Great Texts of the Bible
God’s Gentleness and Man’s Greatness
Thy gentleness hath made me great—Psalm 18:35.
1. This Psalm is a hymn of praise after deliverance from deadly perils. It is also found with slight verbal alterations in 2 Samuel 22, in connexion with that part of David’s history which is mentioned in the title. The writer of the Book of Samuel found it already in existence as a song of David. Its composition probably belongs to the Psalmist’s later life. It is evidently a thankful retrospect of God’s wonderful dealings with him, referring especially to the time when his life was most beset with dangers,—his bitter and protracted persecution by Saul, his expulsion from his throne and kingdom by Absalom, and the fierce foreign wars that distracted him for a long time thereafter. But from all these he had been graciously delivered, and from a peaceful old age he now looks back with wonder and gratitude. He combines the whole of that stormy past in one idealized and glowing picture. In the imminent peril described, he gives us the concentration of many perils, and in his description of a gracious interposition, the concentration of repeated interpositions, brought to a common focus at which they are seen as one, with corresponding intensity. In the poet’s imagination it is a Theophany, a visible exhibition of the presence and power of the great Jehovah on behalf of His servant, in such extremity that nothing less than this could have saved him. His style is majestic, his conceptions vivid, and his language graphic. It has been well said that this wonderful composition bears the marks of the classic age of Hebrew poetry. With the exception of the matchless 68th Psalm, it has no rival in this whole collection.
2. In this setting we find the jewel of our text. Who has not often dwelt in thought on this precious saying? As, after we have heard a sweet strain of music, we keep going over and over again to ourselves some especially pleasing portion of it; or as, when we have gazed a while on a gorgeous landscape, our eyes rest at length on some object of surpassing loveliness within it; so, after we have perused this Psalm, we return again and again to the words of the text. They fall on the ear like the soft breathing of an æolian harp, and they linger there with a permanence that earthly music knows not. Many gems flash out upon us from this book of praise, but there are few with a radiance so bright as that which comes from this one, “Thy gentleness hath made me great.”
1. The term rendered “gentleness” seems to have puzzled the early translators. Luther translated the text, “When thou humblest me thou dost make me great,” and the older English version, which survives in the Prayer Book, conveys something of the same meaning. “Thy loving correction shall make me great.” But recent scholarship confirms the rendering of our Authorized Version—“thy gentleness”—or “thy condescension,” as the Revisers’ marginal reading has it. And, after all, is not this more in accord with what we know of God’s dealings with man? He does indeed bring down the high looks of the proud; but with those whom He is leading from lowliness to greatness He deals differently. He does not humble them, but Himself. He empties Himself that He may make them full. And David, looking back over God’s dealing with him, seizes a great truth—the great truth of God’s dealing with man, that truth which we Christians contemplate in all its fulness as we bow before the Mystery of the Incarnation—God is love.
This life, broken off from its immortal whole, has no meaning—like a fragment broken off from a statue—like a few bars cut out of the best piece of music. For the anthem, in its movement through the earthly bars, is full of minor passages and discords imperfectly resolved; but to him who hears it further on, these shall only bring in, with a richer harmony of all chords on the original key, the chorus and refrain of “God is love.” And well for him that can seize on that governing key and keep it in sight and recognize its presence, though unheard, all through the music, through the most shattering discords and departures out of it. He has found that which gives it all a unity and meaning and interprets to his heart (if it should not be to his understanding, in technical terms of sharps and flats) what seems to others mere chaos and confusion of noise; and if he too lose it for a little while, though never altogether, shall not this only bring it back more grandly, more sonorously, when it returns—when the golden morning breaks with a chorus of all voices singing, “God is love!”1 [Note: Life of W. B. Robertson of Irvine (by Dr. James Brown), 252.]
2. The gentleness of God, like that of one of ourselves, is not a single but a complex attribute. Its base is that quality of nature which we call goodness. The aspects and operations of gentleness are manifold. It will appear in fellow-feeling towards the suffering and the sorrowing. Gentle natures are always sympathetic. It will beget consideration for men in their mistakes, follies, and sins. Gentleness is incapable of wholesale and indiscriminate condemnation. It remembers the weaknesses and temptations of even the evil-doer. Gentleness will be patient with the dull learner, and with the feeble in limb who would fain walk uprightly. It will not grow sick and tired of the slow and the infirm, and will not cast them off in disgust and turn away with loathing. A soul of gentleness will be forbearing with men, even in their waywardness, their wilfulness, and their wrongdoing. Behind the perverse and evil demeanour there is often the beginning of a better mind. The effect must be waited for. To wax hot and consume the delinquent, is to annihilate all hopeful possibilities. The gentle are generous. Their interpretations of conduct are not heated and rash, and always lean to charity and virtue. Gentle natures are calm, because neither easily provoked nor harsh in their resentments. Gentleness is tender towards all men—abounding in sympathy for the tempted, compassionate towards the suffering, and filled with grief by the sins and the sorrows of the polluted and the guilty. The gentleness of God is substantially the same as the gentleness of man, varied only by the difference between the imperfect and sinful creature and the all-holy and ever-blessed Creator.
