The temptation to resist being gentle is strong, especially in the argument culture. Personal slights and hostile communication all prey upon the urge to respond in kind, with harshness, and a gentle response most often feels irritating and ineffective. Yet, can a Christian opt out of being gentle? In this episode, Rick and Tim explore how gentleness was Jesus’ favored way of speaking up, notably when he was “in the fight” and sticking up for truth and advocating for justice. They also explore a legitimate critique to winsomeness - what to make of the time when Jesus got angry and overturned the tables in the temple.
Tim Muehlhoff: Welcome to the Winsome Conviction Podcast. My name is Tim Muehlhoff. I'm a professor of communication at Biola University in La Marada, California. I'm also the co-director of the Winsome Conviction Project and co-host of the Winsome Conviction Podcast. I do it with my great friend, Dr. Rick Langer. Rick, great to be back.
Rick Langer: Tim. Great to be back indeed. It's wonderful to be able to chat a little bit about some things that we talk about a lot actually with the Winsome Conviction Project. And that is, how do we communicate in ways that are civil, that are conducive to kind of learning and hearing one another as opposed to kind of just participating in the argument culture, which seems to be the prevailing ethos?
Tim Muehlhoff: The gift that just keeps giving.
Rick Langer: It is the gift that just keeps giving.
Tim Muehlhoff: It is argument culture.
Rick Langer: One of the things we've realized for all of our efforts, which apparently have not changed the entire world, we continue to have plenty of things to talk about. And one of the things I'd like to talk about today is actually about gentleness. Now, we've talked about this before. We had a podcast a while ago with Perry Glanzer. You guys might be interested in dialing that in from probably a couple of years ago now, but it remains kind of an interesting topic to me. And it wasn't too long ago that there was an article that James Wood put out talking about Tim Keller. And Wood is not a critic of Keller's per se. He likes Keller personally, but he's concerned that as he puts at the time for winsomeness has passed.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oh, let it not be so.
Rick Langer: Which makes you and I feel just a little bit sad, but he says, "Not long ago we lived in kind of a neutral world that views Christianity as kind of an idiosyncratic lifestyle option," but it was just a thing that somebody did and now it's kind of changed so we don't have a neutral view, but a negative worldview where Christianity served as immoral, as undermining all the things that are good and valuable in our society and something that would be better abolished or at the very least, pushed, shamed, pushed to the margins, kind of excluded from public discourse. And so James Wood, who is a believer says, "Look, Keller's sort of model and the idea of winsomeness and kind of his model of painting a Christianity that was attractive to the world worked back in the day of the neutral world, but it doesn't seem so viable in the negative world."
And he worries that when winsome, this basically meets with hostility, tends towards self-doubt, a weakness of conviction, and then just succumbs to the accommodation's temptation that you just kind of kowtow to whatever the prevailing powers in. So these are hardly the qualities that you need in the Christian world today if he's right. And I think that the observation he made, at least for my money, that we have moved from more neutral to more negative as a culture in terms of perception Christianity is right.
The question that comes to my mind is kind of twofold. Number one is, does that mean that gentleness no longer works or civility or kindness or other similar virtues? The second question that's even more interesting is to ask the question, "Even if it didn't work, aren't we supposed to be that way? In other words, are we supposed to be gentle regardless of whether or not it pays off? We're supposed to be humbled regardless of whether or not it pays off." Perhaps we're supposed to even be kind and good, whether or not it pays off. And in fact, the question of paying off or not is never assessed by have we obtained power in this present world, but rather by have we pleased Jesus and done the things that he would call us to do for the next world? Have we laid up treasure in heaven or have we obtained power here on Earth?
Tim Muehlhoff: And I love both of those questions. I teach rhetoric classes, which is public persuasion. So the first one is obviously incredibly interesting, does at a very practical level, civility work. Would gentleness work in the face of opposition where a person's being anything but gentle towards us? So my rhetorician antenna went up on the first one. The second one, I think though Rick is probably we'll spend the most of our time because let's say gentleness didn't work and we could actually measure that, we could actually do studies. Does that mean we get to opt out of the biblical command to be gentle? So I think both of those are equally fascinating, but kind of irrelevant with the second one. I don't think the second one is asking the question, "Well, let's do some market research to see if gentleness really does persuade." Bigger fish to be fried on the second question, is gentleness a biblical commandment that we don't get to opt out of?
