Helen’s eyes were kind and steady. Deep, deep brown like a doe. I admired everything about her. We spent my first year of college in Bible study together and had grown to become good friends. The college ministry we were involved with sent students all over the country and around the world on summer missions. Most of our friends were off to those exciting, exotic locales serving God and we were stuck back at home taking summer school classes and working. We decided to stay connected and support each other throughout that summer by meeting together for Bible study.
I grew up culturally Buddhist. In high school I began a relationship with Jesus, so the Christian faith felt relatively new. Helen was not only two years older than me; her spiritual maturity exuded a deep, intimate relationship with God and her knowledge of the Bible proved equally admirable. I happily anticipated time with Helen in hopes of becoming more like her.
We sat cross-legged on a large boulder next to a babbling stream. Our Bibles open, the birds chirping, the sky a Colorado summer vibrant blue…a truly picturesque, Pinterest-worthy scene.
We closed our eyes to pray for our friends far away and for each other.
I opened one eye in time to see an ugly creepy crawly bug scurry across the pages of my Bible. I lifted my hand ready to smash bug guts everywhere, but in that split second I watched as Helen cupped her hands and let the bug crawl onto her hands. She carefully released the bug in the nearby grass.
Helen, to me, embodied gentleness—reserved, quiet, shy, soft-spoken, introverted. When friends sought her out for counsel, her deep brown eyes would close slowly as her head tilted in a slow nod of understanding. Kind to all God’s creation, she did not squish bugs.
Helen embodied everything I was not.
Back then I equated “gentle” with “shy.” Verses like 1 Peter 3:4, “but let it be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable quality of a gentle and quiet spirit, which is precious in the sight of God,” left me despairing, wondering how to willfully become shy.
Further study on the word “gentle,” however, yielded both unexpected relief and challenge.
The Greek word for gentleness, prautes, is defined as meekness, which means “strength under control” (Barclay). The image is one of a beautiful, strong stallion, trained under bit and bridle. The stallion retains all his tremendous strength, but now operates under the control of a master. Gentleness is not weakness; it is not a personality bent, a sentimental fondness or passive quiet. It is a fruit of the Spirit which enables a believer to place the will of God before her own.
Jesus, with strength enough to control the weather, describes Himself as gentle and humble in heart (Matthew 11:29). He subjects His great power to the will of God the Father, a model of the biblical gentleness that is precious in the sight of God. You and I can’t control the weather, but we do retain our personality, gifting and strengths when we come into relationship with God. Through the gift of the Holy Spirit, we are empowered to submit our strength to the greater strength and Kingdom purposes of our God.
I still think my friend Helen is one of the gentlest people I’ve ever known, but now I better understand the “why” of her gentle spirit. Rather than shy, the fruit of gentleness calls me to be surrendered. Quiet or outgoing, bug-squisher or bug-saver, the key is found in the posture of our heart. A Christlike gentleness is not clutching and grabbing for control. It is the spirit of following Jesus with hands and heart open, humble yet strengthened in Him.
Father, help us bear fruit that honors You by laying aside our will for yours. Amen.
Vivian Mabuni is an author and speaker, and a sushi, white Christmas lights, coffee-with-friends-lover. She has been on staff with Cru (formerly Campus Crusade for Christ) for 26 years and serves with Epic Movement, the Asian-American ministry of Cru. Vivian is the author of Warrior In Pink: A Story of Cancer, Community and the God Who Comforts.