What it cost Archbishop Benson to conquer his masterfulness of temper comes out in a touching note to his wife (July 14, 1878): “So this is my birthday.… I think the most grave and altogether best lesson which I have learned in nine-and-forty years is the incalculable and infinite superiority of gentleness to every other force, and the imperious necessity of humility as a foundation to every other virtue. Without this it appears to me the best characters and noblest have to be taken to pieces and built up again with the new concrete underlaid—and without gentleness things may be done, but oh, at what needless cost of tears and blood too!”1 [Note: Canon Scott Holland, Personal Studies, 99.]
Let no man predicate
That aught the name of gentleness should have,
Even in a king’s estate,
Except the heart there be a gentle man’s.
The star-beam lights the wave,—
Heaven holds the star and the star’s radiance.2 [Note: Guido Guincelli, trans, by D. G. Rossetti.]
3. Gentleness is not a quality which men have commonly ascribed to God. It certainly has not occupied a prominent place in the thoughts of human beings, and has by no means dwelt in their reflexions. The religions of men, which are the sum of their ideas of God, are not only silent as to the Divine gentleness, but irreconcilable with it. Power and anger represent the chief characteristics of the Deity in the minds of all nations. The tumultuous forces of creation have commonly brought the might and the wrath of God into contact with the sensibilities of men. Nature in her gentler aspects and in her more restful moods has not exerted so effective an influence over religious thought and feeling. The vast conflagration; the overwhelming flood; the raging and resistless sea; the sweep of the wild hurricane; the blinding glare of lightnings and the crash and roll of thunder; the earthquake which sends its shock to the very foundations of the globe, which makes every inch of ground feel insecure, for the time, annihilates faith in the stability of nature, and summons terror to every face;—these things constrain human impotence to tremble before almighty power.
I have never seen hard mountain summits but soft slopes were there, where hung the raindrop and the snow, where the cloud loved to nestle, and the insect could find a home. The tenderest flowers grow on the hardest, steepest crags; cliffs that defy the foot of man to scale them, and laugh the thunderbolt to scorn, are garlanded with the daintiest mosses, and tenanted by the most timid creatures. The down on the breast of the eagle is as warm and soft a nestling-place as that on the breast of the dove. God must be gentle, or He would not have formed feeble creatures. God must be gentle, or the world would be hard and stern. God must be gentle, or He would not have made the mother’s heart. God must be gentle, or inexperience would not be suffered to run its little hour, and childhood and youth would suffer swift eclipse, and all the vanities of time would meet a sudden end. Where has man learned gentleness? Who inspired the saying, “Blessed are the meek: for they shall inherit the earth”? Who has put in the hearts of all the thoughtful the certainty that patience shall conquer at the end? Nay; were God not gentle, how could man live upon the earth? For we presume upon His patience; we venture to be thoughtless; we delay our penitence; and, when we have made a resolution of amendment, take a long, long time to work it out. We are not afraid to be pitiful to others; we are not ashamed to pity ourselves; because deep in our heart there is the feeling that “like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear him. For he knoweth our frame; he remembereth that we are dust.”1 [Note: A. Mackennal, The Life of Christian Consecration, 74.]
4. Gentleness does not exclude severity. Doubtless small natures are commonly petulant and irritable. Great souls are constitutionally forbearing and gentle. But the noblest men, when occasion demands, can veil their gentleness and frown in severity, or quench their severity and shed only smiles of gentleness. The God of creation hurls the thunderbolt and distils the dews, pours flaming lava over field and vineyard, and fringes with crimson and gold the minutest stems that spring upon the waste, musters the tempests and blackens the sky, and enkindles the tender dyes which span the retreating storm. The Bible is full of the wrath of God, and fuller of the love of God. It declares “law” as well as “grace.” It is written of the one Jehovah, “The Lord said, I will destroy man whom I have created”; “Like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth.” The same attributes were incarnate in Jesus Christ. The most terrible words that ever fell from human lips, and the most gentle, proceeded from the Lord Jesus. Both of the attributes which the utterances of Christ present are abundantly revealed in Holy Scripture; both are consistent, though we may not always be able to harmonize their operations; and both are essential to the moral perfection of the Deity.