Rick Langer: And here's the way that I've kind of formulated this as I've thought about it, is just to ask the question, "Are we moral relativists when it comes to gentleness?" And to just kind of make that clear, the idea of moral relativism, if you're a moral relativism relative to sexuality, it doesn't mean you go and have sex with everybody or anybody. It doesn't mean that you violate all the laws about adultery or premarital sex or whatever your sense of sexual ethics is. It just says you're happy to honor those laws whenever it works, whenever it's convenient, whenever it matches up with your desires. But if it looks like you don't want to have to do that, or if it looks like honoring that commitment will deny you something you desperately want, then you just say, "Oh, that goes out the window and I'm going to pursue the thing that I desire or do what feels good natural to me."
And that's just what we mean by moral relativism in the sense. It isn't the person who's anti-moral, amoral and the evilest person in the world, it's the person for whom morality doesn't measure high enough to actually control and guide their behavior. And that's my question. Have we become that way relative to virtues like gentleness, kindness, goodness, patience, being loving in that kind of a sense of treatment of other people? And my worry is the answer to that question is exactly that. Yes, we have. We have become people for whom those commands are viewed broadly as irrelevant. Let me just give a shot at how this may work for both on the kind of progressive and conservative side. These are things I feel like I have heard people saying directly to me. On the progressive side, it might sound like, "Look, you can't invoke gentleness and respect when someone's knee is on your throat."
In fact, the real reason people appeal to journalists and respect is they don't want to confront the structures of oppression. Civility is a tool that's used to silence the voice of the disenfranchised. So who needs civility? And then all this talk of journalists is just bogus. On the conservative side, I've heard people say things like, "Look, when elections are stolen, there's no time for journalists. You have no idea what the agenda of Nancy Pelosi or whoever it is who may be your least favored political leader is. The time for civility has passed. We're going to bow and we're not going to bow that culturally any longer. We're going to own the libs, we're going to speak boldly, conservative thought in ways that are infuriating and plummeting otherwise distressing liberals. I got that last from a quote.
Tim Muehlhoff: So if you go to our website, winsomeconviction.com, you'll know that not too long ago we got a chance to go to Capitol Hill and speak to pockets of political leaders. And without a doubt, that was the response that we got. Was the houses on fire. You two PhDs from out of town don't understand how bad it really is, and now you want us to be winsome when we're being attacked, my family's being attacked on social media. Suddenly you want my response to be that of gentleness. It doesn't work and we have to defend ourselves. We kind of got that feeling overwhelmingly. So that's why this is so...
Rick Langer: That's why we're sitting here talking about this.
Tim Muehlhoff: What's so important is we need to wrestle with what you're asking us to wrestle with. So just put that in context. By the way, we're going to do some future podcasts about our observations about our trip to Capitol Hill. We got a chance.
Rick Langer: Good news and bad news.
Tim Muehlhoff: Yeah, good news and bad news. We don't want to paint it all with a negative picture. We got a chance to speak in the Pentagon. And you might be asking, how in the world did you guys get invited? And that's because of the really hard work of people that have been in Capitol Hill for 40 years, 21 years. And we'll talk more about those groups. So stay tuned. But Rick, I just resonated with what you just said is we left very much feeling that people were like, "Guys, you need to wake up. This is not going to work." Almost like the Tim Keller critique, maybe in a-
Rick Langer: Another time and place.
Tim Muehlhoff: Another time and place, but this is not the time nor the place.
