“Let your gentleness (“moderation,” KJV) be known to all,” Paul wrote the Philippians (4:5, NIV). In the original Greek, the word implied something gentle, patient, and forbearing. More telling, Paul wrote verse 5 after asking two Christian women with a rift to “agree with each other in the Lord.” We’re not given details of their rift, but it probably involved some hurtful words to each other or behind the other’s back. Instead of being like lamb’s ears, they were cacti.
Been there, done that? A chapter of Proverbs has especially admonished me about “gentle words.” It begins, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1). In other verses, this chapter counsels:
*Speak truth wisely. “The tongue of the wise commends knowledge,” verse 2 says, “but the mouth of the fool gushes folly.” We’re not to back off from expressing truth, but guard how we express it. Those taken in by “folly” or strange ideas are usually very defensive of them. The best response may be, “I’m sorry, but I cannot come over to your beliefs. Let’s agree to disagree but not let that end our friendship.” When you’re not an easy “convert” to their position, they may back away, but the gentle reply will hopefully leave open the door to their hearts. And then, “The lips of the wise spread knowledge” (Proverbs 15:7).
*Speak to heal. “The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life” (v. 4). Remember the “lamb’s ears” are shaped like an ear. At times we need to engage ears before engaging tongue. James counseled: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (1:19). One person I pray for is like a closed-up box. Careless words can result in that box being shut tighter. Even though it’s arduous to draw out this person in conversation, that’s what God would have me do. I need this person’s trust before offering words of counsel.
*Speak to diffuse anger. “A hot-tempered man stirs up dissension, but a patient man calms a quarrel” (v. 18). “Blessed are the peacemakers,” Jesus said (Matthew 5:9). I say, double-blessed, because in that role they often get in the crossfire of verbal barbs and anger.
*Speak to build up: “A man finds joy in giving an apt reply—and how good is a timely word!” (v. 23). Such words are: “Go for it—I believe in you,” “I knew you could do it,” and “I’m proud of you.”
*Know when you need to listen: “He who listens to a life-giving rebuke will be at home among the wise” (v. 31). Several years ago, a godly woman I respected took me aside and gently told me that someone had felt snubbed because I didn’t greet her in the church foyer. I could have passed off it off as a mistaken reaction, but my friend helped me discern this person’s bigger needs of connection. Instead of reacting like a cactus (poke, poke, poke!) to what seemed trivial, I allowed my friend’s remarks to help me see this needy person through God’s eyes.