Not long since, I saw a range of crags, beetling over the sea—an expressive emblem, it seemed to me, of Divine gentleness and severity. On their fronts the south-western gales poured all their fury. The breakers rushed with headlong violence at their base, and were hurled back again in impotent foam and with huge uproar. Above, from the water’s edge up to the sky-line, there were innumerable myriads of yellow primroses, wild hyacinths, and violets—a living heaven with living stars gleaming from the seaward slopes. The careering winds and the long rolling waves were repulsed by strength; but the fragile blossoms were nourished and sheltered in their retreats with maternal tenderness. The cliff beat back the flood with iron arms, but seemed to enclose a heart of tenderness beneath its rocky bosom.1 [Note: H. Batchelor, The Incarnation of God, 60.]
5. The Divine gentleness finds its perfect illustration in Jesus Christ. When God Himself appeared on earth in the Person of Jesus Christ, gentleness was so conspicuous that men could not understand it; they had not depth enough of soul to understand the strength that works by patience and love. They could not understand a God waiting upon men, a God suffering contradiction, a God baffled and thwarted, a God without the thunderbolts and chariots of fire, a God pleading and beseeching, weeping and moaning in the anguish of ineffectual love, a God doing nothing by violence, who neither strove nor cried, whose voice was not heard in the streets. How little have men ever known what is most Divine! They looked for one shod with blazing brass, trampling under foot all that is unworthy and hostile; and He came not breaking the bruised reed nor quenching the smoking flax. This lightness of step was unintelligible to them; this considerateness of all that was weak made them presume instead of worshipping. They did not see that the love which could uphold this infinite patience and prompt to this quiet, compassing gentleness was the proof of Divinity, was a greater thing and more impossible to every one besides than the might that called worlds into being, was the last evidence that could be given that God is God—the source of all good, the strength of all His creatures, in whom there ever remains capacity to repair all moral disaster, love enough to overcome all hatred in His creatures, an all-enduring, untemptable gentleness which will not be provoked, will not retaliate, will not give up hoping and loving.
He who hath seen Christ, hath seen the Father—the Father, in whose Name He worked, whose word He spake. That last and uttermost pledge of unfaltering love, the death on the Cross, was no plan, no thought of His own. It was the Father that prompted it, the Father, without whom He could do nothing: it was the Father who moved Him to the task: this commandment He had received of the Father, to lay down His life for the sheep. That tender, gracious, devoted, patient, forgiving gentleness, that warm, overflowing sympathy, that invincible passion of sacrificial love, that sweet human-hearted compassion, that lovely persuasiveness, which flows down to us from the Cross of Jesus—all this, then, is not only a revelation of the motives, and spirit, and affection of God the Son, but more than this, all of it is an outcome, an expression, of the character (if we may be allowed the word) of God the Father. His heart it is which the Passion of Christ makes manifest, His heart which it is given us to understand in the infinite piety, and beauty, and grace, and comfort, and goodness, and meekness of Jesus. These are all the signs, the sacraments, the interpretation, the outflow, of His Father’s presence; for He and the Father are one. The winning tenderness, the wonderful humility, which look at us out of the eyes of the dear Lord, are the clearest and closest knowledge we ever here shall attain of what we mean when we name the Father, of what we shall behold when we see God.1 [Note: Canon H. Scott Holland.]
The Man who was lord of fate,
Born in an ox’s stall,
Was great because He was much too great
To care about greatness at all.
Ever and only He sought
The will of His Father good;
Never of what was high He thought
But of what His Father would.
You long to be great; you try;
You feel yourself smaller still:
In the name of God let ambition die;
Let Him make you what He will.
Who does the truth, is one
With the living Truth above:
Be God’s obedient little son,
Let ambition die in love.1 [Note: George MacDonald, Poetical Works, ii. 178.]
1. What is true greatness? Scarcely two individuals have the same idea of greatness. All, indeed, will agree that it denotes pre-eminence, but each will have his own preference as to the department in which that is to be manifested. Some associate it with the deeds of the warrior on the battlefield, and others with the triumphs of the orator in the senate; some identify it with the achievements of the artist, and others with the creations of the poet. Some restrict it to the department of science or philosophy; while, in the view of others, it is connected mainly with the acquisition of wealth, or the attainment of rank and power. But the greatness which God’s gentleness produces is a different thing from any of these. It may co-exist, indeed, with many of them, but it is distinct from them all. It is excellence in that for which especially man was originally created. Now, as we learn from Scripture that man was made in the image of God, it follows that men are great in the proportion in which they are like Him. But wherein consists the greatness of God? Ask those who are nearest Him and know Him best, and they will reply, while they continue their song, “Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord, God Almighty.” The greatness of manhood, therefore, is greatness in holiness. It is a moral thing; for the truest manliness and the highest godlikeness are convertible terms.
