Several weeks ago, my friend Laura asked me to speak at the monthly moms’ night out at our church. The schoolyear-long series was on fruits of the spirit, and since we were only a few months into things, there were plenty of fruits left to choose from.
As I was walking to my car that night, after talking to her, I was thinking it was a no-brainer. I’d talk about perseverance. I’m good at perseverance. Perseverance comes easily. But then I heard God say to me, in that still, small voice of his, Gentleness.
Really, Lord? I asked.
I tried to argue with him about it for a couple of days, but he just kept quietly repeating, Gentleness.
Of all the fruits of the spirit, gentleness is probably the one that’s come to me the least easily. The one that God has had to cultivate in me over time. But it was also a fitting topic because, for me, gentleness has been a fruit born out of motherhood.
I was introduced to Jesus at a young age, but good books have always played a big role in my life as well, and some of my favorite characters were the gentle parents of children’s literature like Ma and Pa Ingalls, Caddie Woodlawn’s father, Ramona Quimby’s weary but soft-spoken and ever-patient mother, Marmee from Little Women, the grown-up Anne Shirley in Anne of Ingleside (the seventh book in the series by L.M. Montgomery), and Mrs. Ray from the Betsy-Tacy books. Looking back, I can see that all of these books–and the characters in them–pointed the way to Christ. I didn’t know it at the time, but God was building a foundation in me. This is why I believe so strongly that good books, in addition to Scripture, are a powerful character-building tool.
When I graduated from college, I became a high school teacher. I learned quickly that if I did not keep a tight rein over my classroom, my students would trample all over me. Gentleness was not something I was easily able to practice in the larger classroom setting. My students had two rather differing ideas about me. Some saw me as a hard disciplinarian; others, who knew me in smaller groups settings like theater (which I coached) or newspaper, knew a softer version of me. Sensitive kids found me intimidating until they got to know me well. I hated that. Hated that I was viewed as the opposite of gentle.
When I left education and joined the publishing world, I took a job as a managing editor, which required what my boss liked to call “moxie,” or the ability to set boundaries and hold people to deadlines—not exactly skills that call for overt gentleness. I quickly learned that there, too, in the corporate world, sensitive people would struggle with what I thought of as forthrightness or frankness or strength. During my first 360 review, one anonymous person labeled me as “abrasive.”
All of this broke me inside. I wanted to be soft. I wanted to be gentle. But my job, whatever it was, always seemed to demand the opposite. Although I held up my chin and did what needed to be done, I longed for there to be space in my life for gentleness.
As it turned out, I became a mother just before my thirty-sixth birthday, and I am pretty sure now that this was God’s plan for me. He wanted me to be more mature, more malleable, more deeply connected to him before he gave me children. And while I spent my twenties grieving my singleness and struggling not to despair over the fact that there was no husband (and thus, no children) in sight, I am so thankful now that God held the line through those years.
When I finally got married and became pregnant with my eldest daughter, who is now four and a half, I was terrified I would be a hard mother. The one thing I knew, above all other things, was that I wanted to be a gentle mother. I prayed for the ability to be gentle and soft-spoken, patient and kind.
One day, I happened across a blog post by writer Sarah Mae, co-author of the book Desperate: Hope for the Mom Who Needs to Breathe. She talked about how slowing down to a place of gentleness with her naughty, rebellious, wayward youngest child had revolutionized their relationship. Had revolutionized her child’s behavior. She talked about asking the Lord to give her patience and to help her be gentle with that precious little person. And he answered her. Through prayer prompted by Sarah Mae’s encouraging words, God helped me realize that he would gladly lead me on the path of gentleness. As time went on, he sent me other mothers, women who have become dear friends and encouragers when it comes to gentle mothering.
The journey to gentleness has been a rich one, a challenging one, an imperfect one. There are plenty of days when I lose my cool, raise my voice, let my daughter hear an audible sigh of frustration. But they and the Lord have shown me repeated grace. When I’ve fallen short of gentleness, I can tell my sweet girl that I’m sorry, that I know I failed her in that moment and want to start again, and she will smile and hug me tightly and say, “I love you, mommy.” Already, at just four and a half, she knows how to bestow grace.
This is why it’s so important that we, as moms, try to emulate Christ. We are the ones who are physically present in our little peoples’ lives. We are the ones who love them, hug them, comfort them, speak truth and encouragement to them in God’s stead. The more we can do this with gentleness, the more we teach them that their heavenly Father is gentle too.
Until God showed me that I could be a gentle mother, that he had truly made me to be a gentle mother, I didn’t believe it was possible. I believed the messages of the people around me instead of God’s truth. But in motherhood, my true propensity for gentleness has emerged naturally. My children expect a gentle mother, want a gentle mother, need a gentle mother. Therefore, when I seek to be in tune with them and with Christ, I am a gentle mother.
I want to leave you with a couple of thoughts. First, gentleness is not something you are born with; it’s not something you either have or don’t have. Because it is a fruit of the Holy Spirit’s work, the Lord can cultivate gentleness in all of us. So if you feel far from gentleness in the midst of all the tantrums and dishes and laundry and meals and mess of motherhood, there is hope. You can find your way to a gentle spirit with God’s help. Second, being gentle does not mean we forego passion or strength or spiritedness. We can be gentle and strong, gentle and passionate, gentle and spirited, gentle and courageous, gentle and brave. Gentleness is not weakness. It is a strength unto itself.