But the fruit of the Spirit is love,
joy, peace, patience,
kindness, goodness, faithfulness,
gentleness and self-control.
Against such things there is no law.
Which of the words in that list, describing the various aspects of a character increasingly dominated by the Spirit of God in us, are most precious to you? They are all beautiful qualities, and perhaps it is unhelpful to single one out as if it were of more worth in itself, but that is not what I am doing. I think that for each of us, there will be things here which we will prize highly because we so often miss them in others.
If we have experienced deep betrayal by those closest to us, then faithfulness will be a particularly prized quality; while those whose lives have been chaotic and full of uncertainty will value peace. For me, the two words which touch me very deeply are ‘kindness’ and ‘gentleness’. This is not because my family were cruel to me as I grew up, far from it! Rather, that because of the character of my parents, and their love for us, we grew up in a home where teasing and mockery were almost unknown..
I know that for many people, these ways of relating to others are quite natural, and meant entirely without malice, but if one has not experienced them, it is very difficult to believe that they are not meant to wound. I am the person who leaps to defend the one being teased, only to discover that no one else is taking it seriously, and to my sense of hurt on behalf of the one being targeted, is added the embarassment of being judged to have overreacted!
I have described this lack of resilience as being ‘think-skinned’, or ‘raw’, and can think of no better image to convey the vulnerability which it brings. Things which other people laugh off, will cut me deeply, and leave me distressed and frustrated with my inability to respond in kind. For me, this behaviour is neither gentle, or kind, and I struggle to understand why it should be accepted by those who are following Jesus.. Does God ever tease his children, or mock them? Where in the whole of the revelation contained in Scripture do we find God laughing at us for our weaknesses, or mocking our distress when we have got ourselves into a mess – again!?
Jesus shared his life for three years with a group of men who had their share of faults and weaknesses – the gospels record many episodes which demonstrate their humanity clearly, as they squabbled about who was greatest, jostled for attention, doubted their teacher and spectacularly failed to live up to their own estimations of themselves. But nowhere do we find Jesus laughing at or mocking them in their distress. When Peter stepped out of the boat in faith to tread the waves, and then began sinking, he was saved and gently rebuked, but not laughed at! Jesus loved his disciples, he was patient with them and faithful to them, even though one would betray and all would desert him.
I know that for many people, humour is a way of dealing with difficult things in life, and for some it is used as a shield – I think perhaps many of those who tease are in reality suffering deeply inside but afraid to show it, to show their vulnerability, and so they turn aside all genuine efforts to engage with them by taking nothing seriously. But how would Jesus have dealt with such people? I don’t believe that he would have joined in the mockery, and left the person alone in their pain. He loved people, and that meant taking them seriously, recognising that each one is a divine creation, unique and beloved, and worth infinite pains to redeem.
Do we deal with one another like that, refusing to be brushed aside by humour and persevering with earnest love, so that we offer genuine acceptance to the hurting and lost? Let me commend gentleness and kindness to you, they are exquisite characteristics, modelled by our Lord throughout his ministry, and there is nothing like enough of them around in our world today! The definition of love given by the apostle Paul in his letter to the Corinthians is particularly effective in the paraphrase of the Message, and a fitting challenge to us as we seek to love one another as Jesus has loved us…
Love never gives up. Love cares more for others than for self. Love doesn’t want what it doesn’t have. Love doesn’t strut, doesn’t have a swelled head, doesn’t force itself on others, isn’t always “me first,” doesn’t fly off the handle, doesn’t keep score of the sins of others, DOESN’T REVEL WHEN OTHERS GROVEL, takes pleasure in the flowering of truth, puts up with anything, trusts God always, always looks for the best, never looks back, but keeps going to the end.
(1 Cor 13.4-7, the Message)