True greatness consists in being the best and doing the best that our nature is capable of. It is making the most of ourselves. This definition will bring many within the ranks of the great whom the world knows not as such; and it will cut off many who think themselves great, or are so esteemed among men. One characteristic of true greatness is that there is nothing partial or one-sided about it; it is the full, complete development of all our powers; whereas we, in our false estimate of life, often think that striking and powerful things are truly great.1 [Note: Phillips Brooks, The Spiritual Man, 301.]
Go out into the streets of London to-day, and ask your fellow-men what is their best work. One will tell you he can make the canvas speak with the likeness of the human form; another, that he can lend to the dead marble grace and beauty almost lifelike; another, that he has conquered England’s enemies, or enchanted men with sweet music, or amassed a colossal fortune; but amidst them all comes one voice, the voice of Him at whose feet blindness and palsy, weakness and leprosy, the tossing wave and the blustering wind crouched submissive, and His claim to greatness is, as He has told us Himself, that He “came to seek and save the lost.” Will your life and mine be deemed great in God’s sight, judged by this standard? I think many a humble ragged-school teacher in London will tower above poet and statesman when the day comes for the Master to reckon up His jewels.2 [Note: Quintin Hogg, 398.]
Was Napoleon a great man? If by “great” be intended the combination of moral qualities with those of intellect, great he certainly was not. But that he was great in the sense of being extraordinary and supreme we can have no doubt. If greatness stands for natural power, for predominance, for something human beyond humanity, then Napoleon was assuredly great. Besides that indefinable spark which we call genius, he represents a combination of intellect and energy which has never perhaps been equalled, never, certainly, surpassed. He carried human faculty to the farthest point of which we have accurate knowledge.… No name represents so completely and conspicuously dominion, splendour, and catastrophe. He raised himself by the use, and ruined himself by the abuse, of superhuman faculties. He was wrecked by the extravagance of his own genius. No less powers than those which had effected his rise could have achieved his fall.3 [Note: Lord Rosebery, Napoleon, The Last Phase, 251.]
2. God’s design for man is that he should be morally and spiritually great. And the aim of the moral activity of God in this planet is to ensure the true greatness of man. This is the scene which He has chosen, furnished, and adorned for conducting our education. Every object of beauty, greatness, might, and splendour, and all symbols of truth, purity, beneficence, and Godhead, are the diagrams created by infinite Wisdom, Power, and Goodness for the great school of the human and Christian life. What is the design of every parent worthy of the name? Is it not to provide his children with all the means of intelligence, self-control, success, nobility, and honour? First, and above all other things, will he not train them in the knowledge and love of their Creator and Redeemer? Is it not an honest pride to him, of which he will never feel ashamed, and a delight of heart which he will never need to disguise, to see the members of his family living in the practice of every Christian virtue and in the respect and goodwill of all their fellow-men? Is not God our Father? It is a joy to Him to guide His children to glory, honour, and immortality.
(1) When God makes men great, He makes them kingly. Milton says, “He who reigns within himself and rules passions, desires, fears, is more than a king”—and when God handles a man He sets his feet on a throne, a crown on his head, a sceptre in his hand. He is not carried away by impulse, caprice, desire, passion, but is swayed by reason and righteousness. Nor does he rule himself alone, for he influences others, and moulds and makes the society in which he moves. He puts out evil’s fires; he kindles the fires of goodness.
Who is the strong man? Is he the man who passes through society with the battle-axe of Richard Cœur de Lion? The child sees a man lift a great weight with his teeth, and at once he exclaims, What a strong man! Is the child right? He would have been right had he said, “What a strong animal!” Such poor power wastes itself day by day; the man’s teeth perish, where is the giant then? Here are two men under circumstances of equal provocation: the one man instantly resents the insult which has been inflicted upon him; in a moment he is in a paroxysm of rage, asserting his dignity, and smiting his opponent; men who are standing by admire the fire of his character, they say, “What a strong man!” The other man shows no sign of rage, holds himself in the severest self-control; instead of resisting evil, he answers not again, and persons who look only on the surface of things declare him a coward. Solomon would have declared him a strong man, and so would Jesus Christ. The strength of manhood is to be judged not by the fury of occasional explosions, but by the depth and solidity of moral foundations. The smallest natures are, of course, most easily excited to self-defence. Impudence is infinitely quicker than dignity. True strength is calm; incomplete power is fussy. “He that ruleth his own spirit is greater than he that taketh a city.”1 [Note: Joseph Parker.]
(2) When God makes men great, He makes them useful. The life which is God-saved, God-built, God-blessed, is wonderfully beneficent. “I will bless thee and thou shalt be a blessing.”
