Monday, July 25, 2005

gentleness (a sermon)

Here's a teaching I gave some time ago at Oasis. I pray it will help you in some way.


Expressing Grace by Practicing Gentleness
a sermon by Troy Cady

Ephesians 4:2 says, “Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.” Let's take a deeper look at gentleness. We’re going to ask two questions: 1. Why is gentleness important? and 2. How can I practice gentleness?

First: Why is gentleness important? I’ve thought of 3 reasons. First, gentleness matters because people are God’s precious creation. In Genesis 2, when God created the first human, He used a very gentle gesture. God could have used any number of ways to animate the tissue He had formed. He could have chosen to zap the first human to life with lightning, but He didn’t; instead, He chose to breathe life into the first human. Here we see the crux of gentleness: power expressed with understatement. This gesture reassures us that God always deals gently with us, and He always has. People are God’s precious creation. We owe our existence to His sweet, loving, gentle breath.

This means we never meet someone who doesn’t matter intensely to God. Some time ago, I was in Plaza Mayor enjoying some tapas with two friends. As we sat there, we talked about how each person is unique, each person has a story and each person is surrounded by God. We looked around and noted: God is longing to speak to that person, and that person, and that couple over there, and those musicians over there and that one there. God was there, longing to breathe a loving word into each person’s life. And even right now: God is here with His precious children. He’s longing to do what He’s been doing since the beginning of time: He’s longing to breathe a loving word into your soul with gentleness.

So, gentleness is important because people are God’s precious creation. But, gentleness is also important because people are fragile. We should, therefore, handle each other with care. What happens inside when someone speaks a harsh word to you? If you’re like me, it breaks your spirit. Now, as adults, we’ve become very good at hiding our emotional wounds, so we don’t always appear hurt when someone speaks an insensitive word to us, but don’t be deceived by appearances: People are fragile.

To understand the effect harsh words can have on us, we could take a look at how children respond to harshness, because children don’t yet feel the need to mask their emotion. My daughter Meaghan is a perfect example of this. She’s only 7 years old, so she needs to be handled with care. One day, I lashed out at Meaghan for doing I-don’t-know-what. I wanted her to know that what she had done was not good, so I shouted at her. I definitely got her attention, but I’m not sure she really “learned her lesson” since my voice so shocked her that her little eyes welled up with tears, her lips puckered and her face turned red. She was deeply hurt (not physically, mind you, but emotionally). And all it took was a harsh word to do that. Now: I’m convinced that you might be 27 or even 37, but deep down there’s a 7 year old child in each of us. You perhaps have become very good at hiding the cuts in your spirit, but in your heart you know: “I need the soothing balm of gentleness.” People are fragile. Even adults.

The story of Elijah illustrates this. Elijah was a prophet of God whose story is recorded in the book of I Kings in the Bible. Elijah was very zealous for God. He was a high-powered kind of guy. He had performed many miracles and always spoke the truth in a straight-forward kind of way. He had engaged in many intense power struggles with people who opposed God. But, even people like Elijah are fragile. So one day, it all caught up with him and Elijah hid himself in a cave. Elijah just couldn’t take it anymore. He needed God to come to His rescue. In I Kings 19 we read:

"And the word of the LORD came to him: 'What are you doing here, Elijah?'

"He replied, 'I have been very zealous for the LORD God Almighty. The Israelites have rejected your covenant, broken down your altars, and put your prophets to death with the sword. I am the only one left, and now they are trying to kill me too.' The LORD said, 'Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the LORD, for the LORD is about to pass by.' Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the LORD, but the LORD was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the LORD was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the LORD was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave. Then a voice said to him, 'What are you doing here, Elijah?'"

I can relate to this. Often, I brace myself for God’s next major move in my life. I think: “I wonder when God will blow His powerful wind, tearing me apart limb from limb? I wonder when God will shatter the ground beneath my feet, forcing me to depend upon Him? I wonder when God is going to stick me in the fire of His blazing, intense furnace?” I brace myself like a sadist, thinking “Here it comes! Bring on the pain! I can take it, Lord! Bring on the wind! Bring on the earthquake! Bring on the fiery inferno!” But God doesn’t do it. Instead, my gentle Father comes to the mouth of my soul-cave, and softly beckons me out of my hiding place by simply whispering: “What are you doing here, Troy?” I respond: “I’ve been very zealous for you, Lord! I’ve been doing all kinds of great things for you!” But God just whispers again: “What are you doing here, Troy?”