Rick Langer: Yeah, there you go. Well said. So let me just pursue this course of thought a little bit, and I'm going to just talk about gentleness for two reasons. Number one, it's a handy place keep for the whole set of other virtues that we just talked about. So everything I'm going to say could apply equally well to kindness, goodness or gentleman, humility, all those sorts of things. The reason I use generalist is I've discovered that I think that is the most irritating one. And I just want to say, not that I'm trying to be irritating, but I want to just say, "Okay, let's just take this provocative, the least likely those." In other words, I can find people who say, "Yeah, we probably should be kind." They nod their head. If I say, "Well, should we be gentle?" That's when I almost instigate the time for gentleness is passed and I view these virtues kind of as a package that traveled together, number one.
But number two, I have the sense of, "Wow, we really are kind of almost anti gentle." So that's what I want to probe a little bit. Let me begin by just pointing out that Jesus models gentleness and not by accident, but literally when he gives himself a self-description. I'm thinking here of Matthew chapter 11, verse 28 through 30, he describes himself as gentleman lowly in spirit, and he is exhorting us to imitate him exactly that. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I'm gentle and lowly in spirit, the effect of that will be that you'll be able to find rest for your souls. Now, we could pause right there and say, how are you doing on experiencing rest for your soul? If you're feeling restful and tranquil, well good. If you're feeling agitated, upset, concerned if you're daily angry, if you get more angry as the day goes long, if every time you read something, get up, maybe this would be one of those moments to say, "What does Jesus say about having a soul that's not feeling restful?"
And I'd suggest that what he says is, well, you should probably take his yolk upon you and learn from him and become gentle and lonely in spirit. Now, having talked to people about this, I discover, I think people think that maybe Jesus took the strength finders test and found out that he was a gentle, or maybe on the Enneagram there's some number... I don't know the Enneagram, but some number that is the gentle number. And he just happened to get that like it was his personality. It was an accident. I don't know what Jesus's hair color was, probably brown or black. But hey, whatever it was, that's just what he got. So there's no lesson to learn from that. That just happened to be his personality. Here's the really weird thing. If you keep reading in Matthew, into Matthew 12, you suddenly discovered that his gentleness was not a personality trait, but actually literally a fulfillment of prophecy.
So here's what it said, describing Jesus' behavior. He says, "This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah. I will put my spirit upon him and he will proclaim justice to the Gentiles. He will not quarrel or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets. A bruised reed, he will not break. A smoldering wick, he will not quench until he brings justice to victory. And in his name, the Gentiles will hope." This is a crazy passage to him. In our current circumstance, I think what is most shocking about this passage, it would seem that gentleness was not only a prophesied quality of the Messiah that apparently in Matthew's mind needed to be fulfilled by the genuine Messiah, but it was also Jesus' favored way of advocating for social justice.
Tim Muehlhoff: And that's the key part when you were reading that passage that really struck me, by no means are we suggesting gentleness doesn't mean we don't advocate for justice, right? We are doing it, but in a particular kind of way.
Rick Langer: It has nothing to do with not speaking up. I mean, Jesus was a speaking up sort of dude. I mean that is not Jesus' number one problem. But the interesting thing is that the prevailing impression we get of Jesus through the gospels is one that he did it in a way that became gentle and he was blunt at times. And we'll talk probably a little bit more about this before we're done. There's definitely things that would look like an exception at the very least. We're turning over the temples or calling out the Pharisees, and I just want to make the argument, do you solve that kind of attention by just saying, "See, so the gentleness thing doesn't matter?" I mean, I think normally if you find that kind of attention in scripture, you feel some obligation given count of both passages. Not just say, "Oh, Jesus wasn't really gentle, number one."
And number two, I think our sense of Jesus overall really is that of gentleness and welcome. He's a friend of sinners. He's a friend to kind of all the ordinary people. And interestingly enough, he's actually a friend to a lot of Pharisees. He goes to dinner, and the episodes that are recorded are sometimes awkward, but they generally aren't marked by angerness, wrath, turning over tables every time around. In fact, that's why it is so notable is that there's like this one time when Jesus just goes in and he turns over the tables in the temple. Wow. And what's at stake there. So...