The legend tells that the visits of a goddess to an ancient city were always known, although no eye sighted her. She paused before a lightning-blasted tree, and lo! the woodbine sprang up and covered the tree’s nakedness. She lingered by the stagnant pool—the pool became a flowing stream. She rested upon a decaying log, and lo! it became a fruitful tree. She crossed a brook, and lo! wherever she put down her foot the flowers came to birth. It is even so with the life nourished and cherished by God. It leaves its mark—a gracious mark—wherever it goes. “The wilderness and the solitary places are made glad.”2 [Note: J. Pearce, Life on the Heights, 46.]
3. The proof of a man’s true greatness is found in his humility. True moral greatness is a flower which seeks the shade; and, like the other works of God, it has to be sought out by them who take pleasure therein. There is a lid for the vessels of the temple. Humility is one of the crowning graces, and it keeps the truly great man from making long prayers at the corners of the streets, from sounding a trumpet when he gives alms, from making broad his phylacteries, or covering his face with the marks of fasting.
Humility is the special virtue of Christ, the virtue proper to Him, the virtue most dear to Him, the virtue that brought Him, moved by infinite charity, from the splendour of the eternal glories, into the extremes of poverty and humiliation, so that there is nothing more illustrious in His life and death than this Divine virtue of humility, whereby He redeemed the world, and with which He prepared the medicine that healeth all our infirmities, and bringeth us from all our sin and misery to rest in Him. Here we also learn from Him that that which pleases Him in souls is humility. And if He speaks of meekness as well, it is because meekness is the most exquisite and delightful fruit of humility, exhibiting the interior strength and fortitude of patience in a gentle sweetness.1 [Note: Bishop Ullathorne.]
There is little doubt that any one who knew Dr. McLaren well would agree with the statement that the most marked feature in his character was his entire freedom from anything approaching to egotism. His deep vein of shyness, as well as refined taste, made egotism, in the way of speaking of his own doings, an impossibility to him. But his want of egotism had a deeper source. It was the result of genuine deep-rooted humility. He knew that in many directions unusual powers had been given him, but that conviction led to no undue elation. Gifts brought responsibility, and conscience told of failure as to their use.… He never perhaps took part in a meeting in the Manchester Free Trade Hall when the large building was not filled to its utmost capacity, and for years before the close of his career, almost invariably the immense audience rose to receive him and cheered enthusiastically. Once, driving home from one of these meetings, his companion ventured to ask him if he could recall what his thoughts were as he stood waiting till the applause had ceased—a far-away, almost pained expression had been noticed. “Yes,” he said, “perfectly; I all but heard the words, ‘It is a very small thing that I should be judged of you, or of man’s judgment; he that judgeth me is the Lord.’ ”2 [Note: E. T. McLaren, Dr. McLaren of Manchester, 207.]
One’s chiefest duty here below
Is not the seeming great to do,
That the vain world may pause to see;
But in steadfast humility
To walk the common walk, and bear
The thousand things, the trifling care,
In love with wisdom patiently.
Thus each one in his narrow groove
The great world nearer God may move.3 [Note: M. Hunt.]
God’s Gentleness and Man’s Greatness
In the moral development and perfection of men the gentleness of God discharges the highest function. The strong hand restrains; the hand of gentleness elicits and fosters. Authority moulds from without; love inspires from within. The strength of a thing that grows is its life, not the external force which only sways it hither and thither. The essential, the inward, the living energy which animates and perfects the moral and spiritual characters of men is the gentleness of God.
1. Two of the prime elements of personal greatness—nobility of purpose and purity of motive—are directly stimulated by the gentleness of God. Their great enemy is craven fear, perpetual anxious self-consideration; no man can be great who is always thinking of himself. When we have once apprehended that God is gentle, terrors about ourselves are effectually banished: “perfect love casteth out fear”; and in its stead there comes a sense of the infinite worthiness of God, the desire to please and “glorify” Him; there is a sense of security in Him and in His dealings with us, nay more, an absolute satisfaction with Him and with His ways, before which all ungracious feeling disappears.
2. It is in gentleness that God wins back to Himself those who have rebelled against Him and revolted from Him, subdues our waywardness, teaches and perfects us. He does not coerce us by His power; He constrains us by His love. He does not launch His thunderbolt to destroy us; He solicits penitence and obedience, waits patiently, deals gently with our passion and petulance, our ignorance and unbelief; gives us time for reflexion and experiment, for the cooling of passion, the growth of wisdom, the rectifying of mistakes. He “waits to be gracious.” Not of Himself and of His insulted majesty does He think, so as to assert His greatness, but of us and of our suicidal alienation from Him, and how He may make us great.
Did you ever know a man converted by the Ten Commandments, or by the Athanasian Creed? Is it not rather some word of ineffable love, some manifestation of “him whom we have pierced,” some yearning of great sorrow, that, filling our heart, has subdued it to penitence or constrained it to prayer? Some calamity has befallen, some sickness nigh unto death, some bereavement of wife, or child, when God has comforted us, or pointed us to “the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.”1 [Note: H. Allon, The Indwelling Christ, 243.]
