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A gentle strength

A Gentle Strengthby Audrey West

One of my favorite family photos sits at the edge of my desk. The black-and-white image shows a little girl, about 5 years old, with a grin wider than a Montana sky. She sits on a couch, pillows piled against one side to keep her from toppling over from the joy that threatens to wiggle her out of her seat. Her arms embrace a flannel-swaddled bundle, out of which peeks the wrinkled face of a newborn infant, eyes squeezed shut, just home from the hospital. Mom is seated beside them, one arm stretched behind the little girl’s shoulders, one arm placed protectively in front of the baby, preventing her from rolling out of the little girl’s arms—an unlikely outcome, given the child’s iron grip on her new baby sister.

The photo has no inscription, but I know exactly what that mama is saying. I heard it many times as a child: “Be gentle, sweetheart. She’s smaller than you are.”

Those girls are middle-aged now, and their mother has surpassed the four-score mark, but young mamas and papas today can be heard issuing the same reminder as little hands reach for an antique dish on Grandmother’s table or stretch out to hug a puppy around the neck.

“Be gentle; it’s fragile.”
“Be gentle; she’s just a baby.”
“Be gentle; you’re stronger than he is.”

Gentle reminders

Paul writes to the Philippians, “Let your gentleness be known to everyone” (Philippians 4:5). Paul’s encouraging advice is one among a string of reminders about how the followers of Christ ought to approach life in a challenging world: “Rejoice…Be gentle…Don’t worry...Let your requests be made known to God.” The list reminds me of things that parents might say to their child while dropping her off on the first day of school. “Have fun...Be nice…You’ll be fine…Ask the teacher if you need something.”

Just as we send children out the door with final instructions, in the hope they’ll remember our words when things get tough, Paul writes these reminders near the end of his correspondence, making them easier for his first readers and hearers to remember long after the letter has been shared and put away.

We still need Paul’s reminders today—even if they don’t seem like a very strong hedge against the prevailing violence and fear that fuel so many human interactions. We need these reminders because the world teaches something other than “be gentle.” In worldly terms, ruthless power wins—particularly the kind of power that despises difference, demands compliance and devastates opponents. But that is not God’s way.

Audrey West is a New Testament professor who seeks opportunities to live gently with her spouse and several four-legged critters in Bethlehem, Pa.

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