“Be completely humble, gentle, and patient” (Eph. 4:2). That’s the heart of a life that’s worthy of our calling as Christians (Eph. 4:1). But is that even possible in a world like ours?
To begin with, let’s consider: what do we mean by humility, gentleness, and patience?
Humility is not necessarily a low view of ourselves. It is primarily a high view of others. We tend to overplay our own strengths and ideas and do the reverse for others. Humility turns this around: it considers others better than ourselves (Phil. 2:3).
When I think of gentleness, I think of the word “safety.” Being gentle makes it safe for others to speak to us and be themselves. It makes us easy to be reconciled to and ready to connect with others. When we are gentle, people do not fear that we will penalize them for what they say by our emotional reactions.
Patience recognizes that people are different. People think in different ways, grow at different rates, and come to conclusions at different times. Patience is OK with this and allows people to take that time to work through things in their own way.
The trouble is this. It’s all nice and good to say “be completely humble, gentle, and patient,” but what do we do in times of polarization and high anxiety?
Let me give an illustration. What is more polarizing in our time than the presidency of Donald Trump? People have strong emotions and opinions on both sides of the issue. What does it look like to be completely humble, gentle, and patient about our views of President Trump? It certainly does not mean that we should have no opinion about him, so what does it mean?
First, to be humble means that we value other people’s views, opinions, and ideas. So, we can be open to hearing why people oppose or support Donald Trump.
Second, to be gentle means that we make it safe for others to share their opinions. We don’t turn the discussion into an interrogation or cut people off. We allow them to share their ideas in the way they want to share them. We don’t look for one little mistake and then try to smash them. We make it safe for people to share their real feelings and thoughts.
Third, to be patient means that we let people process it. We may want to convince them to hold a different opinion, but we give people space to work through it. We recognize that people don’t have all the facts and ideas they’ve had about the issue at their disposal at just the moment we want to talk about it. We are swift to hear, slow to speak, and slow to wrath.
I think if everyone did this, then we could have a society that would be much more capable of thinking through issues. We would also be better at building community rather than tearing it down.
However, there are some times where things are what we might call “radically polarized.” This occurs when there is a hot or cold war over some issue or position.
Now, it’s important to note that we often feel like we are in such a do or die situation when we actually are not. In fact, most people feel like they have less options than they have. In spite of that, there are times, sadly, when all that is left is war.
An example of this on a smaller scale is some child custody battles. In some of these battles, everything is weaponized. You can’t be vulnerable because everything will be used against you to try and get custody of the children.
Some might suggest that this means the Christian just gives up and lets it. Sometimes this is necessary, but there are some things worth fighting for in spite of the high cost. There are some things we have no right to surrender.
So, how can a person be completely humble, gentle, and patient in such situations?
Humility in these situations involves what Reinhold Niebuhr calls “being in the battle and above it.” There is a need to fight, but we always need to be stepping outside of the situation to recognize our own sins in the matter, our own need for grace, and the general tragedy of such radically polarized situations.
Gentleness means that we do what is necessary and go no further. It is a soldier who carries out his duty but does all he can to avoid any additional harm and keeps himself from the passionate desires to destroy, humiliate, abuse, and take revenge. This is not easy, but it is our calling. Gentleness also means that we are ready to reconcile when the opportunity arises to de-escalate the conflict.
Patience here involves the willingness to recognize that reconciliation is a process. You don’t generally enter into a radically polarized situation overnight. You won’t get out of one overnight either. We have to be willing to work through the many small steps toward normalization of relationships.
Being completely humble, gentle, and patient doesn’t mean we’ll make everybody happy (which is impossible and not our responsibility). It means a disposition to think well of others, make things safe for them, and be willing to work through the process relationships require.
In this world, we have to take stands and hold to things where people will disagree with us, sometimes stridently so. Sometimes injustices require war. It’s not easy to be completely humble, gentle, and patient in such situations, but we can and should make moves toward these even in the most radically polarized situation that will clear the way for future reconciliation. In the midst of it all, we recognize that we will fall short and still have to pray, “forgive us our debts . . .”