If for every rebuke that we utter of men’s vices, we put forth a claim upon their hearts; if for every assertion of God’s demands from them, we could substitute a display of His kindness to them; if side by side with every warning of death, we could exhibit proofs and promises of immortality; if, in fine, instead of assuming the being of an awful Deity, which men, though they cannot and dare not deny, are always unwilling, sometimes unable to conceive, we were to show them a near, visible, inevitable, but all beneficent Deity, whose presence makes the earth itself a heaven, I think there would be fewer deaf children sitting in the market-place.1 [Note: Ruskin.]
3. God carries on His educative processes by gentle methods. Of course it were an easy thing for God to shield us from all danger, so that we should know nothing of toil and suffering. He might flood our minds from day to day with the light of truth, so that doubt and ignorance should never darken them. He might give us strength so much beyond our needs that we should never feel the assaults of temptation, and so we should never sin. He might so appal us by the terrors of the law that we should be compelled to do His will without any vision of its beauty or approval of its goodness. But all this, pleasant though it might seem to little children, were to do violence to religion, conscience, and will, to dishonour our true manhood and to render for ever impossible our growth in the knowledge, love, and true obedience of His blessed law. No. God has begotten us: we are His children. In fatherly wisdom, in motherly gentleness, He bends to our weakness that He may educate and perfect us. By daily need, and the thirst which springs from need, the mind of man is quickened into activity and led to seek for truth that it may grow thereby. The moral nature even from childhood has free play: good and evil are ever presenting themselves in infinitely varied forms; he is called to make a real choice between right and wrong, to set his affections upon the things that are good and fair, and with a regal will to follow in the paths of virtue. God will have us grow in the only possible way—by our own free effort. He will have us pass, with His help, through an endless series of new births, in all of which He so hides Himself that we are unconscious of His quickening power, from strength to strength, from grace to grace, till at last we appear in glory.
There is a gentleman still living in Birmingham, who was once Mayor, of whom a pleasant little story is told. One day, when he was Mayor of the town, he had to pass up the Bull Ring, as the open space near the great Market Hall is called. A little donkey, with a big load behind it, was struggling its hardest to drag the load up the hill. A big brute on two legs was beating the poor beast that walked on four. The Mayor, the chief magistrate of the place, saw what he was doing. He might have called a policeman to lock up the fellow who used the stick on the patient, dumb creature. But instead, he went up to him and said: “Hold on, man, be merciful as well as powerful, and come behind and put your shoulder to the cart.” The Mayor put his shoulder against the cart, and soon the difficulty was passed. Gentleness as well as greatness were surely there.1 [Note: Charles Leach, Sunday Afternoons with Working Men, 244.]
I have recalled gratefully again and again a word that my drawing-master gave me when I was a little lad, blundering at my first lesson. I had set the copy before me and was trying very hard to reproduce it—but, alas! what crooked lines. How impossible it was for anything to be like my picture;—and yet how impossible it seemed to make my picture what it should be. Smudged and messed by many rubbings out and many failures, trying only made the matter worse. Then came the master and took the pencil, and in the twinkling of an eye the thing was done, every stroke firm, straight, exact. Then my despair was completed—I had tried so hard and failed so utterly, and he had done it without trying at all! I laid down the pencil with a sigh, and said, “I shall never draw.”
“Nonsense,” said the master cheerily, patting me on the shoulder. “You can draw as well as I could when I was your age!”
What! was there a time when he bungled and blundered? I looked up in amazement.
“I mean it,” he said, amused at my look.
I was an artist then—if never since. He had come down and back to me and was himself again the little awkward beginner, and I was lifted up and linked on to him. That was gentleness, and it made me great. Is not that the very Gospel of God? God hath made Himself one with us that He may make us one with Himself. He has come down to be little and weak and beset with our hindrances, that He may lift us up and set us on high amongst His heroes and conquerors.2 [Note: M. G. Pearse, The Gospel for the Day, 51.]
4. When God corrects His children, He does so only that they may be stimulated to grow in grace; and there is usually, in the concomitants of their trial, something to remind them of His love. “He stayeth his rough wind in the day of the east wind:” and, if the thorn of trial may not be extracted, there comes the precious assurance, “My grace is sufficient for thee; for my strength is made perfect in weakness.” How often have we had such experiences! Even when we have been most sorely smitten, there has come to us some view of His character or some promise of His Word which has made us feel that He had not forgotten us. And when, under His chastening dispensation, we have turned to Him, how full of love was His reception of us. Thus, all through our lives, His gentleness is the background of all our discipline; and when earth is exchanged for heaven, and we stand perfected in holiness before the throne, looking back upon the way by which He led us, and marking the infinite love which called us out of the world at the first, the unwearied patience which bore with all our follies and transgressions, the tenderness which cherished us in every emergency, and the grace which supported us through death, we shall be able to understand all that is implied in this beautiful text, and we shall sing, as we could never sing on earth, “Thy gentleness hath made me great.”1 [Note: W. M. Taylor, The Limitations of Life, 354.]
