One of the byproducts of aging can be an intolerance of others and an irritable, impatient spirit. We may become angry, bitter old curmudgeons if we’re not watchful.
We must never excuse bouts of bad temper, for intolerance spreads misery all around us and withers the souls of those we love. We have not fulfilled our duty toward others until we have learned to be pleasant.
Poet Hannah More portrays it this way:
Since trifles make the sum of human things,
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And half our misery from our foibles springs;
Since life’s best joys consist in peace and ease,
And though but few can serve, yet all can please;
Oh, let the ungentle spirit learn from hence,
A small unkindness is a great offence.
Ancient Greek philosophers had a word for the virtue that corrects our irritation — praus, a term that means gentleness and suggests a tender, kind spirit. It was considered the “queen of the virtues” for it governs and blesses all the others. It softens the sterner virtues and makes them more tender and gentle. Like sugar dropped into a cup of tea, it permeates our actions and sweetens all that we do. The author of the book of James, who understood the classical use of the word, describes the consummate good life as deeds done “in the meekness [gentleness, prautes] of wisdom.”
Gentleness is not weakness or mildness. Jesus was meek but not mild, despite Wesley’s Christmas carol. Gentleness is strength under control. It is the power to be kind and considerate in the face of pain or disruption. It is a willingness to accept our limitations and ailments without taking out our frustrations on others. It is showing gratitude for the smallest service rendered to us and extending patience to those that do not serve us well.
It is bearing with bothersome people (even noisy, boisterous little children, for kindness to little ones is a crowning mark of a good and gentle soul). It is speaking softly in the face of provocation. It is even being silent, for calm, unruffled silence is often the most eloquent response to another’s unkind words.
The root of a gentle spirit is humility. We must focus on our own weaknesses rather than the weakness and failures of others and their frustrating inability to meet our needs. It is said that Israel’s high priests were “able to deal gently with those who were ignorant and were going astray” because they themselves were “subject to weakness.” If I would be gentle and meek with those who disappoint me, I must know that I am as flawed and weak as they.
Since Jesus comes to me “gentle and riding on a donkey,” I must get off my high horse and learn from Him, for He is “gentle [praus] and humble in heart,” and He must create His likeness in me. Then who knows what will happen? Perhaps nothing will change but my own heart, and I will become a more gracious, gentle man. Or it may be that my gentle manner will open the eyes of someone else’s heart, someone who has no gentle Jesus to see.
“Tones that jar the heart of another, words that make it ache … from such, as from all other sins, Jesus was born to deliver us,” George MacDonald prayed. May we put ourselves into His hands for His healing.
David and Carolyn Roper co-direct the work of Idaho Mountain Ministries, a ministry of clergy care. David is the author of 14 books. The most recent: Teach Us To Number Our Days. His musings are archived on davidroper.blogspot.com/
The Idaho Statesman’s weekly faith column features a rotation of writers from many different faiths and perspectives.