Right now, it seems everyone is on edge and short-fused. Leaders encounter feisty clients and coworkers during normal seasons, but in the midst of the pandemic, prickly people are more abundant than ever. Many of us feel like Westley and Buttercup in the classic movie The Princess Bride. Slogging through the Fire Swamp, the brave couple dodges sudden flames, quicksand, and the infamous R.O.U.S.es (Rodents of Unusual Size). It’s a harrowing journey, fraught with danger at every turn.
From staff meetings to sales calls, emails and texts from colleagues—even facial expressions on Zoom—we often feel like we are navigating relational Fire Swamps. Angst and short-temperedness abound. All of us are trudging through a messy muddle as we attempt to re-engage with work, unique schedules, and people’s moods. Collectively, we are still journeying through a very stressful season.
Perhaps now more than ever, we need the rare quality of gentleness. It’s essential in our workplaces, the boardroom, strategic planning sessions, and daily meetings with clients. In the Apostle Paul’s spotlight on Christlike character, he features gentleness as a slice of the Spirit’s fruit (Gal 5:22-23). But what is gentleness? And how do we cultivate more of it at work?
What is Gentleness, Really?
Contrary to popular opinion, being gentle does not mean wimpy, apathetic, milk-toast, or just saying nothing when facing difficult people. In Cultivating the Fruit of the Spirit, Christopher J. H. Wright says gentleness can be “strong, firm, and clear, but without vicious rage.” Wright asserts that gentleness is the ability to endure hostility and criticism without anger, blustery self-defense, or harsh and aggressive words. It means “being very aware that the other person is a human being with feelings, too.”
I felt very frazzled one afternoon last week. Within the same two-hour window, I encountered loud anti-vax comments and equally strong opinions from people in favor of COVID vaccinations. I’ve also heard a host of comments from both maskers and non-maskers. On each side of the debates, people were adamant, passionate, and anything but gentle. I found my own blood pressure rising and, sadly, felt less gentle and more prickly in response.
How Do We Cultivate More Gentleness?
First and foremost, we must recall how central this virtue of gentleness is to Jesus’ own character. Christ said to weary laborers, “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” (Matt. 11:29). In Gentle and Lowly, Dane Ortlund asserts that “all Christian toil flows from fellowship with a living Christ whose transcending, defining reality is: gentle and lowly. He astounds and sustains us with his endless kindness.”
Notice Jesus’ unique self-description of his own heart. Then catch his personalized call to join him. Jesus lovingly calls us to work like he works, with a heart of gentleness.
We cultivate more gentleness as we intentionally aim to toil more closely yoked with Jesus. What does “working with Jesus, taking his yoke” look like? His present-day disciples can learn his heart and ways by deliberately asking: “Is what I am about to say or do truly the gentle, humble, kind response, like Jesus would express?” This necessitates slowing down, remembering how gentle Christ has been toward us. Then we ponder and plan for what the gentle expression will be toward the person or scenario in our path.
Gentleness Toward Others Refreshes Us, Too
Note Jesus’ promise: rest for your souls. When we take his easy yoke, the stress and fatigue will subside. We learn anew his heart of humility, tenderness, and kindness for us, and we learn better how to express his gentleness toward others. As we learn his rhythms and trust his ways, we find rest.
Fast-paced, make-it-happen leaders might still say, “Okay, gentleness is great at home and at church, but no way it will work at work.” In Taking Your Soul to Work, R. Paul Stevens and Alvin Ung shed helpful light:
Such gentleness requires a profound respect for the personal dignity of the other. A gentle person studiously avoids any coercion, intimidation, or threats. If possible, he or she might seek to change a wrong attitude through a kind act or persuasive word, but a gentle person will refuse to force his or her hand against another person’s will. A gentle person seeks to move at the pace of another person’s readiness to make changes or embrace a goal. This is exactly the kind of person you’d like to have as your boss or leader. Self-assured, he or she empowers you in a way that’s suited to your needs.
Notice the blend of strength, confidence, and kindness. Deep down, we all know how good it is to work with and for such gentle people. Cultivating greater gentleness is essential for greater fruitfulness and flourishing.
Humble gentleness is in short supply amidst our desperate days in the 2021 Fire Swamp. What if we look anew at Jesus’ character? Let’s recall how his gentleness has abundantly blessed us. Then let’s aim to share Jesus-style gentle responses with our coworkers, clients, and other business contacts this week.