As the eye of the cunning lapidary detects in the rugged pebble, just digged from the mine, the polished diamond that shall sparkle on the diadem of a king; or as the sculptor in the rough block of marble, newly hewn from the quarry, beholds the statue of perfect grace and beauty which is latent there, and waiting but the touch of his hand,—so He who sees all, and the end from the beginning, sees oftentimes greater wonders than these. He sees the saint in the sinner, the saint that shall be in the sinner that is; the wheat in the tare; the shepherd feeding the sheep in the wolf tearing the sheep; Paul the preacher of the faith in Saul the persecutor of the faith; Israel a prince with God in Jacob the trickster and the supplanter; Matthew the Apostle in Levi the publican; a woman that should love much in the woman that was sinning much; and in some vine of the earth bringing forth wild grapes and grapes of gall, a tree which shall yet bring forth good fruit, and wine to make glad the heart; so that when some, like those over-zealous servants in the parable, would have Him to pluck it up, and to cast it without more ado into the wine-press of the wrath of Almighty God, He exclaims rather, “Destroy it not, for a blessing is in it,” and is well content to await the end.1 [Note: R. C. Trench, Sermons Preached in Westminster Abbey, 342.]
5. By His gentleness God appeals to our whole personality, on its best and noblest side.
(1) The mind is gently disciplined and developed into maturity. God regulates His revelations to the requirements of individual reason. The sun shines mechanically and is unconscious of the influences which it emits. God is omniscient love, and never works automatically. The rays of the Supreme Intelligence are lovingly and wisely reined. Our earth is but the millionth part of the sun, yet it affects the gravitating power of that gigantic orb. The mind of man is but a spark, yet it modifies the effulgence of the Divine splendour. The beams of God’s love warm and revive the latent capacities of the brain. The discordant strings of the reason are gently tuned into harmony with the Infinite. The extension of our mental horizon is graduated by unerring beneficence. Under God’s wise and delicate treatment, man’s mental mechanism becomes increasingly sensitive, and able to “think God’s thoughts after Him.”
There are many states of mind which are amenable only to gentleness. You cannot scold a man out of his grief; if you wish a man to love you, you do not use violent language and insist on his loving you; if you wish to bring a man over to your way of thinking, you deal gently with him and are careful not to offend his prejudices or ride roughshod over his feelings. Instinct tells us that in many cases nothing but gentleness will win.2 [Note: Marcus Dods, Christ and Man, 130.]
(2) The will is wooed and won by the unspeakable tenderness of Jehovah. There is a very wide chasm between the animal appetites of the sinner and the self-conscious resolves of the saint. “Not my will, but thine, be done” are words which represent the acme of spiritual volition. But before this height is reached, there are delicate moral fibres to be straightened and strengthened, and selfish inclinations to be reversed. This is to be achieved, not by the compulsion of might, but by the touches and attractions of Divine benignity. We cannot be terrorized into intelligent and whole-hearted submission to the will of heaven; it is under the softening influences of love that our stubborn wills are subdued, and made to flow into the harmony and rhythm of the Divine intent. This love will gradually rectify our declinations from truth and righteousness, and restore us to perfect accord with the will of the Supreme.
The will itself is governed by that love which rules it and shapes it. Now the Love of God is supreme above all other loves, and that so entirely, that unless it holds sovereign sway it must perish altogether.1 [Note: St. Francis de Sales.]
The Almighty will never come in His omnipotence to break our will. What is the good of a moral creature with a broken will? You might as well break a child’s leg to teach it to walk, as break a child’s will to teach it to obey. The heavenly Father bends the will, but never breaks it, and that only by patient love and gracious promptings; by the discipline of life, its fears and sorrows, and above all, by the shame and sorrow of the Cross, He softens the will that He may bend it. Our God loves and respects us too much ever to keep us at home with Himself as slaves or servants. Rather will He suffer us to go away into the far country until the hunger and loneliness do make the heart cry out in its sorrow. Then at last is shaped the purpose, “I will arise and go to my Father,” and lo! He runs and falls upon the neck and kisses us. He stands upon no stately etiquette and makes no terms. Then it is that, arrayed in the best robes, with the ring on the finger, seated at the Father’s table, full of the gladness of that joyous welcome, amazed at His infinite goodness, so patient, so eager to bless us—then it is that we learn the deep meaning of the words—“Thy gentleness hath made me great.”2 [Note: M. G. Pearse, The Gospel for the Day, 58.]