Tim Muehlhoff: The one other thought as you were saying this, so Judo, which is an amazing self-defense system, and if you ever watch people, it is super effective in neutralizing a person is called the gentle art. So in no way is Judo saying, "I'm not in the fight." No, I'm in the fight. But in a certain kind of way, am I in the fight, and that's what we're going to say about Jesus. He's in the fight for all the things we want to fight for, but there is something about the way he's doing it that he's calling us to do as well.
Rick Langer: Yeah. And obviously it isn't just Jesus who plays the generalist note. So you find the apostles, and I'm thinking here particularly of Paul, Ephesians chapter four, verses one through three. He urges us to walk in a manner worthy of Christ. Well, in light of what we've just talked about, we should be thinking, "Well, what does that mean?" And it says, "Well, it's unsurprising, characterize the Christ-like manner as humility and gentleness." That's the way we imitate Christ. Galatians 5, as you heard us talking earlier, 25 and 26, "The fruit of the spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." And you can hear that whole package of virtues that we've talked about embedded in the fruit of the spirit.
Tim Muehlhoff: But in fairness, I've always viewed the fruit of the spirit as being optional.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: You know what I mean? Isn't that interesting right there to say this is the fruit of the spirit and it is not something that you say, "Well, I'm going to pick among the fruit"?
Rick Langer: Yes, that's exactly what you don't get to do. Yeah. This is the difference between gifts of the spirit plural and fruit of the spirit singular. So the fruit of the spirit is just what happens when the spirit takes root in your life. These are the things that emerge. It's a little bit like saying, what comes out of an orange tree? Oranges.
Tim Muehlhoff: Oranges. Yep.
Rick Langer: What comes out of a spirit tree? Well, spirit fruit. What in the world is a spirit fruit? I'm so glad you asked. Let me give you the list. So these are things that we as Christians should view as a kind of central project of our discipleship, so to speak. Let me just pick up on this point, Tim, since you brought this up. There's some interesting lessons I think we can learn from previous generations.
I think this whole issue of feeling like the fruit of the spirit is optional or unimportant to us. Let me just quote from a book called How to Live a Holy Life by Charles Orr. This is written about 100 ago. So I'm not talking ancient here. I'm talking relatively modern, but here's what he says, "Gentleness is one of the fruits of the spirit. If we have the spirit of Christ, we bear this fruit. Well says one in my very makeup, I am rough, harsh, and hasty. Well then you need to be made anew. When God finds that a man is rough and harsh and severe in his makeup, he will, if a man will yield to the operation of the Holy Spirit, make him mild, gentle, and peaceful." People go to a hospital and by operation have abscesses and tumors removed from the stomach and other internal parts.
God by a blessed, wonderful and successful operation of the Holy Spirit will take that roughness, harshness and severity out of your nature and instill instead mildness, tenderness, softness and gentleness, harshness and roughness are corruption that God in his gracious plan of salvation is pleased to remove. If you allowed the spirit to work in you, that which is pleasing in God's sight, he will make you gentle. Gentleness is a beauteous grace. Her excellence is great. By cultivation, this grace of this grace, it is capable of much improvement. Too few saints experience it to the extent they should. I beset you by the gentleness of Jesus to be earnest and improve upon your gentleness.
Tim Muehlhoff: Wow. Wow.
Rick Langer: And I guess this is one of the things I found most disturbing in the conversation because we have to find this resistance to people who are primarily centered on their political concerns. That for them, they may be Christians, they may not be Christians, but when they rise in the morning, they aren't thinking Christianly. They aren't thinking themselves necessarily as a disciple.
They're more like, "I'm a politician or I'm an advocate, or I'm a news anchor or whatever. I may happen to be a Christian. I may not happen to be a Christian," but my driving force, what I see through the windshield of my life is my political accomplishments or my journalistic or whatever, your professional accomplishments. And I'm not surprised that people like that push back against it. But if you're not just a self-professed Christian, but if you're saying, "No, my central concern on a daily basis is actually pleasing Christ and walking with him." I think it's passages like this and then devotional writing like that, that should really give you pause if you're suddenly just okay on a daily basis living in the absence of the practice of gentleness and kindness and civility.