So: “What are you doing here?” No matter what you say, that’s the gently powerful question God will keep coming back to. If you’re quiet, you can hear God whispering it now: “What are you doing here? What are you doing here?”

See how gentleness (not harshness) restores life and empowers fragile people? That’s yet another reason gentleness matters. Number three: Gentleness is important because it is restoring and powerful. Proverbs 15:1 says, “A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.” Proverbs 25:15 says, “Through patience a ruler can be persuaded, and a gentle tongue can break a bone.” These words remind us that, when we are locked in a power struggle with someone our first impulse to respond with power is the weakest response. Gentleness in the midst of conflict and difficulty is restoring and powerful.

A man named Max DePree tells a story about the restoring power of gentleness. He writes:

“Esther, my wife, and I have a granddaughter named Zoe, the Greek word for life. She was born prematurely and weighed one pound, seven ounces, so small that my wedding ring could slide up her arm to her shoulder. The neo-natologist who first examined her told us that she had a 5 to 10 percent chance of living three days. When Esther and I scrubbed up for our first visit and saw Zoe in the intensive care unit, she had two IVs in her navel, one in her foot, a monitor on each side of her chest, and a respirator tube and a feeding tube in her mouth. To complicate matters, Zoe’s biological father had jumped ship the month before Zoe was born. Realizing this, a wise and caring nurse named Ruth gave me my instructions. ‘For the next several months, at least, you’re the surrogate father. I want you to come to the hospital every day to visit Zoe, and when you come, I want you to rub her body and her legs and arms with the tip of your finger. While you’re caressing her, you should tell her over and over how much you love her...’”

Zoe is alive today because of the healing power of gentleness. No matter what you’re facing: when it looks like life is over, gentleness restores. When you’re in a conflict with someone and it looks like life is over: gentleness restores. When you’re emotionally drained and it looks like life is over: God’s gentle care restores. Gentleness is restoring and powerful.

Now let’s talk about how to practice gentleness. Colossians 3:12 encourages us to practice gentleness: “As God's chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience.”

I would suggest we can practice gentleness by following four actions. First, get rid of all types of legalism. This is important because legalism turns us into “bruised reeds and smoldering wicks.” Listen to these words from Isaiah 42: "Here is my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen one in whom I delight; I will put my Spirit on him and he will bring justice to the nations. He will not shout or cry out, or raise his voice in the streets. A bruised reed he will not break, and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.” We’ve noted that people are fragile. These verses tell us we are surrounded by people who are bruised and ready to break: everywhere we look, we see “bruised reeds.” We are surrounded by people who are “burnt out”: everywhere we look we see “smoldering wicks.” Jesus comes as a servant to these people. He does not come like the prophets of old, shouting in the streets. He does not come like the religious leaders of His day, laying burdens on the already-weary. Instead, He comes with gentleness.

Jesus comes with gentleness because He knows that legalism paralyzes by laying huge burdens on us. So Jesus warns us to avoid legalism at all costs. In Matthew 23 He says, “The teachers of the law…sit in Moses' seat. So you must obey them and do everything they tell you. But do not do what they do...They tie up heavy loads and put them on men's shoulders, but they themselves are not willing to lift a finger to move them.” (Mt 23:2-4) Alexander Solzhenitsyn says: “Legalistic thinking induces paralysis…” I would take it further: Legalism kills.

A man named Richard Dunagin gives an analogy of how legalism kills fragile people. He writes: “At [a] carnival, our kids won four free goldfish…, so out I went…to find an aquarium. The first few I priced ranged from $40 to $70. Then I spotted it--right in the aisle: a discarded 10-gallon display tank, complete with gravel and filter--for a mere five bucks. Sold! Of course, it was nasty dirty, but the savings made the two hours of clean-up a breeze. Those four new fish looked great in their new home, at least for the first day. But by Sunday one had died. Too bad, but three remained. Monday morning revealed a second casualty, and by Monday night a third goldfish had gone belly up. We called in an expert, a member of our church who has a 30-gallon tank. It didn't take him long to discover the problem: I had washed the tank with soap, an absolute no-no. My uninformed efforts had destroyed the very lives I was trying to protect. Sometimes in our zeal to clean up our own lives or the lives of others, we unfortunately use "killer soaps"--condemnation, criticism, nagging, fits of temper. We think we're doing right, but our harsh, self-righteous treatment is more than they can bear.” Self-righteous legalism kills. To consistently practice life-giving gentleness we need to get rid of lethal legalism.

