“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness” (2 Corinthians 12:19)
“Whoever becomes humble like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven. Whoever welcomes one such child in my name welcomes me” (Matthew 18:4-5)
Gentleness: (Greek – πραυτης – pronounced prah-oo-teys): Having the quality of humility. Freedom from arrogance or excessive pride. It also involves the ability to remain calm in the face of hostility. Other ways of viewing gentleness involve mildness or meekness. As Jesus said, “blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5).
The Habit of Gentleness
While much can be said of gentleness, there are three habits that I think are extremely important. The first is listening. If we are able to listen then we are able to be affected. When we allow ourselves to hear we open up dialogue that we may also be heard. To be heard is to be known. To be known and understood is perhaps one of the best gifts that we can give to others and to ourselves. A second habit of gentleness is forgiveness. Scripture is clear that in forgiving others, our heavenly Father forgives us (Matthew 6:17). In forgiving, the hate and anger that we harbor can be released. This will have a profound effect on our health. In Aramaic, the language of Jesus, the term for forgiveness was shabaq. This meant to be unbound or untied. To loose the chains of hatred and desire for revenge, loosens the bonds on our heart against others. It allows for healing and change. Not just in reconciliation, but for our own good as well.
A third habit of gentleness is vulnerability. To be vulnerable is allowing ourselves to be wounded. In fact the word vulnerable comes from a root word which means wound. When we are courageous and expose our heart, sometimes it will be wounded. But unless we can be courageous, we will not be able to change the world. We will not be able to change ourselves. The word courage also has significance. Courage comes from a root word which means heart. To have heart and to be wounded are two of the most fundamental aspects of being gentle.
The act of confession is so powerful partly because it draws together listening, being heard, vulnerability, forgiveness, and courage. We should not underestimate the healing that can come from confession. Whether through spiritual direction, in corporate worship, or in our private dialogue with God, confession of our sins will help us move beyond them.
The Neuroscience of Gentleness
Hiding from fear does not allow us to deal with it. It can even become more powerful as we are afraid to even address a weakness. It can make us even more anxious by trying to hide from our vulnerability. We can be fiercely alive by drawing it out and working through it.
If a group is willing to be vulnerable together, then they will have the strength of working through conflict. The hippocampus helps store and create memories. When someone feels comfortable with those around them, they will be invited to share the content of their memories. If the environment is hostile or others do not draw out risky or vulnerable areas with one another safely, people may unconsciously or consciously hide memories and details that might show weakness. Unless a group is able to investigate and overcome their weaknesses together in safety, those weaknesses will remain but in an unspoken or hidden way. Extreme fear will sometimes result in deep psychological defense mechanisms that are not based in reality. Deep fear might cause people to live in delusions or paranoia. But with courage, we can see what is true and real. We can engage our weak spots and allow others to see our own.
What might seem like a weakness, such as showing a vulnerability, is actually a strength as it allows weak spots to be addressed and overcome. Addressing perceived weaknesses together allows for creativity and adaptation. It allows for growth and change.
The Neuroscience of Prejudice
One might argue that hardness would be the opposite of gentleness. Neurologically prejudice is just that. When our hearts have become hardened in positions that do not correlate to reality then real hurt can occur. This is hurt not just to others, but also to ourselves. When we move through the world in either conscious or unconscious bias, we do not allow ourselves to open up to possibilities. We can be wrecking balls of hate without even knowing it.
Prejudice is generally defined as a preconceived judgment or irrational attitude. It often involves hostility. Prejudice can be callous or harsh. It prevents the truth from being heard. It is the ground of discrimination and animosity.
There are several parts of the brain associated with prejudice. The amygdala involves our association with threats. As the mind creates and maintains understanding of threats, our ideas can become reinforced. The anterior insula involves the process of negative affect. The medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) helps put things in perspective and bring them into a mental picture. While the mPFC helps us categorize the world, the downside is that our categorizations can be completely false though they seem real to us. All these structures taken together help categorize ingroup and outgroup.[i] Positive attitudes toward an ingroup are supported by the striatum. Within cultural contexts, when we are told to believe stereotypes and prejudice, the neural circuitry to perpetuate hate gets strengthened and then passed on to the next generation. Sadly, prejudice can be either conscious or unconscious. Many people who are full of hate might not realize there is another way because of how they were raised or taught. Prejudice is a poison that lives in the body that oozes out into the world. Prejudice and hate often moves from generation to generation in a cycle of trauma. And it is our children who become the victims of this horrible cycle.
Strengthening the Habit of Gentleness
“And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.” ~ Rainer Maria Rilke
The habit of gentleness involves being comfortable with questions. It involves being comfortable questioning ourselves, but also questioning others with love and kindness. There is an enormous amount of freedom in giving ourselves permission that we have not figured it all out. Who of us has ever really figured it all out? Those trying to convince themselves that they have are probably the ones that have not. We are all in the process of knowing more about ourselves and knowing more about others. Getting comfortable with questioning ourselves and others involves being comfortable with listening.
The art of listening takes practice and skill. When we listen to others, we can lean forward, so that they know we are listening. We can avoid looking away or being distracted.
Dr. David Gortner’s, Transforming Evangelism describes how powerful it is to invite others to share their stories of transformation and encounters with God.[ii] When we become more adept at listening to others, we also become more adept at hearing God’s work in our own lives. The more we invite others to name, share, and celebrate God’s work in their lives, the more comfortable we ourselves can become. We can walk as fellow pilgrims rather than act like we have all the answers.
