Be gentle, and show perfect courtesy toward all people. For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another. But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us. ~Titus 3:1-5
Gentleness often gets a bad rap in our society, particularly among men, who tend to think that “gentleness” is synonymous with “weakness” or “femininity.” Gentleness is for the women, or so the thinking goes. Real men are tough.
Thinking like that not only betrays a misunderstanding of what the definition of gentleness actually is, but also shows how shallow our society’s definition of masculinity is. Our culture, it seems, puts forward two primary role models of manhood for guys to aspire to, and neither of them are compatible with gentleness.
The first is what I’ll call the “NFL Model of Manhood.” Real masculinity, in this model, is about being tough, strong, strident, and aggressive. This is lumberjack, pickup truck, beer drinking, man’s man. True masculinity, apparently, means abandoning self-control and giving full vent to the strength of a few acceptable, “manly” emotions. Oh, and going to the gym a lot.
The second model is what I call the “Homer Simpson Model of Manhood.” Have you noticed that practically every father figure on TV is cut from the same cloth: slovenly, lazy, emotionally distant, passive? Instead of unchecked emotions, men are told to drown themselves in triviality and banality until nothing threatening or strong remains.
These two primary models of manhood have wreaked havoc on American society, and even on the church. For every man who beats his wife and kids, there’s another who doesn’t care anymore and sits passively as his family suffers from his silent lack of leadership.
There is a third way, however– the biblical way of meekness. The word “gentleness” in the Bible can also be translated “meekness.” (When you see the word “meek” in your Bible, you’re seeing the same word as “gentle.” So this fruit of the Spirit, and what Jesus says in Matthew 5:5, “Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth,” are talking about the same thing). Meekness is not the same as weakness. Rather, meekness means strength under control. That’s why the icon for this chapter is a lion’s paw with the claws sheathed; meekness/gentleness means possessing great strength, and keeping that strength under control and using it for the good of others. I’ll call this third way the “Jesus Model of Manhood” (more on that in a moment).
Don’t worry, ladies; this chapter on gentleness has everything to do with you. But I needed to address the guys first to clear up this misunderstanding of gentleness and get them on board with the Spirit’s desire to cultivate this Christ-like fruit in them. Gentleness is a fruit that the Holy Spirit intends to grow in both men and women, as we first look to see Jesus’ gentleness, and then how his gentleness stoops to save us.
THE JESUS MODEL OF MANHOOD
Before we turn our attention to our Cross Connection text and how it relates to the fruit of gentleness in our own lives, let’s take a minute to look more closely at the “Jesus Model of Manhood” by seeing what gentleness looked like in the greatest man who has ever lived, Jesus Christ himself. In Matthew 11 we get an up-close glimpse of Jesus’ gentleness on full display.
Matthew 11 marks a turning point in the ministry of Jesus. Up until this point, things have been going well; crowds have been hanging on his every word and Jesus is at the peak of his popularity. But chapter 11 is where the first rumblings of discontent and opposition first surface– opposition that will eventually lead to the cross.
First, John the Baptist, who is in prison, apparently is having doubts about Jesus’ identity and sends some of his disciples to get confirmation from Jesus. Remember, John the Baptist was the one who said, “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” at the very beginning of Jesus’ ministry. But now, Jesus isn’t turning out to be the kind of Messiah he expected. And so, discouraged and imprisoned, he asks, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”
Keep reading Matthew 11, and in the very next scene, Jesus berates the blatant hypocrisy of the crowds, and then begins denouncing the cities where he has done the most miracles but seen the least fruit. So by the end of chapter 11, it’s obvious that trouble is brewing for Jesus. John is doubting, the crowds are hypocritically dismissing Jesus, and city after city is beginning to turn away in unbelief. In his commentary on this chapter, J.M. Gibson remarks,
“As we read, first of the doubts of John, then of the thoughtlessness of the multitudes, and then of the impenitence of the favored cities by the lake, is there not a question in our hearts, becoming more and more urgent as each new discouragement appears: what will He say to this? What can He answer?”
His answer, in verses 25-30, to this burgeoning crisis is astounding, and puts both his majesty and his meekness on full display. And it’s especially in the contrast between his meekness and his majesty that we learn what manhood and meekness is all about.