Tim Muehlhoff: See, that's what I'm feeling as I'm listening to this is it's a diagnostic.
Rick Langer: Yeah.
Tim Muehlhoff: It's a diagnostic of where I'm at because I was on the debate team in college and just to get angry. I mean, treat me well, I'll treat you well. I literally had this thought. I hadn't thought about this in years. I was on the high school wrestling team, a pretty good team out of East Detroit. We wrestled the school, and this is talk about a forerunner is a female wrestler was on one team and she happened to be in my weight category. So all the ribbing I got heading into this is, "This is the match you can't lose or you need to turn in your masculinity." How ridiculous. So I went out there, we shook hands and the referee says, "Go." And there's a move in wrestling where you slap a person underneath the chin to get their head up so you can shoot on their legs.
Rick, she flat out slaps me and shoots and I was like, "Game on." Any notion I had, we're going to take this a little bit maybe easier, I got slapped and I saw red, right? Yeah. I almost feel like you've kind of described me in certain situations where it's like, "Hey, we'll play fair. I'm up for civility in kindness and gentleness, but dude, you slap me. I'm coming right back at you." And this is precisely arguing against that kind of an attitude of, "I will treat you with gentleness if it's quid pro quo, but man, you slap me..."
Rick Langer: You get what's coming.
Tim Muehlhoff: It's a different thing. So I'm convicted as I listen to this going, "Man, I do have a quick draw if I feel slighted."
Rick Langer: Yeah. And I remember when I was in college in particular, this is because I kind of came of age Christianly, my late high school in college, I came to Christ in my kind of junior of high school. And so this is when I began to learn it but memorize the fruit of spirit, things like that. And I remember joking with other friends of mine about gentleness as our non-fruit of the spirit or whatever, patience was the other one.
Those two were the ones we somehow thought were kind of tongue in cheek, were profoundly not actually required of us. And I look back at that some, well, let's just call it several years ago when I was in college and I'm like, "Yeah, I think it was a good thing. It would be a good thing to take that more seriously. As I think about my life, I don't view myself as naturally being gentle or patient in a lot of these sorts of things." And that's why I love the quote that I read there at length where the person's saying, "Yeah, that is not a surprise." I'm just telling ya that if you let God perform surgery on you, you will find some of those things being changed. And I have to at some point sit down and look at myself in the mirror and say, "Do I want God to make me like him?"
Tim Muehlhoff: Well, and that's the operative word. Are we going to let him do surgery? I'm thinking what Paul says in Romans chapter 12, "Do not be conformed to this world but be transformed." Well, that transformation doesn't happen at the click of fingers. We have to submit ourselves to the transforming power of the Holy Spirit. And that's the decision we have to make to be co-partner with the spirit, to deal with our rough edges and then work on that.
Rick Langer: And that's the interesting thing when as you mentioned earlier, this pushback we get. It's like, "Look, there may have been a time for gentleness but not now." Why not? Because they aren't being gentle to us. And I'm like, "Okay, so you're telling me that what we should do is act like the world acts," so this is what you might call, we should be conformed to the world. Is that what you're telling me? And at that point, you have to stop and think, "Wait a minute, am I saying that someone's wrong because they're feeling to be transformed rather than conformed because they're acting differently than what the world does instead of acting according to the world?"
So this is to me a really big deal. And it's not just a winsome conviction, kind of thing. This isn't because you and I spent a lot of time talking about this. For me, this is a pastoral concern. I spent 20 years as a pastor, and when I see people chronically not manifesting the fruit of the spirit, I worry for the health of their soul. I really do view it as you mentioned earlier, as kind of an indicator. This is a thing that should wake us up and say, "Wait a minute, what road am I walking down and do I need to somehow walk differently?"
Tim Muehlhoff: So Rick, I was just at a conference presenting Winsome Conviction and it was a Q&A time and I almost laughed out loud. I didn't, but first question, what about Jesus overturning the tables? First question I thought, "Where's Rick? Doggonit," but that is a very common and in some ways legitimate. He for sure did that. So we need to have a response for that.