(3) The conscience is pacified, purged, and perfected by the gentle ministrations of infinite love. Greatness, in the Divine sense, is impossible to man apart from a restful, rectified, refined conscience. The smile of the Supreme soothes, stimulates, sanctifies this delicate organism. Love alone can rehabilitate this “receiver,” and make it ever vibrate with communications from the eternal rectitude. Under the ministries of God’s grace, this deranged and stultified faculty becomes an unerring discriminator between good and evil, and an infallible reporter of messages from the supreme equity. In the atmosphere of God’s gentle love, this Divine power becomes imperturbably graceful and healthily active. A conscience “void of offence toward God and toward men” is the grand result of the beneficence of the Supreme.
When a man can endure his sins no longer, and must go to some one for relief, to what sort of person will he repair? Will he feel strongly drawn towards some severely upright man—cold, hard, and unsparing towards all transgressors? No; he will keep out of his way. He would be as likely to pour forth his confessions and griefs into the bosom of a November cloud from which the sleet was falling, or into the chills of a cavern of icicles. When a boy has got into trouble and is sorry for it,—for a good boy will sometimes be ensnared by temptation, and is sure to regret it with all sincerity,—and does not know what to do, where will he go first for counsel and succour? Will it be to his father or his mother? Mostly to his mother. There are men womanly in tenderness; and there are women, though very rare, unwomanly and without sympathies; but commonly there is more gentleness in the mother; and to his mother the boy is sure to turn in his extremity. I know where I should have gone, and I dare say you do too. The mother’s gentleness is a sun that never pales nor wanes, down to her life’s end; and in the hour of its setting has resigned none of its warmth and splendour.
The gentleness of God performs precisely the same office to sinning and sorrowing men. Penitent sinners cannot have too vivid an idea of the gentleness of God. They will never attain to an apprehension of it too large and bright for the reality, or in excess of their own need. Their moral helplessness will require it all. There is wrath in God, and there ought to be; but not wrath only. God is a Judge; but if He were nothing but a Judge, then for a sin-stricken soul there would be nothing but despair. But the gentleness of God is a firm and unfailing hope.1 [Note: H. Batchelor, The Incarnation of God, 65.]
(4) The heart is soothed and comforted. Love alone can find its way into the innermost shrine of personality. In the atmosphere of beneficence our pores are opened, and subtle heavenly influences percolate into the soul.
Harsh and heartless criticism almost fatally wounded the imaginative genius of Turner. The precocious poet Keats was mortally grieved by the cruel ridicule and savage scorn of the Press. But in the atmosphere of Supreme Love, the flickering spark of spiritual genius is revived into an aspiring flame, and the absorbent system of the soul is developed and perfected. The influences with which God is surcharged are so wisely regulated that the frailest spiritual organism can imbibe them.1 [Note: J. Newton, The Problem of Personality, 163.]
And gently, by a thousand things
Which o’er our spirits pass,
Like breezes o’er the harp’s fine strings
Or vapours o’er a glass,
Leaving their token strange and new
Of music or of shade,
The summons to the right and true
And merciful is made.2 [Note: Whittier.] [Note: The Great Texts of the Bible: Job to Psalm XXIII, ed. James Hastings (New York; Edinburgh: Charles Scribner's Sons; T&T Clark, 1913), 245-318.]
Allon (H.), The Indwelling Christ, 233.
Batchelor (H.), The Incarnation of God, 53.
Brooks (P.), The Spiritual Man, 301.
Bushnell (H.), Christ and His Salvation, 18.
Dods (M.), Christ and Man, 129.
Grimley (H. N.), The Temple of Humanity, 24.
Hoare (E.), Strength in Quietness, 40.
Irons (D. E.), A Faithful Ministry, 182.
Johnston (J. B.), The Ministry of Reconciliation, 196.
Leach (C.), Sunday Afternoons with Working Men, 241.
Mackennal (A.), The Life of Christian Consecration, 67.
Moody (A.), The Message of Salvation, 69.
Moore (A. L.), From Advent to Advent, 50.
Newton (J.), The Problem of Personality, 157.
Palmer (J. R.), Burden-Bearing, 265.
Pearce (J.), Life on the Heights, 36.
Pearse (M. G.), The Gospel of the Day, 44.
Spurgeon (C. H.), Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit, xii. (1866) No. 683.
Taylor (W. M.), The Limitations of Life, 344.
Trench (R. C.), Sermons Preached in Westminster Abbey, 339.
Vaughan (J.), Sermons (Brighton Pulpit), iv. (1865) No. 512.
Woodford (J. R.), Sermons: O. T. Ser., 105.
Christian World Pulpit, iv. 232 (Leach).