All things have been handed over to me by my Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows he Father except the Son and those to whom the Son chooses to reveal him. 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 11:27-30
His first response to opposition is a breathtaking statement claiming absolute sovereignty. “All things have been handed over to me by my Father.” The audacity of this Jewish carpenter to claim dominion over heaven and earth is simply astounding (every once in a while we need to just sit back and let the things that Jesus says shock us like they should!). He then goes on to claim unique and intimate knowledge of the Father and sole propriety over salvation, dispensing it to whomever he wills.
We could linger long on the majesty of Jesus here, but let this suffice for the purposes of this chapter: this Jesus is no weakling. This is not friendly, tender, tame, cuddling-with-a-lamb Jesus. This is the Jesus who calms storms, raises the dead, flips over tables in the temple, and makes demons tremble. This is Jesus, resolute, unshaken, and untroubled in the face of opposition. Fix this picture of strength in your mind, because what he says next is a marked contrast.
“Learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart,” Jesus says next. Um, really Jesus? “I’m sovereign over earth and heaven, equal with the Father, the sole source of salvation… and gentle and lowly!” Normally we don’t think of sovereignty, authority, and lowliness going together. But this is the unique and compelling glory of Jesus, and a crucial insight into what real gentleness is.
How I wish we could linger on this contrast between majesty and meekness. This truly is the heart of Jesus’ glory; he is both meek and majestic, high and exalted and humble, sovereign yet submissive, omnipotent and yet dependent on his Father, fearsome in power and holiness yet holding children on his knee… this is what makes Jesus utterly compelling and beautiful.
It also shows us what true gentleness and true manhood look like. Meekness, remember, is not weakness; it is strength under control, and strength used for the good of others. Jesus is the highest example of this kind of meekness: omnipotent in power and authority, with the tender invitation, “Come to me, and I will give you rest.” The One who makes demons tremble, holding children on his knee. Women and broken sinners flocking to him, while he flips over the moneychangers’ tables in a holy fury. The Author of life, dying on a cross. If Jesus’ majesty is what qualifies him to be a sufficient Savior, it is his meekness that makes him exactly the kind of Savior I need.
Now that we’ve seen Jesus’ majesty and meekness, let’s apply it to us and our practical definition of gentleness/meekness. The “Jesus Model of Manhood” (okay, not just for men– this is what gentleness should look like for all believers) is a reflection of Jesus: tender and tough, sacrificing and saving, committed to holiness and kneeling in humility– in a word, servant leadership. It’s “wives submit to your husbands and husbands lay down your lives in love for your wife.” It’s strict fathers down on their knees playing with their children. It’s tough, no-nonsense mothers who openly delight in their children. It’s friends and co-workers with high standards for each other and an eagerness to forgive. It’s leadership that leads by doing the hard thing first. It’s putting others first when you deserve the attention. It’s honoring others above yourself. It’s strength brought under control and made to serve the good of others. That’s the kind of meekness we’re after.
GENTLE… AND BROKEN
Now that we have a clear and practical picture of gentleness in front of us, we can look more closely at our Cross Connection passage to see how the gospel specifically connects to and motivates our own gentleness.
In Titus 3, Paul lays out instructions for the church, and taken together they are a perfect model of meekness:
Remind them to be submissive to rulers and authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good work, to speak evil of no one, to avoid quarreling, to be gentle, and to show perfect courtesy toward all people.
That’s a compelling picture of Christ-like gentleness: submission even to evil rulers, obedience to those in authority, eagerness to serve and do good wherever possible, taming the unruliness of the tongue, swallowing pride and forgiving wrongs, and showing honor and courtesy towards everyone you meet. These are the kind of character traits good parents want to instill in their children, yet we know that actually living them out ourselves is incredibly difficult. How deeply ingrained our sinful nature is! Our hearts– even our redeemed, remade hearts– often rebel against this beautiful picture of harmonious, humble gentleness.
That’s why, in the very next breath, Paul turns our attention to our past as he starts to draw this Cross Connection and build the gospel foundation for gentleness.
…be gentle and show perfect courtesy toward all people. For (because!) we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.
