The Surprising Truth About Gentleness
A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger. Proverbs 15:1
The tone of our world seems to be increasingly harsh just now. The leaders of two nations are provoking each other with insulting and violent rhetoric that has every possibility of ending in a catastrophic war. Vitriol and hatred are directed towards immigrants and refugees, simply for trying to find a better life. On social media, women, in particular, suffer abuse and violent threats for doing their job or daring to have an opinion.
Doesn’t it make you angry?
It makes me wonder: is ‘a gentle answer’ really the best we can do? Is that all we’ve got to give in the face of such injustice, antagonism and hostility? It seems so ineffective, weak, even.
I was reminded this week that Margaret Atwood said ‘a word after a word after a word is power.’ She was right. The language we use has the power to create, name and shape our thoughts and attitudes. It influences and inspires us; it draws us towards a particular vision of what it means to live well. It defines the culture and the atmosphere we live in.
When the bible speaks of answering people gently, it doesn’t seem to envisage us whispering platitudes to keep the peace, or refraining from truth-telling to avoid confrontation. It’s not another way of saying ‘be nice, don’t rock the boat.’ There were many prophets in the Old Testament who spoke truth to power and called people out for their bad behaviour. Jesus got pretty angry on occasion, too. But he also said that we should learn from him, that he was gentle and humble in heart.
The surprising truth is that gentleness can be extremely powerful. When the bible encourages us to give a gentle answer, it’s an invitation consider the kind of people we want to be. It invites us to recognise the power of our words and to use them for shaping ourselves and our world towards peace, reconciliation and non-violence. So while we can speak with authority and stand up for what is right, we can still speak with a gentle spirit. We do this by choosing to recognise and respect the humanity of others, even those we profoundly disagree with.
It’s not always an easy choice, though. Walter Wink writes that ‘to affirm at the same time our own humanity and that of those we oppose, to dare to draw the sting of evil by absorbing it — such behaviour is unlikely to attract the faint of heart.’ It takes a great deal of humility to answer someone gently when they have been harsh towards us. It takes a great deal of patience not to retaliate with more harsh words. It is often extremely hard to treat people with courtesy when we are completely opposed to everything they seem to stand for.
But treating others gently reminds us that they are more than just an annoyance, a stereotype, or a faceless twitter account. They are a person, just like us, in need of grace and transformation. To treat people gently we need to know that they are deeply loved, and so are we.
It sometimes feels impossible that a gentle answer can make a difference in a world that seems saturated in threatening and violent language. But to paraphrase Margaret Atwood, a gentle answer after a gentle answer after a gentle answer is power. Perhaps a whole string of gentle answers might transform my world, and your world, and the whole, wide world, if we let it.
Some questions for reflection…
- Who do you find it hardest to answer gently? Your family? Your colleagues? People you think ‘should know better?’ What’s one way that you could be more gentle this week?
- If gentleness is about recognising our common humanity, how can we remember to do that when we strongly disagree with someone?
- Social media seems to be particularly full of harsh words much of the time. How can we extend gentleness to this form of communication? What are some of the barriers to this?