Rick Langer: Yeah, and I think you're right. It's totally legitimate concern. So let's just talk a little bit about this. I think it's really good to say at the outset that generalists cannot mean a lack of discernment and an absence of moral conviction. Whatever we're saying about Jesus turning over the temples, just if what's in your mind when you think of gentleness is wishy washiness, ambivalence, things like that, that is absolutely and clearly not descriptive of Jesus. So whatever version of gentleness you have is not the Jesus versus version of gentleness. Now more directly on this issue of Jesus turning over the tables, is that an example of Jesus jettisoning gen gentleness because of extreme circumstances? Well, if that's what you're thinking at the very least, it would be good to attend carefully to what those circumstances were. Who was he responding to in these apparently ungentle moments when he cleansed the temple or was speaking woes to the Pharisees?
Well, Matthew describes these as people who are shutting the kingdom of heaven in people's faces, those who neither enter nor allow others to go into the kingdom of heaven. To put it simply, what's at stake is a matter people's eternal destiny, there's language in these passages about the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, the one unpardonable sin. So Jesus' perception of these folks that he is speaking so harshly against is the people's eternal souls are being shut out by their behaviors. That's probably code word for saying that it was a matter of eternal destiny and not a mask mandate.
And if you're getting your rage worked up because you're literally seeing people being shut the doors of heaven or being shut against them, you've got a much better case to make. If you're upset because of how we do immigration policy, because of mass mandates, because you don't think COVID vaccines are legit or because you believe they are and everyone should have them, those are the kinds of things I want to say, "Well, there's a big distance between the things that were triggering this for Jesus and the things that seem to be triggering this for us today." The other thing is the, one of the common reframes of the gospels, when Jesus is talking to people, particularly to Pharisees, particularly these people he has the antagonistic problems with is this phrase, "But he knew what was in their hearts or knowing what was in their hearts."
And so when he was saying that perhaps someone was resisting the Holy Spirit or on the verge of committing the unpardonable sin or shutting the doors of heaven or whatever, he wasn't just angry. He was making a considered moral judgment based on actual knowledge he had about what was going on in that person's heart and soul. Now, that doesn't mean that we can't speak up until we have divine knowledge of what's in a person's soul, but I would want to say it doesn't mean we shouldn't speak up until we have kind of ordinary sound human knowledge what's in another person's soul.
So to say, "Hey, I need to make a concerted effort to first understand what this person's actually saying, what they mean, why they're saying it before calling them a whitewashed sepulcher and turning over all of their tables." So I think on all of these things, we really have to take a moment back and say, "What was going on in that context with Jesus," and be really careful one about making that the universal picture of Jesus. He's always running around turning all the tables. The many of his other confrontations are actually remarkably gentle, even if they're awkward. He isn't doing those sorts of things. And it's based on knowledge. And he seems concerned with the things that are absolutely these foundational issues of the Gospel, not issues that are perhaps quite important, but nonetheless not matters to eternal salvation.
Tim Muehlhoff: And what a good concluding word for us. This is almost taking a page out of Aristotle who said, "Are you charitable when you tried to understand why a person did what they did?" And again, I love what you said, Jesus absolutely knew what was in the heart of a person. We don't. But as I try to ascertain what's in your heart, do I do so charitably or do I give a negative interpretation of what you're trying to do to this country, this church, my community, my school?
That's a page out of Aristotle because we don't have this divine knowledge, we do have partial knowledge and we do need to believe the best of people in order to open up these productive conversations. And that's what we're really about at the Winsome Conviction Project. At the end of the day, we're trying to engage on the issues that are seemingly dividing communities, churches, and even our nation, and to do it in a way that is civil, gentle, and ultimately productive. Not that we set aside our values, but we pursue them in a way that people can receive it and have a good conversation. If that resonates with you, please check out winsomeconviction.com and you can find out about the article we've written in the other podcasts that we've done. Thank you for joining us.