Reflection on Gentleness
based on Philippians 4:5 & Ephesians 4:2
I am reading a fascinating book at the moment called ‘Why do so many incompetent men become leaders’? One of the author’s central arguments is that self-confidence is commonly mistaken for competence. Numerous studies have shown that when a job applicant displays confidence in their application and interview, this is seen as a proxy for competence. But it is a fatal mistake because time and time again, research has shown that confidence and competence often have an inverse relationship. In fact, highly competent people are more likely to display humility and self-awareness of their strengths and weaknesses.
The author concludes that the interview process for leaders should search for humility and self-awareness rather than self-confidence.
St Paul was way ahead of his time in writing about the importance of humility and gentleness – the latter being the fruit of the spirit that we are focusing on today. Paul extols the virtue of gentleness is 8 of his 13 letters in the New Testament. Yet, this was extremely counter-cultural, especially for men, in his era. Masculinity in ancient Greek and Roman times was defined by power, aggression and domination. It manifested in the public speaking voice of the male leader based on the Greek word ‘pneuma’ or breath, producing low-pitched authoritative commands. How resonant for the current moment as we remember George Floyd’s high-pitched desperate final repeated plea – ‘I can’t breathe’ - as aggressive male power bears down on him: the antithesis of gentleness.
Gentleness and self-effacement are central themes in Paul’s writing as he promotes the moral imperative of service and selflessness. Of course, he’s drawing on Jesus’ own example from the Gospels where Jesus turns on its head our ideas of Kingship, power and authority. His is a servant leadership, it's an extolling of the marginalised, the powerless, the ostracised. It’s a rejection of the trappings of power and an embracing of simplicity. And the behaviour and practice that follows from those values are of gentleness, forgiveness and acceptance.
I would use another descriptor for gentleness – tenderness. When I was studying to be a Catholic priest as a young man in the early 1970’s, we used the Jerusalem Bible translation. I grew to love it because of how it translated certain words. One of those was the word ‘tenderness’ instead of ‘mercy’. Another was the ‘justice’ instead of ‘righteousness’. Both of these came together is my favourite Old Testament verse from Micah 6:8 - ‘I ask of you just three things: act justly, love tenderly and walk humbly with your God’.
Gentleness and tenderness are outworkings of the social nature of mammals: the drive to commune and cooperate with each other, made so difficult in our lockdown times. Physical distancing is particularly alienating for humans because love is potently relayed through proximity and touch. In the absence of these, it is incumbent of us all to show gentleness and tenderness through verbal communication, both real and virtual but especially virtually at the moment. Because of its anonymity, cyberspace can so easily become a vehicle for aggressive and non-respectful communication. In this coming week, let's commit to gentle and tender communication with all.