The motivational link that Paul draws couldn’t be clearer, even if it’s initially hard to see how his argument works. Be gentle and courteous, because you yourself used to be the exact opposite of that, with the seeds of every evil in your heart, working themselves out in all manner of hostility, rebellion, and sin.
So here’s the question before us: how does knowing our past condition apart from Christ help to grow the seeds of gentleness in our hearts? The answer is that the humble fruit of gentleness can only grow in a heart broken by the ugliness of its own sin and the beauty of Jesus’ unmerited mercy.
Humility and gentleness are very closely linked; you can’t genuinely have one without the other. Jesus himself said, “I am gentle and lowly in heart.” What’s truly amazing about Jesus’ humility is that, as the sinless Son of God, he had no defect, lack, or shortcoming to be humble about– and yet he is humility par excellence (Philippians 2:5-8). We, on the other hand, as fallen creatures, have much to be humble about, and Paul highlights this as he calls us to remember our past sins.
We’ve seen the power of remembering the undeservedness of God’s mercy in previous Cross Connections. Recall the exhortation from our study of peace, in Ephesians 2:12-13– “Remember that you were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus, you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ.” Remembering our hopelessness apart from Christ, and the undeserved mercy of God shown to us, is a powerful tool in the Christian life.
The reason is simply because we are so quick to forget. In Deuteronomy 8 and 9, God repeatedly warns the people not to forget their prior sinful actions and current sinful tendencies. This isn’t to crush their self-esteem (although our self-esteem could usually do with a little crushing), but to keep them humble and dependent on grace. “Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness,” Moses says in Deuteronomy 9:7. Remembrance of past sin will keep us tethered to the grace of God, and keep the warning of Deuteronomy 8:11-14 from coming to pass in our lives: “Take care lest you forget the LORD your God… lest, when you have eaten and are full and have built good houses and live in them… and all that you have is multiplied, then your heart be lifted up, and you forget the LORD your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” Let the failing of Israel be a sober reminder to us: we are just as prone as they to quickly forget the depths out of which God rescued us, and to begin arrogantly trusting in ourselves. Therefore God, in patient love, continually tells us to remember our sin, so that we will remember his mercy.
So, in order to cultivate the humility in which the fruit of goodness grows, Paul directs our attention in Titus 3 to our past life apart from grace and says, in short, “Remember how bad you were!” Whether you had a dramatic conversion and have a testimony of deliverance from rampant wickedness, or if you grew up in a Christian home and accepted Jesus when you were six, God intends for you to see yourself in this list. Every human heart, yours included, has the seeds of every evil, and the only thing that makes you differ from the most despicable criminal is grace and grace alone. So when you read this list, don’t see others’ faces– see your own, and see what Jesus has delivered you from.
Spend a few minutes meditating on this list from Titus 3, and remember times when each of these has been true of you, to some degree. Look up the texts in parenthesis to get a fuller biblical picture on these sins. If necessary, ask the Holy Spirit to shine some convicting light into your heart. Ask some people whom you trust and who know you well to give you some honest feedback. Taking serious, humbling steps like these is the best way I know to jumpstart the Holy Spirit’s fruit-producing work.
Foolish (Proverbs 10:18, 12:16, 14:17, 18:2, 28:26, 29:11)
Envy (Psalm 73, Proverbs 14:30, Ecclesiastes 4:4, Romans 1:29, 1 Corinthians 13:4)
Disobedient (Romans 1:29-30, 2 Timothy 3:2, Titus 1:16)
Led astray (Psalm 40:4, 58:3, 119:118, Isaiah 53:6)
Hatred (Leviticus 19:17-18, Luke 6:27, 1 John 2:9, 3:15, 4:20)
Slaves to various passions (Romans 6:12, Galatians 5:24, 1 Thessalonians 4:4-5)
Slaves to various pleasures (Proverbs 21:17, Luke 8:14, 2 Timothy 3:4)
Malice (Romans 1:29, Ephesians 4:31, Colossians 3:8, 1 Peter 2:1)
Knowing the true condition of your heart apart from grace– and not just knowing it as an intellectual fact, but feeling and owning it as your own– is the position from which humility and gentleness will grow.
Paul doesn’t stop with just a stern command to remember our sin. From the depths of contemplating our own depravity, he launches into one of the most breathtaking summaries of the gospel in the entire Bible.
