What’s the first word that comes to your mind when you hear the title “pastor”? My guess is it’s not “gentle.” The Iron Giant notwithstanding, our popular heroes aren’t known for their meekness. They tend to accomplish great feats through sheer might, skill, and force of will. They excel in hubris, not humility.
I always thought I was gentle. When reading through lists of virtues in the New Testament, gentleness never caught my attention. As a young man I prayed regularly against lust. I fought pride. I strove to ward off sloth. These deadly sins composed a three-headed monster I knew I must oppose. But somewhere along the way, while I engaged in a frontal assault against my Cerberus, a sneaky little sin slipped out of my heart and attacked me from the rear. He goes by many names: harshness, brashness, and domineering are some of them. He’s neither meek nor gentle.
So how did this sneaky little sin catch my attention? A dear friend did something brave; he told me I could be harsh and intimidating. So harsh, in fact, he wasn’t sure he could serve with me on our church’s elder team. His words stunned me. I couldn’t believe it. Yet I couldn’t not believe it. This brother is wise, godly, and I knew he wanted the best for me and for the church we both love.
Deluded by Sin
We needed to dig deeper. I asked him to pick out a couple elders from our church with whom he felt comfortable sharing this information. The four of us sat down to talk and pray. He told them his concerns. He did it humbly, confessing his own weaknesses along the way. But as we talked, I better understood ways I had led conversations that made others feel little. I realized how I often provided minimal guidance while expecting maximum results. I learned that while for the most part my lust, sloth, and pride were in check, harshness was having a heyday.
I wondered how I missed seeing this sin for so long. After all, I prayed regularly, read the Bible daily, and preached at least once a week. I’d been set apart by a local church to (among other things) address the sins of an entire congregation, so how could I have so carelessly missed seeing my own?
The short answer is, I don’t know; my sin deceived me. “In all sin the mind is under a delusive influence,” 19th-century theologian Archibald Alexander noted. “Right thoughts and motives are for the moment forgotten or overborne.” He’s correct; I’d been deluded into thinking directness (a more palatable word than harshness) was simply part of my leadership style.
As the weeks went on, God reminded me sanctification is a process, even for pastors. Not only this, I found in the sharp words of my brother the power of Hebrews 3:13: “Exhort one another every day, as long as it is called ‘today,’ that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” His exhortation led me to examine my heart afresh.
Before and After
Just as important, his rebuke led me to read the Bible with fresh eyes. For example, when I imagined Moses previously, I thought of a profoundly bold leader who overcame deep insecurity to lead God’s people out of Egypt. This is true. Moses was an intense defender of justice. But that’s not all he was. As I came face to face with my own harshness, I saw Moses as a man personally and powerfully transformed. Thus Scripture describes him as, “Very meek, more than all the people who were on the face of the earth” (Num. 12:3).
Before, when I meditated on the fruit of the Spirit, I fastened on my need for joy, faithfulness, and self-control. But now gentleness called out to me from the text, urging me to set my heart on this piece of the Spirit’s fruit (Gal. 6:22–23).
Previously, each time I went to 1 Peter 5 to examine the role of elders, I especially observed how they need to be willing servants, not greedy for gain. But now what stands out to me is the fact they must not be “domineering” over the flock in their care (1 Pet. 5:3).
How many times had I read 1 Timothy 3, pondering the qualifications necessary to hold the office of elder? Faithfulness in marriage, sobriety, and respectability each demanded my attention. But I can no longer read this passage without seeing “not violent but gentle” shining forth in neon lights.
Power Harnessed By Love
Leading a church, even with a plurality of elders, isn’t easy. A good pastor must be prepared to receive a barrage of criticism. It comes with the territory. There can also be the expectation that pastors must not only know where the church needs to be, but also have the vision, confidence, resolve, and tough-mindedness to get it there. And sometimes, because of our sin-clouded minds, we pastors fail to see how fostering the virtue of meekness will further this cause. We know the army doesn’t need a meek general and the company doesn’t need a weak CEO. So, perhaps without admitting it, we resolve our church doesn’t need a meek pastor.
But the church isn’t a country, an army, or a company. If the Lord wanted it led by generals or CEOs he could have made that happen. Instead, in his wisdom he entrusted the future of the church to elders whose distinguishing mark is personal recognition of weakness: “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:7). If Jesus saved the world by making himself nothing (Phil. 2:7), surely it’s incumbent on every elder to assume his posture.
As a husband, I so appreciate Dave Harvey’s perspective on meekness in marriage:
Meekness has nothing to do with being weak or passive. Meekness is power harnessed by love. . . . In marriage, to be meek is not to be weak or vulnerable, but to be so committed to your spouse that you will sacrifice for his or her good.
These words are just as apt for the pastorate.
Meek is not weak. The pastor who feels the need to power his church to greatness through the exercise of his gifts underestimates the power of the gospel. The pastor convinced he must be the most insightful, most incisive, most forceful, or most commanding has missed the most basic of spiritual truths: God delights to use the meekest since they are the most obviously dependent on him. This does not mean a good pastor is quiet, reticent to lead, or skeptical of his own judgment. Not at all! Yet it does mean he is “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).
I’m still not as gentle as I ought to be, but I’m aware of my temptation to be harsh, and I know such awareness makes me a better husband, father, and pastor. I know one day soon my ministry will be over. People will gather at my funeral where I hope they’ll talk a lot more about Jesus than about me. But to the extent I’m remembered, I’d like to be remembered as a man who modeled meekness.
How to Embrace Meekness
None of us is as meek or gentle as we ought to be. But what should you do if you think you may have a particular problem in this area?
- Find someone who will speak the truth in love to you, and ask “Am I gentle?” It helped me simply to know this is an area I need to focus on. Knowing may not be half the battle, but it’s a start.
- Meditate on some key texts of Scripture: Proverbs 15:4; Matthew 5:5; Galatians 5:23; Ephesians 4:1–3; Colossians 3:12; 1 Timothy 6:11; James 1:21. Even more, consider the character of Jesus. Paul said every believer is “being transformed into the same image” of Christ “from one degree of glory to the next” (2 Cor. 3:18). This means we are coming to share in his meekness, too (Matt. 11:29; 2 Cor. 10:1). It’s hard to spend time with such verses and not walk away with a deeper desire to be gentle.
- Consider how others perceive you. If your words, tone, and countenance come off as harsh and unfeeling, reconsider how you communicate with others. Part of loving another is going out of your way to ensure they know you care about them. Sometimes a lack of gentleness is simply a failure to make plain how you feel.
- Ask God to make you gentler. Surely this is a prayer he delights to answer. He loves his sheep more than you do, and for love of them he will work gentleness in the hearts of undershepherds who truly long to exhibit the meekness of Christ.
Editors’ note: This article originally appeared at 9Marks.