christian moral theological tradition, “clemency,” a close relative of gentleness, is necessary for the wise exercise of church discipline and criminal punishment. ↩
Timothy Keller, Making Sense of God: Finding God in the Modern World (New York: Penguin, 2016), chap. 7. ↩
For fuller discussion of these dynamics, see Grant Macaskill, Living in Union with Christ: Paul’s Gospel and Christian Moral Identity (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2019). ↩