Toward the end of his letter to the Philippians, Paul comes right out and says that he wants something about them—and by extension, something about us—to be known to everyone. He wants us to be famous. But for what? It’s probably not what you’re thinking.
“Let your gentleness be known to all men” (Philippians 4:5, NKJV).
It’s such a simple statement, but what does it mean exactly? There is some disagreement as to how the Greek word for “gentleness” out to be translated. “Gentleness” is the translation given by the NKJV, the NIV and the NET Bible. The updated NASB agrees with a slight adjustment: “gentle spirit,” but the older NASB reads, “forbearing spirit.” The KJV says “moderation.” The ESV has “reasonableness.”
So which is it? Each of these gets at the main idea from a slightly different angle. The Greek word means, “not insisting on every right or letter of law or custom, yielding, gentle, kind, courteous, tolerant” (BDAG).
That helps. Paul is telling us to be nice to other people. We should be reasonable. When a difficult situation arises, we need to be gentle, patient, tolerant.
Needless to say, this is countercultural. How many people can you think of who are famous for responding to life’s complexity with consistent gentleness? People usually become famous for being shrewd, competitive, talented, assertive, serious. Most of the powerful people in the world are the kind of people you wouldn’t want to cross, people you’d be terrified to accidentally let down. You don’t get to the top by letting people walk all over you.
And yet, Paul says that everyone should know about our forbearance. No one should be afraid of us coming down hard on them. When we have a doctrinal disagreement, no one should expect our words to be sharp or aggressive. When we’ve been hurt, no one should expect us to lash out. When we’ve been wronged, no one should have to brace themselves against our vindictiveness. Everyone should expect a reasonable response from us. We should be known for gentle words, filled with patience, understanding, and love.
Unfortunately, most of our churches are not known for gentleness. If you ask the average person on the street, they’re more likely to describe Christians as judgmental or hypocritical (note the word “critical” embedded there) than to describe us as gentle, reasonable, or forbearing.
And here’s the tricky part. Even if you feel like you conduct yourself with a measure of gentleness, you haven’t followed Paul’s instructions unless “everyone” would describe you this way. It’s one thing to be gentle in certain situations, it’s another for your gentleness to be known to all. And a gentle Spirit, Paul says, is what we are to be famous for.