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy…
The contrast between the depths of sin and the heights of grace here is the contrast that should fuel our gentleness. Gentleness is a fruit that grows in the gap between what we deserve and what we’ve received. When a humbling appreciation of our own sinfulness combines with a humbling appreciation of the extravagance of God’s mercy, the result will be transformed lives. So let’s walk through each phrase of this text, to deepen our love for the grace that has been shown to us and to provide the fertile soil in which the fruit of gentleness grows best.
THE GOODNESS AND LOVING KINDNESS OF GOD OUR SAVIOR
We’ve already studied the goodness and kindness of God in previous Cross Connections, but these are themes that will never be exhausted; endless eternal ages from now, we will be singing and celebrating at wondering at God’s goodness and kindness.
Stand in wonder at how the goodness and kindness of God– his commitment to uphold the worth of his glory, and the omnipotent impulse of his heart to bless and forgive and heal– came together in the cross, where his Son hung and died to take your place. He determined in eternity past to give you “redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us… to the praise of his glorious grace” (Ephesians 1:6-8). God’s grace and kindness shine all the more brightly when placed next to the depths of our sin described in the previous verse.
HE SAVED US
Stop and consider for a moment all that this simple phrase, “He saved us,” means. You’ve been saved from hell: the unending conscious torment that your sins justly deserve. Revelation 14:11 gives us this horrifying picture of the judgment that we deserve, and would experience if not for God’s gracious intervention: “The smoke of their torment goes up forever and ever and they have no rest, day or night.” The reality of hell is unpleasant to talk or think about, but if we neglect giving serious consideration to what the Bible says, our appreciation of salvation will be light and superficial at best. To know that you have been snatched from the brink of destruction, to have been rescued from everything you deserve, to have had an everlasting future of horror transformed into eternal future of joy, should bring you to your knees in thankfulness, worship, and humility.
In addition, you’ve been saved from yourself. That list of sins is a picture of what you would be apart from the grace of God actively holding you back and changing you from the inside out. You have the seeds of every evil your heart, and it is sheer grace that makes you differ from anyone else you know. Every time you stumble again into the same sinful habit for the ten thousandth time, let it be a reminder to you of everything that he has saved you from, and how he continues to shower you with undeserved mercy.
More than being saved from hell and saved from yourself, the fullness of salvation lies in what you have been saved for. You have been saved for everlasting joy: “The ransomed of the LORD shall return and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain gladness and joy, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away” (Isaiah 35:10). You have been saved for unending, face-to-face fellowship with the God you were created for: “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God” (Revelation 21:3). And you have been saved for the eternal life of knowing God, an eternal life that began the moment you believed, in which you are partially living, and which will one day be fully yours: “This is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent” (John 17:3). Oh Christian, know what you have been saved from, and know what you have been saved for!
NOT BECAUSE OF WORKS DONE BY US IN RIGHTEOUSNESS
This must be one of the greatest wonders of the gospel: the holy, righteous God of the universe has chosen to look at sinful, rebellious, hardened people like us in love, and acts towards us exactly the opposite of what we deserve. Even more than that, he tells us that we can’t deserve his loving kindness, and dare not try. Grace is free, or it is not grace at all. “If it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Romans 11:6).
“He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness.” This verse tells me that my salvation is not dependent on me. Considering the lengthy description of my heart in the previous verses, this is good news indeed. I am the recipient of grace, not because of works done by me in so-called righteousness, as if I could somehow earn the favor of God. No, I stand under the waterfall of unending mercies all because of him. “It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who became to us wisdom from God, righteousness and sanctification and redemption” (1 Corinthians 1:30).
Believer, feel the freedom that this brings. You are not a child of God probationally; you are not a foster child that could be sent back to the orphanage if “it doesn’t work out.” No, the Father of mercies has set his covenant affection on you, completely regardless of anything deserving in you. Your salvation does not depend on goodness in you, but on grace in him. And this is the good news: the grace in him is an endless, overflowing well of love enough to cover every sin in an ocean of redeeming blood.