One of the most powerful listening skills is a well-placed open-ended question. Rather than asking a yes or no question, we can ask open-ended questions to spark conversation. Open-ended questions generally start with “how”, “why”, or “what”. If you ask a question with someone using how, why or what, it is harder to reply with simply a yes or a no. Open ended questions will allow you to hear and listen to their heart. An open-ended question also says that you are looking for a deeper opportunity to listen rather than a simple yes or no answer.
Open-ended questions are just one of many active listening skills. The below listening skills are extremely helpful in gently affirming and engaging the heart of others.
Active Listening and Intentional Question Skills
Literal Repetition: Feeling heard, understood and being known are very important. To repeat back what someone has said, shows that you care and have been listening.
Reflecting:Is a way of rearticulating the emotional content of what is being said. Example: “It sounds like you’ve had a long and overwhelming day…”
Paraphrasing:Rewords dialogue for the speaker and lets them know that you have been listening. Example: “I hear you saying that…”
Summarizing: Can help focus on the emotional content of what is being said. Example: “It sounds like you’re feeling…”
Open Ended Questions:Avoid a yes or no response. Often will begin with how, why or what. Could also begin with did or does. Example: “What’s on your mind tonight?” instead of “Is there something on your mind?”
Buffering: Can help soften a difficult emotion. As an example, “You may not want to talk about this now, but…”
Understatement / Euphemism:If something seems understated it can be drawn out in case the speaker might be unconsciously hiding from it.
Tell me more / Minimal encouragement: Helps the speaker know that your interest and attention are with them. Example: “Tell me more about…”
Calling Attention: Pointing out something that may be unnoticed or unconscious such as tears. Example: “I saw some tears welling up in your eyes. What’s on your heart?”
Hovering: If the topic is painful or risky, it can help bring the dialogue back on track if the speaker touches on something but then moves to another subject.[iii]
Watching from the Balcony
There is a group dynamic expression of watching from the balcony that is another excellent listening skill. The premise is that when we engage with others, we remain vigilant in monitoring our own thought process and assessment of what might be going on behind the conversation. It’s something like intentionally listening to yourself listen or listening to the unspoken emotional content behind what is being vocally said. Watching from the balcony asks about what is not communicated directly. What are the hidden emotions or what is left unsaid? How might we draw these things out to help in healing?
When we listen from the balcony, we can also listen to see how God might be at work. Where is there opportunity for reconciliation? How is a person being heard so that they might find forgiveness? Being intentional and paying attention to the subtleties of our social reality will show us much at work.
Listening to Others Who We Disagree With
The simple act of hearing another person can diffuse anger. Find the strongest point of another person’s argument and give them credit for their sincerity. This can be reflected back to them so that they feel heard. Avoid classifying a person, but rather separate their argument from a broad generalization of who the person may seem to be. Never ridicule, but remember that God is already at work in your conversation and ask yourself how God would hope you to proceed. When listening to someone you disagree with, pray for them. Pray for yourself to have the right words to respond in love. Give yourself permission to disagree with someone, while still engaging them with love and kindness. Give the other person permission to disagree with you. If you disagree on one point, or even many points, find something that you do agree with. Work together to make change in the world on that point or other points that are deeply important to both of you.
For Group Discussion or Personal Reflection:
Try this: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think of a time when you allowed God’s gentleness to work through you. If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind. Do this for at least a minute allowing yourself to relive the experience. Now with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels. Perhaps you feel a sense of clarity, release, comfort, focus, or peace? Describe below how it feels in your body to offer God’s gentleness.
Keeping the sensations in mind from the previous exercise, through what one habit will you let yourself go deeper to feel and relish in God’s gentleness working in and through your body?
Try this with caution. Do not retraumatize yourself. If a memory comes to mind that is too challenging use a different memory: Close your eyes and take a deep breath. Think of a time when you felt prejudice. This could be either prejudice toward you or your own prejudice toward another person or group. If it is difficult to think of only one time, allow yourself to linger on whichever is the first example that came to mind. Allow yourself to briefly relive the experience. After fifteen seconds and with your eyes still closed, then turn your attention to how your body feels. Perhaps you feel a sense of anger, disconnect, uncertainty, or fear? Perhaps you feel sad? Describe below how it feels in your body to suffer from your own prejudice or the prejudice of someone else.
What is one source of my prejudice? What scripture, resources, or tools from this book can I use to overcome it?
What is one habitual and settled tendency with my spouse, friends, family, or community that is stuck in a cycle of prejudice and what specific changes would create more systemic gentleness and listening by overcoming it?
What one specific and measurable goal to create more gentleness and listening do I have that will help overcome an ingrained practice of prejudice at an organization, church, or political group that I belong to?
~ Pray ~
God, I am Yours. I say yes to gentleness.
I will challenge and overcome my prejudice.
I surrender to Your gentleness.
[i]“The Neuroscience of Prejudice and Stereotyping,”ResearchGate, accessed July 10, 2018, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/265345113_The_Neuroscience_of_Prejudice_and_Stereotyping.
[ii]David Gortner, Transforming Evangelism, (New York: Church Publishing, 2008), 11.
[iii]Robert A. Kidd, “Foundational Listening and Responding Skills,”inProfessional Spiritual & Pastoral Care: A Practical Clergy and Chaplain’s Handbook, ed. Stephen Roberts (Vermont: Skylight Paths, 2012), 92-105.