Gentle Boldness

Sometimes God guides us with truths that seem like two sides of a coin, or maybe like guard rails on the right and left that keep us centered.  We’re called to be harmless as doves and wise as serpents (Matt. 10:16).  We’re told to answer a fool according to his folly (Prov. 26:5) and not to answer a fool according to his folly (Prov. 26:4).  

A little reflection reveals how this works.  We must be both dove-like and serpent-like.  Many situations require both.  We must know when to point out someone’s contradiction and when to say nothing.

But there’s another seeming contradiction that we must learn to hold in tension in order to answer the objections of an increasingly secular society while offering Christ as a living hope.

Fortunately, the early church grew in an environment that was even more pluralistic in belief and more antagonistic toward Christ and His followers than our own.  As we look to Scripture we see that those in the early church had to act and speak with two seemingly distinct character qualities at the same time.

Let’s look at the first.

Boldness from Above

The spread of the early church in Acts from Jerusalem to Judea and Samaria and finally to the outskirts of civilization (Acts 1:8) is a record of lion-like boldness.

At the start, in Jerusalem, the disciples prayed for “all boldness” and God answered mightily.

(Acts 4:29 – 31) And now, Lord, look upon their threats and grant to your servants to continue to speak your word with all boldness, while you stretch out your hand to heal, and signs and wonders are performed through the name of your holy servant Jesus.”  And when they had prayed, the place in which they were gathered together was shaken, and they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and continued to speak the word of God with boldness.

In Iconium, facing opposition from both Jews and Gentiles, Paul and Barnabas settled in for an extended period of time.  Their ministry was still marked by boldness.

(Acts 14:3) So they remained for a long time, speaking boldly for the Lord, who bore witness to the word of his grace, granting signs and wonders to be done by their hands.

The book of Acts ends with the camera on Paul in Rome.  The last words of the book, left ringing in the ears of every generation since, reveal Paul ministering “with all boldness and without hindrance.”

(28:30 – 31) He lived there two whole years at his own expense, and welcomed all who came to him, proclaiming the kingdom of God and teaching about the Lord Jesus Christ with all boldness and without hindrance.

Boldness marked the early church’s witness!  So, there you go.  We should stop apologizing.  We should shout more.  We should lock passersby in a steely gaze, raise our voices, point our finger and thunder the truth!  Amen!?

Well…unless there’s more in the text that needs to shape our approach to those around us.  In fact, let’s look beyond the early Christians to God Himself and see what it looks like when God is at work in someone’s heart or when Jesus Himself is ministering.

Interestingly, we see an apparently different tone – one marked by gentleness.

Gentleness from Above

Like boldness, James said we can pray for wisdom and God will give it generously (James 1:5).  But what does a person look like when they’re operating in God’s wisdom?

(James 3:17) But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere.

That’s quite a list of words, isn’t it?  Read them again.  Taken together they leave no room for a Christian to be consistently wound up, angry, or accusatory. God’s wisdom will not lead us to mock, demean, or make straw men of our opponents.  It’s not His nature.

If this is true, we should see evidence of this kind of gentleness in Jesus.  Let’s look at the one verse in which Jesus describes the inner workings of His heart.

(Matt. 11:29) 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.

Make no mistake.  Jesus was tough.  Do you remember when he hand-fashioned a weapon and physically removed men from the Temple, overturning tables as He went (John 2:13 – 17)?  

But he was not brash or blustering.  He didn’t threaten or posture.  He didn’t mock or demean. Jesus was moved with righteous anger at the degradation of His Father’s name and the abuse of His brother’s and sisters.  He was willing to use appropriate force to remove individuals from the Temple.

And yet, despite this unusual act early in his ministry, news of which would have spread far and wide, women still brought infants to Jesus and trusted Him to hold them in His arms and bless them!  There was a marked gentleness in His Spirit that made these women feel that there were no safer arms in the world to hold their babies!

And we know something of Jesus’s Spirit, don’t we?

(Gal. 5:22 – 24) But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.  And those who belong to Christ Jesus have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires.

Jesus’s Spirit is the Holy Spirit, whom he has sent to live in every single one of His followers.  And wherever the Holy Spirit is at work the same love, peace, patience and gentleness will be on display.

So which is it?  Should we be bold enough to stand down grown men or gentle enough to win the trust of new mothers with infants?  Well…yes.

Gentle Boldness

In fact, Scripture holds these two realities together in several passages.  And to live well in the coming age we’re going to need both boldness and gentleness.

(1 Peter 3:14 – 16) But even if you should suffer for righteousness' sake, you will be blessed. Have no fear of them, nor be troubled, but in your hearts honor Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect, having a good conscience, so that, when you are slandered, those who revile your good behavior in Christ may be put to shame.

Peter calls his readers to live fearlessly, poised and ready to make a defense to absolutely anyone, even in the face of persecution!  But he says they must make that defense gently and respectfully.

When young Titus was living on Crete, an island famous for open immorality, Paul gave him similar instructions.

(Titus 2:15 – 3:2) Declare these things; exhort and rebuke with all authority. Let no one disregard you.  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.

Titus was to strongly exhort and authoritatively rebuke the people, letting no one blow him off!  And what was the core of his ethical instruction?  How should the gospel be displayed in the lives of Christians on the wicked island of Crete, including Titus?  They must speak evil of no one and refuse to argue.  They must be gentle and show perfect courtesy toward all people.  Are you seeing the balance?

Finally, Paul instructed Timothy…

(2 Tim. 2:24 – 26) …the Lord's servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth, and they may come to their senses and escape from the snare of the devil, after being captured by him to do his will.

Young Timothy must correct his opponents.  This requires a galvanized spine.  But how should he correct them?  Without zero argumentative spirit, kindness toward everyone, and patiently enduring evil when necessary.  This requires a gentle heart.

Putting it Together

To hold these two seemingly opposite character traits together we need some descriptive pairs.  

  • Bold Gentleness
  • Immovable Humility
  • Unbending Tenderness
  • Resolute Sympathy
  • Unyielding Meekness
  • Quiet Strength

 Can you see the balance?  My suspicion is that we all lean one way or the other.  When push comes to shove you probably move in the direction of boldness (fight) or gentleness (flight).  But Scripture calls us to stand our ground exactly in the center.  

We cannot budge a centimeter regarding the truth of God’s Word and the offer of salvation.  But neither can we lash out at, lose patience with, or in any other way disrespect those attacking the gospel.  

There is no question that we are entering a new and increasingly secular age.  We need a generation of men and women who can tow the line of truth with steely spines… and open arms.  We need faces set against the winds of opposition… that show the joy of the Lord.  We must draw lines in the sand regarding truth… and arrows in the sand pointing to our front doors and churches.  We must engage fearlessly and embrace sincerely.

Jesus said, “All things have been handed over to me by my Father,” declaring omnipotent authority.  And seconds later, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:27 – 28).

The strongest arms in the universe… are open and beckoning sinners like us.

Let’s be a church family known for Gentle Boldness.

Ben Forbes