Today, the all of God’s heart is for you, not against you– again, not because of what you have done, but because of what Christ has done. Every morning, you stand on new blood-bought mercies, not on your performance from yesterday (as if yesterday’s performance could qualify you to stand before a holy God!). Every night when you lay your head down, you can sleep in guiltless peace because “the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:7). And every moment in between, you are held by the superabundant, more-than-conquering love of Christ; you are held when you fall in sin, held when you rise again by grace, held when you succeed and when you fail. The Father’s unchanging love toward you is not based on your merits, but on the merits of his Son. Preach this truth to yourself every day, until at last your fearful, stubborn heart begins to believe this good news and live like it’s true.
BUT ACCORDING TO HIS OWN MERCY
This final phrase ties everything beforehand together. When Paul says that God saved us “according to his own mercy,” it means that the measuring stick he used in determining how to treat us was not our goodness, or how much we deserve, but rather the infinite depths of mercy in his heart. Take heart, O you of little faith: the measuring stick God uses to deal with you is not your faith, but his faithfulness; not your goodness but his grace; not your merit but his mercy.
John 1:16 gives us a beautiful picture of this truth. A literal translation of that verse reads: “From his fullness we have all received grace in accordance with grace.” The grace we receive accords with, measures up to, God’s own gracious heart. You don’t receive grace in accordance with your works, or grace in accordance with your faith, or grace in accordance with what you have done for God. The only thing that God’s grace accords with… is God’s own grace. He is the measuring stick he uses when determining how to treat you. That’s why nothing in that list of sins can stop him if he decides to look on you with love; nothing in you can stop the unrelenting, unfailing mercy of God when he sets his sights on you. The hound of heaven will hunt you down and have you as his own forever.
GENTLENESS IN THE GAP
Gentleness is a fruit that grows in the gap between what we deserve and what we’ve received, in a heart broken by the clear sight of its own sinfulness and of its Savior. To know yourself treated in such a free, lavish, undeserved way– to really know this and to feel its truth– will necessarily result in meekness towards others. Here’s how John Newton put it:
“Whoever is truly humbled will not be easily angry, will not be positive and rash, will be compassionate and tender to the infirmities of his fellow-sinners, knowing that if there be a difference in him it is grace that has made it, and that he has the seeds of every evil in his own heart.”
Practically speaking, this means that the best way to cultivate a heart of gentleness is to cultivate an ever-deepening awareness of the gap between what you deserve and what you’ve received. That means meditating on your own sin and looking to the Bible for a fuller, bleaker picture of the condition of your heart; and also meditating on the manifold mercy of God displayed on the cross and looking to the Bible for a fuller, richer picture of all that Jesus accomplished for you.
Be careful, though, that this introspection and meditation doesn’t become ingrown. It would be all to easy for our sinful hearts to twist a proper grasp on the gospel into a self-absorbed psuedo-holiness that stops reaching out to others in humility and meekness. That’s why this Cross Connection is so important; never forget that your grasp on the gospel isn’t just connected to you sitting around with your Bible being happy in Jesus; no, your grasp on the gospel is connected directly back to “be submissive to rulers and authorities, be obedient, be ready for every good work, speak evil of no one, avoid quarreling, be gentle, and show perfect courtesy toward all people” (Titus 3:1-2). Gentleness is focused outwards on serving other people. True gospel-centeredness will never result in self-centeredness or self-absorption; the moment it begins to become those things, it has ceased to be real gospel-centeredness. Our hearts truly are deceitful above all things; we will quickly lose sight of the outward dimensions of gospel-centered, cross-connected living without the Holy Spirit continually opening our eyes to our own deceitfulness. Use the checklist of Titus 3:1-2 to regularly evaluate your heart and your actions to determine whether your meditation on sin and grace is genuine and well-placed, or if your heart has begun to deceive you. And pray– pray earnestly and desperately, that as God shows you how great the gap is between what you deserve and what you receive, that it would cultivate the fruit of gentleness in your life.
Father, Please give me strength to comprehend the heights and depths and lengths and breadth of your love for me; to see into the holy heights of your affection; to grasp the depths of my own sin from which I have been rescued; to understand the lengths you have gone to save me; and to see the breadth of your grace extending beyond me and reaching out to bring rebels into your family. Make me an extension of the breadth of your love by humbling me and making me live out of the gap between what I deserve and what I have received, so that everyone would see Jesus’ gentleness in me.