Second, we also need to remember the gentleness of Christ. You know: Jesus usually referred to Himself with figures of speech, yet in one of the few times He refers to Himself literally He uses the descriptors “gentle” and “humble.” In Matthew 11 He says: "Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Mt. 11:28-30) And Jesus backed up His words with action! Jesus’ gentleness was so evident that little children felt they could approach the most powerful Rabbi who ever lived without fear. Then, on the last week of Jesus’ life, He rode into Jerusalem surrounded by people who wanted Him to be their King. As King of the Universe, He certainly could have grabbed hold of that power and demonstrated force through a great military parade. But, He didn’t. Rather than mounting a valiant steed, Jesus gently made His entrance into Jerusalem perched on a lowly donkey. Zechariah tells us this is cause for celebration: “Rejoice greatly! Shout, Daughter of Jerusalem! See, your king comes to you, righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.” (Zech 9:9)

Who of us doesn’t have cause to thank God immensely for His gentleness expressed to us in Christ? As God, He could have rightfully come punishing us for our life of rebellion, yet Christ comes gently forgiving. Aren’t you glad Jesus is gentle with us?

Third, since Jesus is gentle with you, you should practice gentleness towards yourself. I would be willing to bet that this room is filled with people who are extremely hard on themselves. I know I am one of those people. I’ve come to the conclusion that being too hard on yourself is internalized legalism. Since legalism kills, we do well to identify how it looks when we internalize it. I’m convinced many of us have an ongoing conversation with ourselves that no one else may even be aware of. The conversation varies from person to person with regard to its particulars, but if we were to take a close look at each person’s internal dialogue we would detect a common struggle with everyone here: we are too hard on ourselves. Here are some of the particular lines we say. See if you can pick out yours: A. I’m stupid. B. I’m clumsy. C. I’m disorganized. D. I’m too fat. E. I’m too skinny. F. I’m ugly. G. I procrastinate. H. I should study harder. I. I should read more. J. I don’t pray enough. K. I’m messy. L. I’m lazy. M. I’m crazy. N. I’m not a good student. O. I’m not a good athlete. P. I’m not a good writer. Q. I’m not a good musician. R. I’m not a good husband. S. I’m not a good wife. T. I’m not a good brother. U. I’m not a good sister. V. I’m not a good son. W. I’m not a good daughter. X. I’m not a good father. Y. I’m not a good mother. Z. I’m not a good friend. Or “All of the Above”: I’m not a good person. Question: why are you so hard on yourself? Jesus is gentle with you. Granted, nobody’s perfect, but why are you so hard on yourself? Jesus is gentle with you. Be gentle with yourself.

And lastly, extend that same gentleness to others. There are lots of ways to practice gentleness towards others, but one of the most powerful ways is by seasoning our words with gentleness. Philippians 4 tells us to make gentle, uplifting words a part of our everyday life: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near.” (Phil 4:4)

I Peter connects practicing gentleness with following Christ’s example: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…” (I Pt. 3:15) Follow Christ. Be gentle to others.

To help us learn to apply gentleness to others in our everyday lives I want you to join me in a short, imaginative exercise now. I want you to close your eyes and picture yourself with someone whom you find it difficult to get along. This person could be a friend, or a roommate. It could be at school, or work. Or you’re with a member of your family: could be a wife or husband, son or daughter, mother or father. Pick one of those now…

Now, imagine they’ve said something to you that hurts. Or, imagine they’re asking you to do something that annoys you. Now, imagine Christ is right next to you when that happens. Gently, He takes your hand and reminds you: “I am near. I am here. Learn from me. I am gentle. I’ll take your burden. I’ll give you rest. Just come to me.” His gentle voice softens you. He whispers to you. You know how to respond with gentleness.

You’ve just learned to be more like Christ. You’ve just learned to not raise your voice, to not shout back. You’ve just learned the power of a soft voice or, perhaps, the power of a whisper. Maybe you’ve even learned the power of silence. In any case, you’ve just learned the healing power of gentleness.

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